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Botanist Porcher V. Kuwait: at Stake Is An Island

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Botany professor Richard Porcher of the Citadel stopped his field trip on a narrow path in the dense subtropical vegetation of an island off South Carolina. He turned to his students. “Anything that’s good,” said Porcher, scanning the fragrant lushness, “is worth fighting for.”

Porcher (pronounced por-SHAY) wasn’t just preaching; for a year he has battled to save what is most precious to him—the coastal wilderness of Kiawah Island, 20 miles from Charleston.

Porcher’s enemy is an unlikely but formidable one—the Sheikhdom of Kuwait. A year ago the Kuwait Investment Company, jointly owned by the Kuwaiti government and private Arab investors, bought Kiawah Island from a South Carolina family for $17.4 million. The company plans to transform the eleven-mile-by-three-mile barrier island—one of the last undeveloped islands on the Atlantic coast—into a quarter-billion dollar luxury playground.

Since the purchase, Porcher and a small group of gadfly environmentalists have sent out mailings, written letters to editors, cabled the Emir of Kuwait (he didn’t reply), taken their cause to national conservationist groups, held weekly meetings to map strategies and harangued local officials. They want the officials to deny the request of the developers for permission to build condominiums and retail stores. If they grant the rezoning, Porcher will take his fight to court. If the petition is denied, he will press to make the island a protected national seashore. “We’re trying to create adverse criticism and keep the issue alive in the public eye,” says Porcher.

Of all the Arab investments in the United States thus far, Kiawah is the most visible, the first that would alter the landscape. And the contours of Kiawah—thick palmetto and salt marshes pulsing with wildlife, towering longleaf pines, unspoiled dunes and shoreline—all used to be Porcher’s classroom. Now construction has begun and Porcher complains, “I can’t take a field trip there anymore.” He uses a neighboring island.

Porcher’s group has recently received support from an unusual coalition of Jewish and black citizens. The Jews joined up because of Kuwait’s participation in the Arab boycott of American firms doing business with Israel. Black opponents fear the project will cause land taxes to soar and drive subsistence farmers off their land in surrounding regions.

Frank Brumley, senior vice-president of Kiawah Beach Co., a creation of Kiawah’s investors, replies that the project will be sensitive to the balance of life in the marshland, that construction will put 5,000 people to work and will generate an estimated tax surplus of $38 million for Charleston County over 15 years. More succinctly, says Brumley, “our planned development is far better than any number of fast-buck artists who could turn it into a wall-to-wall trailer park.”

Brumley’s smooth assurances have not convinced Porcher. A vibrant, wiry man who holds a Ph.D. in botany from the University of South Carolina, Porcher, 36, delights in trekking through mud and marsh on field trips to nearby Bulls Island, snacking along the way on wild berries and crunchy cattail roots. “There’s enough work here for 10 lifetimes. I love this area,” says Porcher, who lives just outside Charleston with his wife, Cynthia, their 4-year-old daughter and month-old son.

“Whenever I come back from out of town, I slip on my hiking boots and run through the marshes. Once that cold water starts to squish between my toes, man, I know I’m home.”