Bill Strother, Steward of the Satilla

A native of Saint Simons Island, Bill Strother has a special vantage point from which to observe and enjoy the Satilla River: the high bluffs of 1700-acre Ivanhoe Plantation – a varied landscape of marsh, fallow rice fields, pine forest, and wetland hardwood nestled along two miles of Satilla River frontage. From his earliest years, Bill has wandered the woods and waterfront of Ivanhoe, delighting in its flora and fauna, and now he is dedicated to preserving it and its critical wildlife habitat for future generations.

In 1955, Bill’s father and a group of friends purchased Ivanhoe as a timber investment and duck hunting retreat. Ivanhoe’s rich history includes lore of William Bartram traversing it to reach the Satilla River. In the mid-1800s, Ivanhoe was among the largest rice plantations in Georgia. When the lumber business boomed in the years that followed, it housed a sawmill that employed over 400 people.

Today – thanks to the stewardship of Bill and his fellow Ivanhoe shareholders –  the sounds of sawmills have been replaced by the lonesome whistle of rare swallow-tailed kites, gliding on thermals above the old rice fields. They manage the quiet retreat for turkey and deer habitat and timber on the high ground and for waterfowl in the wetlands. Committed to protecting native wildlife and to restoring the natural ecosystems, in 2017 the Ivanhoe shareholders put 1400 acres under conservation easement managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Working together with NRCS, Bill and his partners are protecting and cultivating a 150-acre impoundment that provides vital aquatic wildlife habitats. Beneficiaries of this conservation partnership also include the swallow-tailed kite, white ibis, wood storks, roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, many species of shorebirds and songbirds, and the waterfowl that prompted Bill’s father and his friends to purchase Ivanhoe so many years ago.

Listening to him speak about decades spent nurturing and enjoying Ivanhoe, you see Bill’s eyes sparkle with stories about catching catfish and about the fruits of reforestation efforts and timber management.  A few years ago, Bill took a Georgia Forestry Commission certification course to learn prescribed burning techniques necessary for propagation of longleaf pine forests and the survival of keystone wildlife species such as the gopher tortoise, an animal that – in turn –  creates necessary habitat for endangered and threatened species like the indigo snake, eastern diamondback rattlesnake, and gopher frog.

But Bill’s greatest joy seems to be in passing on this love of nature to the next generation.  In the spring, you may find him teaching his 8-year-old cousin, George, how to cut a firebreak and use a drip-torch in the longleaf pine forest; in the fall you may find him showing his 2-year-old granddaughter, Ansley, how to navigate a pontoon along the Satilla. Bill’s most enduring legacy at Ivanhoe may yet be the example of stewardship he sets by dedicating time, talents, and resources to protecting, preserving, and nurturing our Georgia coast.

Marsha Certain

A Cardiologist with Her Heart in Coastal Georgia: Dr. Marsha Certain

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

Cherishing coastal Georgia comes naturally to Dr. Marsha Certain. The daughter of a physician, she grew up in Brunswick. After graduating from the Medical College of Georgia and completing a cardiology fellowship at Emory, her love of coastal Georgia beckoned her home. According to Dr. Certain, “I thrive in places where there’s not a lot of development. While my practice remains in Brunswick, I live on the bluff at Darien where I can see the Altamaha every day.”

Dr. Certain does more than admire the river from a distance. Her first kayak trip was on the Ocmulgee far upriver in the Altamaha watershed. That trip left her wanting more. She’s paddled the Oconee, the other main Altamaha tributary, as well as the dark, tea-colored waters of the Ohoopee near Reidsville. She reels off stretches of water she’s paddled on the Altamaha, relishing river names like “Alligator Congress” — those relics of the days of flatboats, steamboats, and timber rafts. From Darien she can launch on day trips up to Rifle Cut or to circumnavigate Champney Island on the Butler River. “I take any chance I can get to be on the river,” she says. “Fortunately my medical practice allows me to take turns both for work and play.”

She makes time for more than just work and play. As a Nature Conservancy board member, she is delighted with the role that TNC has played in the Altamaha watershed by protecting a river corridor now spanning 189,000 acres. And she is enthusiastic about expanding that protection, to extend as far headward as the South River inside Interstate 285 and to create a corridor to link with protected areas in southwest Georgia.

“We have a host of organizations focused on conservation in Georgia. There’s some overlap but each occupies a different niche. And they collaborate well.” She supports both the Altamaha Riverkeeper and the Satilla Riverkeeper, a river she praises for its own beauty. And on dry land, she’s involved with developing the Coastal Georgia Greenway, a project to create and connect cycling and multi-use trails in the coastal counties from the Florida border all the way to Savannah.

Marsha Certain

Photo by Scott Coleman

Dr. Certain is pleased by the passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Amendment (GOSA) in November’s election. “We’ve lagged behind other southeastern states in having a dedicated fund for conservation projects. GOSA will provide us with a reliable stream of conservation funds for the next ten years. It is incredibly important for all of Georgia.”

Her motivation for supporting conservation? Posterity. “Several years ago, I went with the Georgia Botanical Society to Lewis Creek. The trip leaders took us way into the interior of the island, to a cypress forest that was too remote to be logged. I was overwhelmed by the magnificence of these old-growth trees, the rich biodiversity surrounding us, and reminded of the resilience of the Altamaha watershed. I want to help protect this legacy for my grandchildren and all who follow them.”

Lead photo contributed by Marcia Certain

Southern Forest

U.S. Army at Ft. Stewart and the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

If asked what conservation philanthropy looks like, a common response would be monetary contributions or volunteer hours. But the U.S. Army at Ft. Stewart and the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust have another way to protect important habitat along the Ogeechee River — conservation easements with private landowners.

Coastal Georgia is one of the fastest growing regions in the state. Rising property values and rising ad valorem taxes often encourage landowners to sell or to convert timberland and agricultural land into residential or commercial property. Ft. Stewart is a major economic force in the Richmond Hill/Hinesville area and intends to remain a good neighbor. Its military forces need the flexibility to train when and where they want within the confines of Ft. Stewart. Additionally, all of the longleaf pine acreage within the base must be managed with prescribed burns on a three-year rotation. Encroaching development could mean that buffers to shield residents from noise, smoke, and other forms of disturbance have to lie inside Ft. Stewart’s boundary, effectively reducing the total area and time available for training. As a result, siting of schools and high-density residential and commercial development immediately adjacent to the base is potentially incompatible with Ft. Stewart’s training and military readiness mission.

To provide incentives for adjoining property owners to keep their land in its relatively undeveloped state, the Army created the Army Compatible Use Buffer (ACUB) program. This program identifies priority areas for preservation around the base perimeter. In partnership with the Army at Ft. Stewart, the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust (GALT) works with owners to encourage them to place land under conservation easements.

According to program director Hal Robinson “Development is forever, so protection needs to be forever, too. Conservation easements are a flexible, tailored way to protect land in perpetuity. A required annual inspection by the easement holder (in this case GALT) ensures that the terms of the agreement are implemented faithfully. Because each property is unique, we work closely with private citizens and timber companies as well as public landowners like county governments to identify the conservation attributes of each parcel under consideration.”

Complementing Ft. Stewart’s protection of fourteen miles of the Ogeechee’s south bank are conservation easements protecting four miles of river frontage on its north bank. One two-mile stretch was a private donation while the other was an easement entered into by Chatham County for its Blue Sky Preserve. Hal Robinson notes “In addition to conserving habitat, these riverside easements preserve the vista for boaters to enjoy on this stretch of the Ogeechee.”

“From a landowner’s perspective, conservation easements provide a unique mechanism for individuals to protect the land they love. While we identify high-value habitat like floodplains and bottomland hardwoods that should be protected, we also recognize that a landowner may wish to continue to use the uplands as they have in the past,” said Robinson. “Conservation easements permit a limited number of home sites on the parcel as well as forestry and/or agriculture consistent with best management practices. That way, property can continue to pay for itself. ”

Historically, conserving land required a private landowner to relinquish certain valuable property rights while society benefited at little or no cost. After all, a tax deduction benefits only those landowners who have taxable income. ACUB adds an alternative incentive. Rather than donating an easement to gain a tax deduction, a landowner can choose to sell development rights (i.e., a conservation easement) to GALT, thereby contributing to a compatible use buffer. Once an appraisal is obtained and the parties agree on the price to be paid, the landowner receives a lump-sum payment and GALT holds the easement in perpetuity. Combining the donated and sold easements, GALT protects approximately 37,000 acres through the ACUB program with a donated component value of $7,000,000 over just the last five years.

Both Ft. Stewart and Ft. Benning partner with the Georgia-Alabama Land Trust in implementing the ACUB program. If you own land near Ft. Stewart and would like to help preserve military readiness and protect valuable conservation values while continuing to conserve the pristine natural beauty of your land, please contact Hal Robinson at hrobinson@galandtrust.org or (912) 508-1855; also see www.georgiaalabamalandtrust.org.

Rick Richards, Jr.: River Steward

“Small towns are generally smack in the middle of nature,” observed Dr. John W. “Rick” Richards, Jr., “and my hometown of Kershaw, South Carolina, was no different. I spent most of my summers, and much of the shoulder seasons at Lake Wateree down stream from the Catawba River:  catfishing, frog gigging, skiing, and swimming. When I was 15, my parents decided to build a cabin at the lake and challenged me to design and build it. They bought a ski boat and told me that if I recruited friends to help and we worked from 8am-6pm, my friends and I could ski from 11am-2pm.  My parents saved on labor, bought many, many gallons of gas, and my friends and I spent a lot of time at the lake over the next three years building the ‘River Cabin,’ which is unchanged and still being used today – 50 years later.”

Having grown up on the lakes and rivers of northern Georgia and South Carolina, it’s no wonder that Rick feels a close connection to the region’s waters and uses his philanthropy to protect them.

Throughout Rick’s life he’s always sought out water – as an undergraduate, a medical student, during his posting at Ft. Gordon while in the Army, and later when settled in Augusta as a faculty member at the Medical College of Georgia. The Richards family spent a lot of time at Lake Thurmond and by 2005 had decided to move there. After several months searching for lake property, they found land offering a sweeping vista of the Savannah River and the Sumter National Forest beyond.

The water quality on Rick’s section of the Savannah is very good. “The river temperature is a bit chilly for a lot of watersports but fishing and boating go on year-round,” says Rick. “One issue that I have become aware of is the need for better enforcement of erosion control laws. Due to uncontrolled runoff from new developments, even those well away from the shoreline, a portion of the Savannah became clogged with silt very quickly. We need to protect the river for all its users, wildlife included.”

After teaching at MCG for seven years, Rick began a new phase of his life as a “serial entrepreneur” in fields including health promotion and disease prevention, health data management, medical consulting, and cost containment. His business successes inspire his philanthropy.

One environmental group supported by Rick’s philanthropy is the Savannah Riverkeeper (SRK). Riverkeepers generally work at the grassroots level to protect everyone’s right to clean water.  They do this by focusing on the health and well-being of a specific watershed and the communities it supports. As the primary guardian of the Savannah River, SRK’s challenge is significant.  The organization works to protect a river system that spans nearly 400 miles with stakeholders in two states.  All of Georgia’s six Riverkeepers are part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, founded in 1999 by Robert Kennedy and a group of fishermen who set out to clean up the Hudson River in New York.  The movement took off, and now there are over 300 Waterkeeper organizations worldwide.

Rick’s connection to SRK began when he saw the news that burglars had stolen all of the organization’s computers during a break-in. “I was in the process of replacing my work computers so I took equipment to the Riverkeeper office and helped them get back to protecting the river again.” In addition to his financial support, members of Rick’s Boy Scout Troop have partnered with the SRK on a number of Eagle Scout Leadership Projects.  The Scouts of Troop 643 (Evans, GA) erected information kiosks at boat/kayak/canoe access points on the river, installed fishing line recycling bins at boat landings, cleaned and placed trash receptacles in access areas, cleaned the shoreline of Lake Olmstead, built an outdoor classroom at Phinizy Swamp and even painted and landscaped the SRK office building.

“The people who are employed by environmental groups could choose to work where they would earn a lot more money; yet, this is their calling. They make a financial sacrifice to do great things — what I call ‘God’s work.’” Rick continued, “I want this community to thrive and so do they. When they need additional funds and/or labor to accomplish what we all are trying to achieve, all I have done is offer a bit of help.”

Rick Richards shares his lifelong love of rivers with his family and his community. “The closer I can get to water, the more appealing it is to me. Walking along the river or simply sitting and watching it roll by has such a calming influence. It connects one with the world beyond….”

Reese Thompson: Longleaf Co-Investor with Deep Roots

As a finance major at the University of Georgia (’77), Reese Thompson took part in a commodity markets class trip to Chicago where he visited the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. In Thompson’s words, “There were 6,000 people on the trade floor, more than the small town of McRae, Georgia where I was raised. It was a beehive of activity. I was smitten.”  Not surprisingly, upon graduation Reese caught a ride to Chicago where Merrill Lynch hired him as a runner on the trading floor. There began a career in commodities trading. And yet, Reese always found his way back home to Wheeler County and the family’s farm where he managed to stay connected to the land.

Reese’s initial return to the family farm was under difficult circumstances.  After his Father suffered a heart attack, Reese returned home to help his brother, Frank, with the farm. They worked through the early eighties planting and burning longleaf, challenged by a long period of drought. Reese would return to Chicago and his fascination with commodity markets, but he eventually decided to make the family farm his home.

When asked about his longleaf “conversion experience,” Reese explained, “When I turned 50, thirteen years ago, I began wondering what my purpose in life was. After several people helped me understand the uniqueness and richness of biodiversity in the longleaf ecosystem, I decided my mission in life was to protect, enhance, and restore the longleaf that I had been entrusted. Planting longleaf is the closest to immortality that I will achieve. I had rather be remembered by family and friends as a good steward of the land, than CD’s in a bank.”

Restoration of longleaf requires a significant investment of time and financial resources. “A day on a tree farm is long.  And there is the cost of seedlings and wiregrass plugs, equipment and fuel,” said Reese.  “But I enjoy it.  The work is grounding and it gives me a sense of satisfaction for doing something good.”

“Reese’s passion is genuine,” said Dirk Stevenson, Longleaf Savannas Initiative Director for the Orianne Society, a group that works to conserve critical ecosystems for imperiled reptiles and amphibians. “There is a lot of support out there for managing land to benefit game species such as deer, quail, and turkey.  It’s not every day that you meet someone who is committed to helping non-game species like salamanders, tortoises, and snakes.”

The Orianne Society, which helps to conduct prescribed burns on the Thompson property, brings students and researchers to conduct surveys of the endangered Eastern indigo snake and other species on the land. “The family is so generous in sharing their time and energy,” added Stevenson.  “After we’ve worked all day out in the field, they feed us a magnificent dinner, including Pam’s homemade desserts, which the students love.”

Reese Thompson’s longleaf restoration work is significant.  But it becomes more important when seen in the context of his “neighborhood” in Wheeler County.  Reese’s brother, Frank who is also a longleaf conservationist, owns property adjacent to Reese. The Alligator Creek Wildlife Management Area is adjacent to Frank’s property.  Alligator Creek WMA was permanently protected in 2016 by the State as part of the Gopher Tortoise Initiative.  When you piece together ecologically managed private land holdings like the Thompson properties and land acquired and managed by the state, it helps create critically important corridors of good habitat for species like the gopher tortoise and Eastern indigo snake with scale.

In recognition of his vision and dedication to conservation, the Longleaf Alliance recognized Reese with their Landowner of the Year Award in 2016 and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region will recognize Reese as their Landowner of the Year in May 2017.

The Mixson Family and St. Catherines Island

The Lamar Mixson Sea Turtle Internship is a celebration of love and a young man’s passion for wildlife and wild places.  Lamar spent the summer of 2011 on St. Catherines Island as an intern for the island’s sea turtle conservation program.  That summer of protecting nests, collecting DNA samples, and watching emerging sea turtles brave beach crossings to fearlessly dive into the Atlantic Ocean gave him a platform to learn from and contribute to Georgia’s coastal resources.

In his memory, the Mixson family worked with the St. Catherines Island Foundation to create the Lamar Mixson Sea Turtle Internship on St. Catherines.  Since 2013, the initial gift of $25,000 has grown substantially through continued contributions from the Mixson family, friends and associates.  As of 2014, five young people have benefited from the internship, adding an extraordinary experience to their college and life accomplishments while actively participating in sea turtle conservation.

PHOTO BY CHRISTA HAYES

Wassaw Island, The Caretta Research Project, and a 150+ Year Family Legacy of Philanthropy

George Parsons, born in 1826 and raised in Maine, worked with his brother to build successful business ventures in southern cities, including Savannah.  Parsons was known for his strong family ties, a concern for community needs, and generosity.  Parsons established a culture of giving in his family that would be handed down through the generations and it’s left an indelible mark on Wassaw Island and continues to impact sea turtle conservation work taking place there today.

Parsons purchased Wassaw Island in 1866 as a gift for his bride, Sarah Eddy Parsons.  He went on to build a housing compound for his family and friends at the center of the island.  As the Parsons, their children, and their children’s children spent time on Wassaw Island, they developed a deep love for it and an appreciation for the island’s special character.  In 1930, with an eye toward the future, family members and others formed the Wassaw Island Trust to preserve Wassaw in its natural state.

In the 1960’s, trustees became concerned that the state of Georgia might condemn the island and open it for development or public use (Georgia had purchased Jekyll Island under a condemnation order in 1947). In response, they made arrangements to convey Wassaw to the United States for permanent preservation as a National Wildlife Refuge.  To facilitate the transaction, the Nature Conservancy of Georgia bought Wassaw Island from the Trust for $1 million in 1969 and, in turn, sold it to the federal government for the same amount. The transaction carried three stipulations.  First, the island would remain in its natural state.  Second, no bridge could be built connecting the island to the mainland.  And, finally, the Wassaw Island Trust would retain 180 acres for on-going use, including the housing compound. Not surprisingly, Parsons family trustees would soon use their influence to make the island accessible and the property available for philanthropic and conservation purposes.

In the early 1970s, volunteer herpetologists and the Savannah Science Museum launched a conservation effort focused on loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) out of a concern for the declining population.  A Parsons family member provided crucial support to the initiative, including transporting researchers and volunteers to Wassaw and providing housing.  This led to the 1972 founding of the Caretta Research Project (www.carettaresearchproject.org). It was one of the first sea turtle conservation initiatives in the country and it continues today.  Caretta’s on-going mission includes monitoring and protecting loggerhead sea turtle nests on Wassaw and educating the public about sea turtle conservation.

More than 150 years after George Parsons first cultivated within his family both a culture of giving and a love of the Georgia coast, his descendants continue that tradition by supporting sea turtle conservation with their time, personal commitment, and financial support.

PHOTO BY SARAH EDDY WASSAW ISLAND 1866

Donor Profile: Jeanne Manning

Inspired, generous, and committed individuals have always been the heartbeat and catalyst for Georgia’s legacy of coastal conservation.  Over time, Shoreline will introduce you to donors who are making a difference for the Georgia coast.  Shoreline is honored to begin this feature with a profile of Jeanne Manning of St. Simons Island. Read more