Santee National Wildlife Refuge has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past six years. The result is a refuge—just off Interstate 95 in central South Carolina—that is increasingly reaching its full potential in terms of wildlife habitat, visitation and preserving a land ethic.

Established in 1941, Santee Refuge has faced significant challenges. The refuge’s size and shape have fluctuated with winds of time and politics during its eight decades. After years of belt–tightening, shrinking resources and waning waterfowl populations, assets declined. Impoundment dikes, roads and trails overgrew; water management systems became antiquated; the refuge fell into disrepair.

“When I first arrived in 2006,” says refuge manager Marc Epstein, “the shop yard looked like a virtual ‘Antiques Roadshow’ for equipment.”

However, with the support of regional/refuge staff and the momentum of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Santee Refuge is now a significant destination for wildlife and visitors.

The recently completed comprehensive conservation plan (CCP) “laid out our vision for the next 15 years,” says Epstein. “Although [the process was] challenging at times, all the staff had an opportunity to share a common vision for the future.”

The Santee Refuge rebound can be traced to the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, which ushered in an era of renewed enthusiasm. The rebound began in earnest, however, in 2007 with a maintenance action team (MAT) project.

Wage–grade employees from all over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Region undertook a huge erosion–control effort. Tons of rip–rap, which had been long neglected in refuge backwoods, was relocated along Lake Marion to reinforce the refuge’s shoreline. Subsequent deferred maintenance projects, opportune partnerships and skillful grant applications essentially have built a new refuge.

By replacing 98 percent of its water–control structures and pumps, and installing new dikes, the refuge has restored its interior wetlands and enhanced management capacity. Significant habitat improvements and first–class law enforcement of sanctuary areas have resulted in annual increases in wintering ducks, sandhill cranes and migratory Canada geese (for whom the refuge is the southern terminus on the Atlantic Flyway).

The refuge’s partnerships with Santee Cooper and Ducks Unlimited have benefited the local community in at least two ways: The environmental quality of life is vastly improved, and the refuge’s 194,000 annual visitors boost the economy. Enhancing the refuge as a national treasure also has instilled a sense of pride and ownership in people who love—or are learning to love—central South Carolina.

Over the past six years, news has traveled among them as fast as squirrels about rehabilitation of the refuge’s visitor center, the 7.5–mile wildlife drive, the canoe trail through the proposed wilderness area, the observation towers, the 35 miles of hiking trails, the elevated boardwalks and other improvements.

The Santee Birding and Nature Festival in April, now in its sixth year, draws hundreds of visitors from all over the country. The refuge’s Christmas Bird Count has been called one of the best inland CBCs east of the Mississippi River and north of Florida.

The almost 13,000–acre refuge protects and interprets a rich archaeological and historical past, too. It harbors an Indian mound, built more than 1,000 years ago by the native Santee tribe. During the Revolutionary War, the mound area was transformed into Fort Watson, a British battlement overtaken by Gen. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, in a pivotal victory in the American struggle for independence.

There continue to be challenges, both budgetary and environmental, but it’s easy to imagine that our forebears would be proud that a revitalized Santee Refuge is conserving a vital and sustainable landscape.

Dave Barak is a Student Conservation Association intern at Santee National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.