By Harriet McLeod
JOHNS ISLAND, South Carolina (Reuters) - A group trying to preserve the centuries-old Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina, is racing against a fall deadline to raise the $3.6 million needed to protect surrounding land from development that environmentalists contend would harm the tree.
The Angel Oak, with a massive canopy stretching more than 1,889 square yards (1,580 square meters) and trunk of more than 25 feet in circumference, has drawn generations of visitors to Johns Island near historic Charleston.
In less than two months, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust has collected almost $700,000 from more than 9,000 donors. With local governments contributing additional money toward the purchase, the land trust still has about $500,000 left to raise by November 21.
Many donations were dropped into jars at local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores, Director Elizabeth Hagood said, but some funds have come from as far away as South America.
"It's amazing the connection people have to this tree," she said. "It's very passionate."
Named for 19th-century rice and cotton plantation owner Justus Angel, the oak stands 65 feet high and is estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old.
While it is not the oldest or the biggest tree in South Carolina's low country, the grandeur of its weighty branches draws about 36,000 people from around the world each year, said Cam Patterson, director of special facilities for the city of Charleston, which owns the Angel Oak and the small park around it.
The tree also has historical significance, Hagood said.
"All during segregation, the Angel Oak was the only public place on Johns Island that was not segregated," she said. "People didn't have air conditioning then, and it was a cool place for a church picnic."
The fundraising effort is part of a fight that began in 2008, when about 40 acres of forest land around the tree and park were slated to become a large commercial and residential village.
Development pressure is strong on the once-rural island, whose roads lead to multimillion-dollar beach houses, Hagood said.
Samantha Siegel, a 31-year-old waitress, said she decided to try to stop the building plan when it appeared to threaten the tree she visited each day on her way to work.
"This was my happy place, my sanctuary, the only place that ever felt like home," she said.
Siegel co-founded a nonprofit organization called Save the Angel Oak, began a petition drive against the development and called on city leaders and environmental groups to take action.
"Nobody really listened to me at first," she recalled as she sat on a bench near the tree last week. "They all said it's a done deal, there's nothing we can do, good luck. It was the penniless nature girl versus the rich developers."
Her nonprofit and the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League sued to block developer Robert DeMoura's application to fill wetlands for the project. A botanist with the conservation group said filling the wetlands and cutting surrounding forest would alter the water table and disturb the oak's shallow, wide-spreading root system.
As part of a settlement last spring after the property fell into foreclosure, the bank that took ownership, Coastal Federal Credit Union, agreed to let a local trust buy 17 acres of land near the Angel Oak, said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.
Charleston County voted in July to contribute $2.4 million toward the purchase. The city of Charleston and the nearby beach islands of Seabrook and Kiawah have also donated.
The land trust learned late last week that it has until November 21 to secure the remainder of the money, after the bank granted an extension from the original deadline of Monday.
Hagood said the land trust also hoped to conserve another 17 acres that the bank has optioned to a new developer but has not yet begun raising money for that effort. The trust's planned Angel Oak Preserve would be a forested park and site of educational programs, she said.
"The Angel Oak is emblematic of the history of the Lowcountry," Beach said. "It takes constant, persistent and long-term effort to preserve this landscape."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Von Ahn)