More than most places, the Lowcountry is defined by its nature. When development came to our area, it came with an eye on preservation. Ours was a duty to build alongside nature, in the hopes of keeping the shores, rivers and forests as undisturbed as possible, even as more and more people came to call it home.
The philosophy is reflected in the people who call this place home. To some, nature is a way to connect with the greater forces that shaped it. To some, it’s a bounty of inspiration. To some, it’s a home for a wide diversity of creatures that holds endless fascination. It’s our own uniquely preserved piece of the natural world.
LOCAL SINCE 2007
TONY MILLS IS THE EDUCATION DIRECTOR FOR THE LOWCOUNTRY INSTITUTE ON SPRING ISLAND AND HOSTS THE TV SHOW COASTAL KINGDOM. HE LIVES IN BEAUFORT WITH HIS WIFE, KATHRYN MADDEN, AND ENJOYS FISHING, EXERCISING AND READING.
This educator is in love with the Lowcountry’s biodiversity.
Bouncing around Spring Island in a pickup truck, Tony Mills can’t hold back his excitement at the world around him. With each turn, something draws his attention: A pocket of spoonbills wading in a coastal marsh; a skink clambering up the tabby wall of a plantation house’s ruins; a shallow trench along the side of the road, the burrow pit of a seven-foot alligator he was hoping to see on this trip.
He’s truly a man in his element among the 1,100 acres of nature preserve on Spring Island.
Trained as a naturalist, he spent 21 years working at the Savannah River Ecology Lab. It was when he started leading educational seminars, highlighting the local wildlife with living props from his herpetology lab that he found his calling. His classes, and the boundless enthusiasm for local wildlife they contained, caught the attention of Chris Marsh, executive director of Spring Island Trust. He asked Mills to come to Spring Island, and the rest is history … or biology.
“AS AN EDUCATOR, I JUST WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW WHAT THEY HAVE HERE.”
“When I got here, I just absolutely fell in love with it,” he said. “Some people love Beaufort County because of its history or its cultural heritage. Some people love it because it’s pretty. I love it because of the biodiversity.”
His love of our region’s wildlife, and his unique skill at presenting it in an approachable way would not be contained to the classroom for long. A chance meeting with Rob Lewis, long-time videographer for ETV and Beaufort County, sparked a partnership that would take Tony’s love of wildlife to the airways.
“Three weeks later, we got together and filmed our first episode,” said Mills. That show, Coastal Kingdom airs on SCETV on Wednesdays and Thursdays as well as the local Beaufort County Channel. Over the course of 27 episodes, hosted by Mills and produced by Lewis, they’ve educated thousands on the astounding biodiversity of the Lowcountry, racking up an Emmy along the way.
“It’s based on the experiences I’ve had here. Lots of snakes, turtles, alligators, marine invertebrates, fish… This is an amazing part of the world and people here don’t know what they have.”
Each episode focuses on a different segment of our area’s diverse wildlife. One episode might find Mills on top of a fire department cherry picker, returning an injured eagle to its nest. Another might find him up to his neck in the Savannah River, picking water snakes off of tree limbs. Another might find him fishing for longnose gar with a frayed rope, humanely snagging them by their sharp teeth.
“We never know what’s going to happen. I’ll write a script and I have a pretty good idea of what we’ll see, but sometimes something entirely different happens,” said Mills. One example, when they were filming fox squirrels, a hawk in a nearby window caught his eye. They filmed it for 20 minutes before it swooped down and picked up a four-foot snake. It makes for exciting television, but more importantly, it serves as a window into the natural world that surrounds us.
“As an educator, I just want people to know what they have here,” he said. “Anything I can do to show people what’s around them in the Southeast. And it’s a little selfish, because this is what I love to do.”