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Columbia Business Monthly

S.C. Wildlife Federation Executive Director Ben Gregg retires after decades of effort to protect wildlife and habitats

Feb 04, 2019 11:11AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Leigh Savage

After 12 years at the helm of the S.C. Wildlife Federation and decades of conservation work, Ben Gregg is retiring in February, but don’t expect him to stay out of the picture completely. “I definitely want to keep doing some part-time work,” he says. “The younger people coming up in conservation are an inspiration, because it’s about their future.”

Growing up in Florence, Gregg wasn’t focused on conservation or aware of the full extent of wildlife in South Carolina. “I spent every day outdoors, but I hadn’t even really seen the real out-of-doors,” he says. “I had only been to Myrtle Beach, and it was already developed.”

After graduating from Presbyterian College and heading to law school at the University of South Carolina, his life was altered by a visit to Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, a 22-mile stretch of Atlantic coast featuring barrier islands, marshes, waterways, and at least 293 species of birds. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “It ignited my interest. The out-of-doors was much more than I thought it was.”

After law school, he wanted to focus on environmental law, but since he got such a late start on conservation issues, he decided to get a master’s degree in forestry and environmental studies from Yale. He then served as staff attorney for the S.C. Coastal Council, where he worked on a permitting system for projects that affected marshes, among other projects. He went on to serve as director of natural resources for Gov. Dick Riley. 

That led to public relations and marketing work, but “I always had my hands in conservation,” he says. When the S.C. Wildlife Federation approached him about the executive director position, he knew it was a great fit. 

Twelve years later, he’s proud of the accomplishments his team has made, and is confident as he passes along the reins to Director of Education Sara Green, who is serving as interim executive director while a search begins to fill the position permanently. 

Gregg says the greatest aspect of his tenure at the organization is the teamwork that filled his days, from joining with other organizations such as Upstate Forever and the Coastal Conservation League on legislative efforts to partnering with businesses through Wildlife and Industry Together (WAIT), a program that helps industries protect wildlife habitats around their manufacturing facilities. 

“It truly is a team effort,” he says, which allows advocacy efforts to be that much stronger. 

Conservation is nonpartisan
The S.C. Wildlife Federation was formed in 1931 as the first and for many years the only conservation group in the state. The nonprofit is funded through private donations of all sizes, as well as revenue from programs like WAIT. 

Founded by hunters and anglers, the group expanded its scope as more people became interested in protecting the outdoors. Its mission includes conservation and advocacy at the legislature and state agencies, educational efforts, and habitat protection. 

Gregg stresses that conservation is not an issue of the left or right, but one that affects every South Carolinian, and the support his organization receives from Republicans is on par with what it receives from Democrats. “We have a very bipartisan support system,” he says. 

The Wildlife Federation is focused on conservation, not environmentalism, he says, an important distinction since many associate environmentalism with more radical measures. “We’re more inclusive. It’s about habitat protection.”

It’s a business-friendly stance that has earned the support of many large industries statewide, including BMW, Fuji, Michelin, and Westinghouse, which seek the organization’s expertise through WAIT. “We believe that business and conservation have a lot in common,” Gregg says. “There might be points where we disagree, but overall, there is a lot of common ground.”

South Carolina companies typically have a progressive stance on environmental quality, he adds, with internal requirements that are more stringent than those enforced by law. “Their customers look at those kinds of things and appreciate it,” he says. “It improves their bottom line.”

He points out than when large companies look to build in the Palmetto State, people talk about government incentives, but “they wouldn’t be looking here if it wasn’t for our natural resources, and beyond that, quality of life,” which helps them attract the best employees. 

Another important facet of the Wildlife Federation’s work is its fight for the Conservation Bank, which was recently reauthorized after almost going out of business. “The original legislation had to be reviewed after 15 years, and it was almost sunsetted,” he says. “We were able to work with our partners to reauthorize it and have it be considered a permanent agency.”

The Conservation Bank is a crucial pot of money that protects lands threatened by development, he says. “It’s the backbone of the financial opportunities for finding the dollars it takes to protect properties.”

After decades in the field, Gregg is proud of the friendships he’s forged and the successes his organization has enjoyed. And while climate change and other issues have become increasingly politicized, he’s proud to be part of an organization that welcomes everyone from hunters and campers to bikers and gardeners. “We’ve expanded our breadth,” he says. “If you have an interest in the out-of-doors, there’s a place for you in our organization.”
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