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Discovery vindicates politician who used the bird to save a swamp

WASHINGTON—The ivory-billed woodpecker lives!

So maybe the tall tale that saved tens of thousands of acres of Carolina swamp from the timber barons wasn't so tall after all. Maybe Alex Sanders—credited with the boldest ruse in modern South Carolina political history—didn't make it all up.

Sanders, 66, now teaches political science in South Carolina after a long career as a circus performer, college president, chief justice of the South Carolina appeals court and Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate.

But in 1971, Sanders was a maverick state legislator, desperate to stop the clear-cutting of 10,000 acres of the Santee Swamp, a pristine, wildlife-filled expanse about an hour northwest of Charleston.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, declared extinct decades before, would help him.

Sanders called a local television reporter and the South Atlantic regional director of the Audubon Society, who happened to have a recording of the defunct bird. He put them both in a boat and floated into the swamp, to play the call of the ivory-billed woodpecker into the mist.

The ivory-billed woodpecker called back.

Or at least that's what they said.

Sanders' story spread around the nation. Life magazine sent a team in search of the bird. An environmental movement ignited. The legislature banned logging in the Santee swamp. Congress later appropriated $50 million for the creation of the Congaree Swamp National Monument—South Carolina's first national park.

But was the bird there?

No one is quite sure. For years afterward, when asked whether the woodpecker really called back, Sanders would say: "He was there when we needed him."

Today, the ivory-billed woodpecker really is in Arkansas. There are pictures, video and many expert witnesses. The Department of the Interior announced Thursday a "multiyear, multimillion-dollar partnership effort to aid the rare bird's survival."

"It was no news to me," Sanders said from his Charleston office Thursday. " I knew it wasn't extinct all along."

Sanders—known as "Judge Sanders" in South Carolina—says this in his matter-of-fact drawl, as if the nation's top ornithologists and the secretary of the Interior are merely late to the woodpecker party.

But then—irrepressible storyteller that he is—Sanders reveals that he had a backup strategy in 1971, just in case the woodpecker plan didn't work.

"We were going to discover a train wreck in the swamp that took place during the Civil War," he said. "It was derailed taking munitions to the Confederate Army, which was trying to stave off the invasion by General Sherman."

Is that so, Judge Sanders?

"We had the cannonballs all ready," he assured. "But we never needed them."

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(Markoe reports for The State of Columbia, S.C.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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