Everyone who enjoys fishing, boating and hunting at the Santee Cooper Lakes system got an early Christmas present in late December when the company that had planned to launch commercial barges on the lakes and river dropped the idea.

Carolina Linkages said the permitting process for barge service on the Cooper River "could take years," and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission advised that getting permits would involve "countless open hearings" about the potential impacts.

What it boiled down to was this: People who use the lakes and the river for recreation weren't going to allow even a partial destruction of their playground without a fight - one that promised to hold up the company's barge plan for a long time.

That plan involved pushing several barges a day, loaded with 700 shipping containers, up the Cooper River from Charleston Harbor, through the Pinopolis Dam lock, across Lake Moultrie, up the seven-mile long Diversion Canal into Lake Marion and on to a distribution site at Interstate 95 near the town of Santee.

Although the idea made good economic sense, it was fraught with problems - from environmental impacts to conflicts with fishermen, boaters, hunters and lakefront homeowners.

A group called "Friends of Santee Cooper" organized to fight the barge plan, the Santee Cooper Guides Association voted unanimously to oppose the barges, the Santee Cooper Resort Property Owners Association announced its opposition. But the final straw was the vote by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Board against barge traffic on the Cooper River and Santee Cooper lakes.

Within days of the DNR meeting, CaroLinks threw in the towel.

There were major environmental concerns for the Cooper River part of the plan, from potential damage to fish nursery areas to disruption of waterfowl migrations on backwaters adjacent to the river.

"We have a very delicate system of rice field banks on that river that would absolutely be washed away," said Berkeley County supervisor Jim Rozier. "That river is absolutely loaded with fishing boats. A barge isn't going to go around a fisherman."

The DNR Board was also concerned about conflicts between recreational boats and barges.

"The board was obviously concerned about the environment, but their overwhelming concern was for the public's use and enjoyment of the resources," said Ed Duncan, DNR environmental coordinator. "They don't think recreational fishing and boating use and barge traffic are compatible, and a lot of recreational boats use those locks at Pinopolis."

Homeowners and resort operators were concerned about the aesthetic impact of tugboats pushing barges, the potential for increased bank erosion and the prospect of seeing property values drop.

South Carolina is banking much of its economic future on a tourism industry that already contributes almost $11 billion to the state's economy. The Santee Cooper Lakes system is a large part of that industry. So we must be smart in what we allow in new development and work together to preserve our natural resources.

Sportsmen can no longer afford to sit by and wait for something to happen. Like the Santee Cooper barge opposition, we should be vigilant to get in front of every challenge to our state's hunting and fishing traditions.