Clemson ecologist cycles across state to deepen understanding of landscapes
CLEMSON – When Daniel Hanks hopped on his bicycle to ride from Clemson to Edisto Island on the South Carolina coast, it wasn’t just for pleasure – if riding 279 miles in four days could be considered pleasurable.
It gave him a chance to see South Carolina’s varied landscapes up close and provide a perspective about land conservation that will serve him in his postdoctoral work as an aquatic landscape ecologist. Hanks works in Clemson University professor Rob Baldwin’s land conservation laboratory in the forestry and environmental conservation department in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences. He hopped on his black Kona Sutra touring bike with tent, clothes, food and water and pushed off from his home in Clemson.
“My most recent work has really been in the realm of landscape conservation, which demands a knowledge and perspective of the landscape that allows one to think critically about overarching conservation goals and objectives, how to best model those goals and objectives and how to translate those goals and objectives based on an intimate knowledge and understanding of landscape conservation needs to a variety of stakeholders,” Hanks wrote on his web page, “From Mountains to Sea, A bike tour to discover South Carolina.”
His goal was to develop and share his own landscape perspectives of the state, as well as share information with other Clemson ecology experts to use in both the Palmetto Green and Hardscramble conservation projects.
Palmetto Green is a statewide land- and water-use planning initiative aiming to bring together a variety of stakeholders to collaboratively develop a series of consensus-driven decision-support tools.
Hardscramble is a project involving 853 acres of land bordered by the Wateree River on one side and the quiet town of Camden on the other. It was donated to Clemson in 2006 by Margaret Lloyd, a local environmental advocate and philanthropist, for ecological conservation, research and education.
As the Palmetto Green fellow, Hanks said learning about different landscapes across the state allows him to “help provide a better future for the state of South Carolina and to further conservation efforts in both practical and theoretical realms” to benefit both landowners and residents.
For instance, during his ride Hanks saw a lot of undeveloped privately owned land. “This led to the realization that private landowners provide valuable conservation value simply by keeping their land unchanged, but also provided a sense of urgency in that privately owned lands have the potential for land use change at nearly any moment.”
Landowners may need economic incentives to keep their land undeveloped, such as sustainable forestry or agriculture practices, conservation easements or tax breaks.
But he notes that commerce and conservation can coexist and he’s a proponent of spatial planning that incorporates both human and conservation needs. “Humans exist on the landscape, too,” he said.
Much of Hanks’ work at Clemson focuses on water bodies. He chairs the Palmetto Green Technical Advisory Committee, which is developing a Watershed Resources Registry (WRR) for South Carolina. The WRR is an interactive online mapping tool that prioritizes areas for preservation and restoration of wetlands, riparian zones, terrestrial areas and stormwater management control across the state. The tool is useful for developers, natural resource planners, transportation planners and others who are required to avoid impacting natural areas or to provide information on good places for mitigation for any unavoidable impact.
Hanks, who started his undergraduate education at Clemson before transferring to Presbyterian College, also was part of a team in Baldwin’s lab that mapped the historic rice fields in South Carolina that were built by slaves before the Civil War.
Those inland fields aren’t used for rice any more, but many still exist as waterfowl and hunting preserves on private land and are valuable conservation features. He pointed to a 1970s study that showed of bald eagle nests in South Carolina, most were in those old rice fields.
Riding across the state gave Hanks a better understanding of the land and how it is used than if he had driven by car.
He believes the best way to get a true picture of the place you live is on foot. To that end, he undertook the #EverySingleStreet in Clemson project in which he ran on every street in the city to gain a new perspective of his hometown.
“No longer are streets and neighborhoods simply places to drive by and through, they now have context and meaning,” Hanks said. “Their texture became more vivid and the town’s diversity became more evident.”
Hanks also used his ride across the state to learn more about the people on the land.
“I followed a route that took me to rural areas of South Carolina,” Hanks said. “I wanted to see places that I don’t see when I take an interstate or other main highway as I travel through the state and at a pace that I was able to think about and absorb the state to develop a context to better understand the people and the land. Whenever I stopped for lunch or to rest I found the people to be very kind. Some were interested in what I was doing and thought it was a great idea.”
His statewide bike tour is over and Hanks is back home now with his wife, Sara Mitchener Hanks, a Clemson alumna and associate director of the Emerging Scholars program, and daughter, Laurel, 6, and son, Finn, 2. He is glad he had the opportunity to see the state this way.
“Riding alone and stopping in rural areas helped me think about the land and how we, as humans, are part of the landscape,” he said. “Now that I’ve had this experience, I have more information and a better understanding of the landscape of the state to use in my professional life. Dr. Baldwin has a broad concept of the world. He encourages people to use nature as teacher. This bike ride put me more in contact with the natural world. It gave me a better, more intimate understanding of what the land is like and what the people who live and work on it are like.”