We must learn from past mistakes

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By The Staff

Most people in Lancaster County probably have never seen a live Carolina heelsplitter before. Most people probably never even heard of them until the rare mussel became a threat to development in the booming Indian Land area.

But in the last year, these creatures have flexed their muscles, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which have given them a voice. We've been told that since these mussels are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, we must take precautionary measures to ensure they are protected in Lancaster County.

That's led to intense debate, hard feelings and fiery rhetoric. An attorney for a developer last year labeled the creatures "the Carolina dealsplitters," noting how the mussels have interfered with plans for growth in other areas and, presumably, ended some deals. County Councilman Fred Thomas recently suggested that federal officials were "pimping" the heelsplitters.

That's apparently because he has major problems with a plan officials are considering for dealing with the heelsplitter issue. The plan is complicated. It calls for establishing an overlay district around Six Mile Creek, where nine heelsplitters were found in 2006. Companies that develop within this district would have to pay into a land bank, based on the extent of their development. They'd also have to adhere to 200-feet stream buffers and other restrictions in the district.

The purpose of the land bank would be to be to establish a protective zone away from the development in Indian Land where heelsplitters could thrive. This zone would be around Flat Creek in the southern part of the county, where the heelsplitters have also been found. Money from that land bank would fund the purchase of land in this area by a group such as the Katawba Valley Land Trust, which would ensure that Carolina heelsplitters have a safe place for years to come in Lancaster County, even if they were to die off in Six Mile Creek.

Why some people here have problems with this whole idea isn't hard to understand. They think the federal government is sticking its nose where it doesn't belong, or at least, overreaching. South Carolinians, of course, have a long history of objecting loudly, and sometimes with great disdain, when they think the federal government is going in a direction it doesn't like. This was where the first shot in the Civil War was fired in 1861, after all.

But at times, we've needed that nudge in the right direction from the feds. Such was the case in the 1960s in ending segregation and granting rights to blacks in our state. And in the year 2008, we think this nudge is the right one.

Even if most people here hadn't heard of the Carolina heelsplitter before this debate began, we shouldn't be so callous about it to say it doesn't matter - that development in Indian Land is more important than this little water creature. We don't think it is. We, like many others, have worried for years that growth in Indian Land was out of control - that we haven't done enough to preserve greenspace there, just as we haven't done enough to prepare to build new schools and new roads to handle the growth there.

That the heelsplitter has forced officials, and some developers, to pause and think seriously about what they're planning in that area isn't a bad thing. It should be a reminder to us that this world isn't a place where we can just do anything without consequences. Some of our ancestors weren't so careful, and the result was polluted air and waterways, and the demise of species that had the misfortune of being in the way. We have an obligation to learn from past mistakes.

With the Carolina heelsplitter, that means taking the thoughtful - and, yes, expensive - step of ensuring they'll be living in Lancaster County for generations to come.