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Education: Beth Thomas: For top educator, conservation starts at Hobcaw Barony

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Beth Thomas is a marine educator who has always preferred a hands-on method of instruction.

As education coordinator for the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Thomas’ goal is for students, tourists and locals to experience the wonders of nature in the swamps, forests, salt marshes and barrier islands found within the 17,500 acres at Hobcaw Barony.

The passion and conviction by which Thomas delivers her messages of education, awareness and conservation earned her the South Carolina marine educator of the year award from the state’s Marine Educators Association.

“It was extremely flattering.” Thomas said. “I had no idea I was going to be nominated, let alone win. It was a real honor for me.”

Thomas was nominated for the award by Karen Fuss, an environmental educator for the Center for Marine and Wetland Studies at Coastal Carolina University, for her ability to collaborate with multiple agencies to produce quality educational programs and her continuing willingness to reinvent her job duties.

One highlight was Thomas’ work as core education provider for the Coastal Waccamaw Stormwater Education Consortium, where she taught students about pollution from runoff and its impact on local waters.

Also mentioned in the nomination was Thomas’ pivotal role in the renovation project for Hobcaw’s Discovery Center, where she provided strategic planning for future use of the center, exhibit design and interpretive display information.

“I’m fortunate to work for Wendy Allen,” the reserve manager, Thomas said. “She is a pioneer in marine education in South Carolina. I feel like I have learned from the best.”

Hobcaw Barony was created by a royal land grant in 1718 and sold and divided into plantations.

Bernard Baruch, a millionaire New York financier and political consultant, bought 11 former plantations in 1905 to use as a winter retreat. The land was eventually acquired by Baruch’s daughter, Belle.

At the time of her death, the Belle W. Baruch Foundation was established to preserve the land for, in part, educational purposes and collegiate studies in areas such as marine biology and forestry.

Thomas is employed by the University of South Carolina which, along with Clemson University, has a long-term research facility on the property.

Growing up in the Sampit community, a love for Georgetown County’s natural treasures was instilled in Thomas during her formative years. In fact, it was an early trip to Hobcaw that put Thomas on her current career path.

“My mom worked for the Baruch Foundation, so I grew up knowing about the property,” Thomas said. “When I was around 11, I went to an ecology camp [at Hobcaw] and, ironically, Wendy was there as well. It was three-day camp that was four hours per day and we went to the swamp, the marsh and the beach. It was hands-on, and I began to see what I wanted to do for a living.”

Thomas earned her degree in marine science from USC-Coastal Carolina College and has worked at Hobcaw for 17 years. Her duties range from guiding student tours and leading public programs such as kayaking trips, to participating in studies such as water quality monitoring.

“When you work at a place like Hobcaw all the time, it can be easy to take for granted some of the wonders of nature,” Thomas said. “That’s why I enjoy working with the student groups and other visitors we have. I love their reactions when they are introduced to everything we have to offer.

“A few years ago, we were doing a turtle walk and one of the nests we were looking at actually hatched while we were there. There were close to 40 people in the program and we were supposed to finish around 9:30 [a.m.]. But the people were so blown away by the baby turtles that nobody wanted to leave. We didn’t get done until 11 and the group couldn’t get over what they had seen.”

Finding ways of turning that sense of wonderment into more ecologically-conscious actions is a continuing goal for Thomas.

“We tend to live in a vacuum and we don’t always realize how even little things can impact the environment,” Thomas said. “As educators, we are always looking for ways to trigger behavioral changes. What can we do to teach people how to better protect the environment?”

School children, especially those from Georgetown County, have been among the primary beneficiaries of the programs overseen by Thomas.

During her tenure at the North Inlet reserve, Thomas has partnered with organizations such as the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to coordinate field trips and classroom outreach efforts to provide students with opportunities for hands-on scientific research and exploration.

“There are some great things being done in the classroom, but there is nothing like being out and actually working with nature,” Thomas said. “Some of the schools we work with haven’t always had many opportunities to be part of environmental education programs. We’re trying to remove those barriers. If children can be taught at an early age about the importance of protecting our natural resources, there is a good chance they will take that knowledge with them as they become adults.”

Though the recession has slowed development on Waccamaw Neck, Thomas believes balancing progress and environmental preservation will be a continuing challenge.

“It takes careful planning,” Thomas said. “We have to be aware of how the decisions we make will impact the future.”

Thomas points to the Baruch Foundation’s efforts to preserve Hobcaw as an example of proper foresight.

Hobcaw “is a real treasure,” Thomas said. “We are blessed that is had been set aside for everyone to enjoy. People knew how valuable it was and thought ahead to ensure it was protected.”

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