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Education: Grant will expand Clemson’s environmental research

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

George Askew warned his audience at Clemson University’s Belle W. Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science Monday that he might get weepy.

Askew worked at the institute for 28 years — his first office was in Hobcaw House — before being promoted to vice president and moved to the university’s main campus. Askew worked to secure $5 million from the state to build a new research institute and office building at Hobcaw Barony but never got to work in it. A new director, Skip Van Bloem, was hired a year ago to begin staffing new research efforts.

In order to bring more graduate students to Hobcaw for research the John Bunyan Harris III Student Center was built with a gift from John Harris Jr. in memory of his son, a 1974 Clemson graduate in economics who died in 2006.

All the facilities and programs came to the forefront Tuesday when Dr. James Clements, president of Clemson University, came to Hobcaw Barony to dedicate the student cottage and host tours of the new research institute.

Clemson research at Baruch focuses on the environmental impacts of population growth, climate change and rising sea levels on South Carolina’s coast. The goal is to provide commercial developers and municipal officials with science-based information to protect the area’s fragile ecosystems from saltwater intrusion and pollution from stormwater runoff as forested wetlands are converted into neighborhoods and shopping centers.

“Water, water, water,” said Askew. “It’s the key component of everything we do: how forests grow, where we can build buildings and roads, the quality of the water we drink and swim in. The water table here is just a few feet or a few inches down. We will be studying the hydrology: how water moves through the environment. It’s the key to everything we do. We have staffed ourselves to do just that.”

Van Bloem said three new faculty members will join the institute in the next year. One will study wildlife in partnership with the Yawkey Foundation. “In the ’70s we did a lot of wildlife research,” he said. “It’s time to rebuild that.” The second position will be in ecosystem services. “That,” Van Bloem said, “allows us to understand the value of the things we protect in nature outside of traditional values. An example would be reducing the amount of fertilizer in yards. There’s value in that, but it’s hard to figure out.” The third position will be in environmental technology to study how the environment and ecosystems work at Hobcaw.

Van Bloem said those three positions were just the start.

Askew proved the point with a sneak preview of a grant written by Clemson’s Dan Hitchcock and Sarah White for $8.7 million to study water. Askew said he couldn’t reveal the grant’s source, but the agency involves “growing things.” Clemson will work with eight other universities under the grant to study the nursery industry. Locally, Payton and Sylvia Parsons of Parsons Nursery in Georgetown are partners in the study.

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