Photo by Phillip Murdaco

Celebrating 50 Years of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

Fifty years ago, Georgians statewide fought hard to preserve our coastal landscape – a fight that centered just south of Tybee. There the coastal marshlands faced a novel, existential threat because of geology. During the 1960s, mining companies negotiated options to buy mineral rights on Little Tybee and Cabbage Islands. Their goal was to strip away the marsh sediments and extract extensive phosphate deposits that could be turned into fertilizer. The crisis intensified in early 1968 when the Kerr-McGee Corporation applied for a license from the Georgia Mineral Leasing Commission to mine phosphate from thousands of acres of the state-owned seabed offshore of Wassaw, Ossabaw, and St. Catherines Islands. Their plan called for dumping the mine waste atop neighboring barrier islands and marshland.

Kerr-McGee’s public relations campaign emphasized the putative economic benefits of the project. But the corporation failed to sway the Georgia public due to the efforts of a unique coalition of coastal scientists, students, conservation organizations, garden clubs, historical societies, hunting and fishing groups, and newspapers that rallied citizens statewide.

Remarkably, one figure in the fight was long deceased. Georgia poet Sidney Lanier (1842-1881) composed his famous work, “The Marshes of Glynn,” based on his observations of the marsh at Brunswick, Georgia from dawn to twilight. Combining descriptions of plants and animals of the marsh with the rhythms of the tidal cycle, the poem is deeply grounded in the spiritual impact Lanier felt before the majesty of God’s creation. Because generations of Georgia schoolchildren memorized the poem, people across the state were familiar with the coastal marshes even if they had never seen them for themselves. For them, mining Sidney Lanier’s marshes would be losing part of Georgia’s cultural heritage.

Others fought for the marshes based on their ecological value. The scientific studies of University of Georgia ecologist Eugene Odum and his colleagues at the Sapelo Island Marine Institute had established the importance of the coastal marsh functions, from primary productivity rivaling that of the rainforests to the marshland’s importance as a nursery grounds for fish and shellfish. To convey to the public that the marshlands were not just pestilential swamps, Odum borrowed a concept from the space race of the 1960s – the “life support system.” Just as astronauts could not survive in space without their life support systems, Dr. Odum argued that the marshes also provide a vast array of ecosystem goods and services vital to our life on Earth and to our coastal economies. To bring this message home, he and his graduate students barnstormed the state on an educational tour to explain the science behind why the marshes were more valuable in their natural state than destroyed for fertilizer production.

Another force supporting marsh protection were Georgia’s garden clubs. Mobilized by pioneer conservationist Jane Yarn, garden club members peppered the state legislature with thousands of letters opposing the destruction of Georgia’s coastal landscape. Newspapers across the state put mining the marshes on the front page and opposed it in their editorials. One editorial cartoon featured Sidney Lanier being scraped up by a bulldozer while penning the first lines of “The Marshes of Glynn.”

Representative Reid W. Harris guided the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 to passage in the Georgia House and Senate

Representative Reid W. Harris guided the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970 to passage in the Georgia House and Senate

The full-throated public outcry from this massive coalition swayed the legislature and state agencies to not only deny Kerr-McGee’s license request but to move forward with comprehensive protection for Georgia’s salt marsh. The Coastal Marshlands Protection Act of 1970, based solidly on ecological science, placed the state in the role of trustee whose foremost duty is to serve the public interest in managing proposed activities in the marsh. In 1979, the state adopted the Shore Protection Act to control human activities within the sand-sharing system. It, too, was based on sound ecological and geological principles.

And the Coastlands Wait: How the Grassroots Battle to Save Georgia’s Marshlands Was Fought – and WonAccording to historian Chris Manganiello, the passage of these two acts represented the “gold standard” for environmental engagement. The fight to save the marshes created an organized environmental movement in Georgia which has multiplied and thrived in the intervening decades. The lessons learned fifty years ago continue to inspire a coastal conservation ethic that protects our natural heritage and seeks to meet the coming challenges of climate change impacts at our coast.

For a first person account of how the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act was pushed through the Georgia state legislature in 1970, we recommend Representative Reid Harris’s book, And the Coastlands Wait: How the Grassroots Battle to Save Georgia’s Marshlands Was Fought – and Won. It was republished this year by The University of Georgia Press with the philanthropic support of coastal conservation advocates.

Tybee Island History and Tourism

Tybee Island History and Tourism

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

People may believe that children should visit pristine, magnificent places like America’s national parks to develop a love of nature. On the contrary, many coastal conservationists recall fond memories of learning to love the Georgia coast by visiting the three Georgia barrier islands readily accessible by car. There they were able to dig to their heart’s content in sand. A run into the surf took care of any mess — so different from the red clay of home. There were gentle waves, a chance to spot dolphins surfacing beyond the swells, and maybe a ship or two on the horizon to set you dreaming.

Along with Jekyll and St. Simons, Tybee Island became the foundation of childhood memories for many. In Tybee’s case, its history of human visitation can be traced back over 4,500 years to early indigenous peoples who occupied this island along with neighboring Little Tybee and Wassaw. Here at the mouth of the Savannah River, these earliest Georgians feasted on its rich fisheries, leaving behind great shell rings as evidence of their success.

Although a variety of European colonial powers visited and claimed Tybee’s shores, the arrival of English settlers in 1733 had the decisive impact, for these people planned to remain. One of their earliest construction projects at Tybee was a 90-foot-tall wooden lighthouse built in 1736 to guide ships through shoals at the river’s mouth. Although storms and fires repeatedly destroyed a succession of wooden structures, by 1773 a 100-foot brick tower managed to survive until Confederate troops burned it to thwart its use by Union forces during the siege of Savannah. After the Civil War, the tower was rebuilt with an additional 94 feet of brick atop the remaining 60-foot base laid in 1773. Despite earthquake and hurricane, that’s the structure that still stands today. It’s one of the few 18th century lighthouses still operating in America, an enduring symbol of Tybee, and a drawing card for tourists. The lighthouse also lends its name to the phrase “from Rabun Gap to Tybee Light” which celebrates the geographic diversity of Georgia.

Tybee’s location at the mouth of the Savannah River meant that it underwent many changes due to navigation and flood control activities throughout the Savannah River watershed. Flood-control dams built far upstream in the river’s headwaters trapped sand that otherwise would have made its way downstream to Tybee’s beaches. As far back as the 1890s, dredging plus construction of long jetties along the Savannah River’s navigational channel also began to starve the sand supply to Tybee’s beaches. One set of anthropogenic changes begat another. Since 1882, there have been more than forty Federal engineering projects to stabilize and renourish Tybee’s beaches to protect homes and businesses and to provide ample dry beach area for recreational needs – an effort that continues today.

1901 brochure, courtesy of the Special Collections Library, University of Georgia

1901 brochure, courtesy of the Special Collections Library, University of Georgia

Organized tourism dates back to 1870, when the “Tybee Improvement Company” began to formulate plans to develop the island as a beach resort. Part of the island’s draw was the opportunity to escape the bustle of Savannah; another was the emergence of the belief that salt air was healthy and rejuvenating. In 1873, small steam packet boats began to make daily runs to Tybee, and by 1876 there was a spacious hotel for overnight guests as well as a horse-drawn streetcar line from the boat pier down Tybee’s “main drag.” More restaurants and accommodations followed, along with beach-side pavilions for dancing or simply taking in the scenery.

People of that period were just as interested in speed of movement as we are today. To transport more visitors to the island more quickly than a multi-hour steamboat trip, construction started on the Savannah and Tybee Railway in 1886. Anyone who has ever ventured into the marsh understands that it would be no easy feat to lay a structurally sound roadbed across such soft ground cut by tidal creeks. Despite many challenges, the railbed was completed in late 1887. By 1890, the railroad had been purchased by the precursor of the Central of Georgia Railway, a major passenger and freight railroad serving Georgia and parts of Alabama and Tennessee.

The Central of Georgia took its new acquisition to heart. It printed color brochures featuring Tybee as a prime destination. Elaborate timetables and fare schedules showed Georgians all over the state exactly how long it would take to get there and ticket costs, including discounts for multi-day visits. It was an easy transfer from the main Savannah railroad station to the Tybee depot on Randolph Street, where passengers knew the Atlantic awaited after chugging across 18 miles of marsh. Going by rail instead of by boat cut that travel time in half. In 1910, the railroad carried over 160,000 people from Savannah to Tybee; a roundtrip ticket cost 40 cents (about 26 dollars today, adjusting for inflation).

postcards courtesy of the authorLike their predecessors, the railroad constructed hotels, restaurants, and attractions for all these tourists. Other entrepreneurs built their own cottages, boarding houses, and pavilions to accommodate the throngs enjoying the beach. And there were plenty of them, like my great-grandmother Bessie Andrews Haddock with her daughter Elizabeth who memorialized their visit in this photo postcard, dressed in their finest and posed in front of a painted ship on a painted ocean.

Not surprisingly, the rise of the personal automobile spelled the end of the railroad. In 1923, what we know today as U.S. 80 opened to parallel the railroad. No longer would visitors have to accommodate a train schedule or brush off cinders from the steam engine once they arrived. Supplanted by the automobile, rail service ended in 1933. Although it no longer will take you all the way to Tybee, approximately six miles of the old railbed now are the McQueen’s Island Trail, providing pedestrians and cyclists the opportunity to enjoy the salt air and sea breeze at a slower pace.

Tybee continues its growth, both as “Savannah’s beach” and as a magnet for visitors around the country. Recent figures estimate that Tybee draws more than a million visitors annually. Thanks to the work and generosity of conservation philanthropists, a new facility will open in Spring 2021 for Tybee Island visitors and residents alike: The Tybee Island Marine Science Center. The 5,000 square foot new center is located on Tybee’s North Beach and features views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Calibogue Sound at the Savannah River Entrance. It has the capacity to reach over 100,000 people annually, connecting them to the stewardship of Georgia’s coast through hands-on education and conservation programs. Fundraising efforts to complete the exhibits are still underway. Here are details on how to support the project.

Neighboring islands offer a different kind of coastal experience. Little Tybee Island is a favorite place to explore by kayak and for overnight camping. Comprised of 6505 acres of undeveloped salt marshes and tidal creeks and 3.5 miles of beach, Little Tybee is accessible only by boat. It is owned and managed by the state of Georgia, with a conservation easement retained by The Nature Conservancy. Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge preserves a snapshot of Georgia’s original coast, reminiscent of what those first “tourists” would have seen thousands of years ago. Its timber was never cut nor was the island put to the plow. As part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges system, Wassaw also is accessible only by boat. It is open from sunrise to sunset for low-impact activities such as hiking, picknicking, and birdwatching.

In addition to all those humans, Tybee, Little Tybee, and Wassaw host a wide variety of bird life, visitors and residents alike. In the fall of 2018, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated much of the Georgia coast as a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance, including portions of Tybee as well as the Wassaw National Wildlife Refuge. The designation recognizes the Georgia coast’s importance to migratory birds, who winter here or refuel and rest on round-trip journeys that may span from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

Like all of Georgia’s islands connected to the mainland by causeways, Tybee faces challenges from balancing tourism with its year-round residents’ quality of life, managing growth to avoid the destruction of its environmental amenities which bring people there in the first place, and adapting to the inexorable rise of sea level. The decisions made today will ensure that Tybee’s sandy beaches continue to inspire generations yet to come.

Provided by The Caretta Research Project

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

By Christa Hayes

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.

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.

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. 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. Their efforts are successful with the continued support of private philanthropists. Their current needs include funding to purchase basic research supplies, including tags and applicators, as well as a new Kawasaki Mule. More details are available on the Coastal Conservation Project List.

Provided by the City of Darien

Collaborative Efforts Underway to Preserve Butler Island

By Burch Barger

Hosted by The Coalition to Save Butler Island and organized by One Hundred Miles, three consecutive gatherings (both in person and online) were held recently to facilitate public conversation about the future of Butler Island. Participants in these sessions, titled “Creating a Future for Our Past,” included community members, descendants of enslaved people, conservationists, historians, tourism professionals, theologians, private foundations, academics, elected officials, state agency representatives, and more.

Butler Island, located in McIntosh County and part of the 30,000-acre Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, is an important and historic landmark from our coast’s history. It is the site where Pierce Butler enslaved more than 500 people and where famed actress and abolitionist Fannie Kemble documented the atrocities that she witnessed there in her influential work, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839.  Kemble’s journals were seminal in turning the tide of Great Britain’s public opinion against slavery.  Plagued by gambling debts, Butler became notorious for the largest single auction of enslaved people in U.S. history known as the “Weeping Time,” where hundreds of Butler Island families were separated and taken to Savannah and held captive in horse stalls before being sold and shipped off to enslavers throughout the antebellum South.

Visited and widely used by thousands of people since it became a wildlife management area, Butler Island has struggled greatly to meet maintenance demands. Upkeep of the complex system of dikes that create vital habitat for waterfowl is costly.  Structures on the island, particularly the postbellum Huston House, have fallen into disrepair but at present remain viable for restoration. Built in 1927 by the former owner of the New York Yankees who personally recruited Babe Ruth, the Huston House was a duck hunting lodge that hosted not only Ruth himself but also other baseball luminaries like Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb.

The future of Butler Island currently hangs in the balance. Georgia House Bill 906, which was designed to allow the transfer of Georgia heritage preserves to private developers, met with strong public resistance and was defeated earlier this year. In the wake of this legislative battle, The Coalition to Save Butler Island seeks to devise solutions for not only financing the upkeep of Butler Island but also honoring those enslaved on the property and protecting the site’s historic and natural assets for generations to come.

Recommendations and comments from the public sessions have been gathered and shared with the Georgia DNR, owner of Butler Island. Based on resounding feedback from session participants, the Coalition is creating a “Friends of Butler Island” organization and applying for 501c3 status, as well as pursuing funding for projects that will help with restoration and other initiatives on the property. It will take continued collaboration and creative fundraising efforts to generate the revenue necessary to preserve Butler Island. To support this important movement which seeks to promote both environmental conservation and cultural preservation, please contact Megan Desrosiers, CEO of One Hundred Miles.

Provided by One Hundred Miles

Five Coastal Waterways Named to Georgia Water Coalition’s 2020 “Dirty Dozen” List

By Burch Barger

Published in November 2020, the tenth edition of the Georgia Water Coalition’s “Dirty Dozen” list highlights the issues that threaten twelve waterways throughout the state. Five of these are located in our coastal region: the Altamaha River, the Satilla River, the St. Simons Sound, the Okefenokee Swamp, and Cumberland and Little Cumberland islands. Below is a brief synopsis of each threat and information on the conservation groups working to protect these vital waterways.

Altamaha River: The discharge from Rayonier Advanced Materials chemical pulp mill in Jesup has landed the Altamaha River on Georgia’s “Dirty Dozen” list more times than any other waterway. Altamaha Riverkeeper is advocating for Rayonier to upgrade its wastewater treatment standards as it seeks a renewal of its pollution control permit.

Satilla River: A proposed 463-acre landfill project located two miles from the river in Brantley County raises concerns ranging from pollution of groundwater and surface water to the risk of increased flooding. Satilla Riverkeeper notes the proposed landfill “is in a very vulnerable area, surrounded by a rural community that sources its drinking water from groundwater wells. Proper site limitations are essential to protecting the Satilla River, its tributaries, wetlands, and groundwater resources from contamination and pollution. The proposed site is not appropriate for a solid waste handling facility.”

St. Simons Sound: After more than a year of preparations and delays, the cutting and salvage process has begun on the Golden Ray, the 656-foot cargo ship capsized in the St. Simons Sound. As the massive boat is cut into eight sections, its cargo of 4000 cars and tens of thousands of gallons of oil threaten to contaminate the sound, surrounding marshes, beaches and fisheries on St. Simons and Jekyll islands. Altamaha Riverkeeper is monitoring the salvage process and recommends that NOAA conduct a Natural Resources Damage Assessment of St. Simons Sound, determining the environmental impacts and identifying restoration projects to compensate for losses associated with the disaster.

Okefenokee Swamp: Changes to the Clean Water Act went into effect earlier this year, removing from federal protection 376 acres of wetlands located within Twin Pines Materials’ proposed 12,000-acre titanium mining site near the Okefenokee Swamp. “A federal hurdle removed, if Twin Pines can now secure necessary state permits, mining operations can commence.” Conservation groups working to organize citizens and to inform Governor Kemp about the importance of protecting the Okefenokee include One Hundred Miles, Suwannee Riverkeeper, and Georgia River Network.

Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands: A proposed rocket launching facility, Spaceport Camden, would sit on the banks of Todd Creek, an important tributary to the Satilla River located four miles from the shores of Cumberland and Little Cumberland Islands. The small launch missions proposed for the Spaceport Camden site have averaged a 43% failure rate between 2009 and 2016.  This puts the human and wildlife populations — as well the natural wonders — of Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island at heightened risk of fire, pollution, and loss of life. One Hundred Miles continues to track this proposal and to express grave concerns for the impacts it would have on the Georgia coast.

Photo by Megan Desrosiers

Stewards’ 2020 Field Events: Recreation and Respite in Our Coastal Surroundings

By Burch Barger

Undoubtedly, 2020 has been a challenging year for in-person engagement in all sectors of our society.  Meeting via Zoom just isn’t the same as chatting in person.  Thankfully, our coast’s mild climate and wide array of outdoor offerings have allowed Stewards to find a few creative, safe ways to gather for learning and recreation this year.  As many in our Stewards network have noted, the opportunity to immerse ourselves in nature has been a welcome respite from virtual meetings and pandemic headlines.

In June, we gathered for a Stewards paddle trip along the upper reaches of Cathead Creek through historic rice canals, cypress swamps, and manatee foraging grounds.  Native plant sightings along our path included buttonbrush trees and false dragonhead, among others. Christi Lambert, Director of Coastal and Marine Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, led our conversations about past and current conservation projects within Georgia’s mightiest river system, the Altamaha.

June 2020 Cathead Creek Paddle Trip

June 2020 Cathead Creek Paddle Trip

In September, we celebrated World Shorebirds Day with a Stewards boat trip to the mouth of the Altamaha River. Abby Sterling, shorebird biologist with Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative, led our conversations about fall shorebird migration, the importance of our coast for shorebirds, and current conservation initiatives involving shorebirds in Georgia.

Traveling at high tide, we saw congregations of roosting shorebirds on the northern tip of Little St. Simons Island, at Little Egg Island Bar, and on Wolf Island. Our group’s sightings included American Avocets, Marbled Godwits, American Oystercatchers, and Long-billed Curlews, among others.

September 2020 Shorebirding Boat Trip

September 2020 Shorebirding Boat Trip

September 2020 Shorebirding Boat Trip

September 2020 Shorebirding Boat Trip

In November, we kayaked coastal Georgia’s only designated Wild and Scenic River, Ebenezer Creek. While paddling through a maze of 1,000+ year-old dwarfed bald cypress trees, we learned from renowned coastal naturalist Stacia Hendricks about the area’s unique natural and cultural histories. Megan Desrosiers shared updates on One Hundred Miles’ work with community members and elected officials to ensure the history and ecology of Ebenezer Creek are protected forever.

Following the paddle trip, we gathered for a picnic lunch near the 18th century Jerusalem Lutheran Church at New Ebenezer.  Afterwards, the Georgia Salzburger Society provided a brief tour of the church and museum.

Left to Right: November 2020 Picnic and Tour of Jerusalem Lutheran Church; November 2020 Ebenezer Creek Paddle.

We are planning a full slate of Stewards excursions for 2021, and we hope you will make plans to join us.  On Friday, January 22nd, we will kick off the new year with a hike in Cannon’s Point Preserve guided by Wendy Paulson and leaders from the St. Simons Land Trust.  Stay tuned for emails about the January 22nd trip and others to follow in 2021.

Georgia’s Coastal Watersheds, Part V: The St. Marys River

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

Looking at a map of Georgia, you see its boundaries marked by straight lines and sinuous river valleys. The most striking is our southern boundary with Florida, where a line arrows east-southeast to meet Georgia’s Big Bend – the 126-mile-long St. Marys River.

In 1800, it took the skills of Andrew Ellicott, a noted surveyor of the early American Republic, to mark the Georgia-Florida line. The west end was easy – the confluence of the Flint River with the Chattahoochee. But the eastern end was something entirely different – described as “the headwaters of the St. Marys River.”  The St. Marys rises in the Okefenokee Swamp, 700 square miles of wildness and myth that has come down to us today as a mixture of “the land of trembling earth,” the movie “Swamp Water,” and the antics of the swamp animals in the beloved Pogo comic strip. But it was a real-life problem for Ellicott. To run that line to its eastern terminus, he had to determine where swamp ended and river began.

To avoid clashes with the Seminoles who were increasingly hostile to surveying parties dividing the land between the United States and Spain, Ellicott sent most of his men eastward on foot to the riverside settlement of St. Marys. Ellicott sailed with the rest of his party and the instruments on a schooner around Florida to rendezvous with them there. Then the mapping task began, not on foot but by canoe upriver. If you have crossed the Okefenokee on a multi-day paddle, it’s a wonderful outing in wild nature. Ellicott’s paddle was strictly business. He and his men paddled back and forth, into and out of the swamp, until Ellicott was satisfied that he had located the St. Marys headwaters – where swamp became river. The survey party marked the site with a mound of soil which came to be known as “Ellicott’s Mound.” Now supplemented with an official federal benchmark, Ellicott’s Mound can even be located on Google Maps simply by entering its name.

Boundaries – natural and artificial – continue to influence management of the St. Marys watershed. Along its length, the river is bordered by two Georgia counties – Camden and Charlton – and two Florida counties – Nassau and Baker. Because they border both on the Atlantic and the more navigable sections of the St. Marys, Nassau and Camden historically have had higher population densities, which have only increased with the advent of coastal tourism and development. Charlton and Baker have remained more sparsely populated, although each is facing a growing need to implement smart planning and sustainable development.

According to Anna Laws, St. Marys Riverkeeper, a key to managing the watershed holistically is the St. Marys River Management Committee, composed of representatives from all four county commissions, their technical staff, private citizens, and entities like the Riverkeeper. All the counties are focused on improving water quality in the watershed. According to Laws, “These counties have porous soil and a shallow water table, especially in periods of heavy rainfall. So throughout the watershed, all the counties are grappling with high fecal coliform counts and nutrient inflow into the river. Traditionally, the more sparsely populated rural counties have relied on septic tanks for sewage treatment. In the past, homes along the river tended to be concentrated in fishing communities or privately-owned cabins used sporadically on weekends and vacations. Now more people are buying these sites and converting them for use as single-family, year-round homes.  If tanks are not pumped out on a three to five-year interval, the older septic systems simply can’t keep up with the demand on them.”

One innovative approach by Camden County and the Riverkeeper was obtaining grant funding to cover the cost of pumping out or replacing old septic systems bordering Horsepen Creek, a St. Marys tributary. The drop in fecal coliform counts was immediate and long-lasting.

An additional role that the Riverkeeper has taken on is water-quality monitoring throughout the watershed. “Our efforts are focused on supplementing the states’ monitoring programs. We are developing a baseline data-set both to look for monthly trends and, especially, to identify ‘hotspots’ in need of timely action. We have trained high school students and their teachers to conduct water quality monitoring tests so that they become our eyes on the watershed.”

Whether at the coast or inland, all four counties face the potential for explosive population growth, particularly because of the St. Marys’ proximity to northward sprawl from Jacksonville and Duval County. However, the needs of the counties are different. According to Laws, “Nassau and Camden Counties are densely developed and now must grapple with the results of past laissez-faire growth which has produced congestion and over-taxed wastewater treatment facilities. As counties in the immediate coastal zone, they also now are more focused on flood planning, either due to hurricane impacts or long-term sea-level rise. At a different stage of development, Charlton and Baker would welcome growth, as long as it’s smart growth and not at the expense of losing natural amenities or in repeating the mistakes made elsewhere.”

But desires for smart growth could be overwhelmed by powerful economic interests. Like many rural counties around the South, Charlton County is grappling with disposal of coal-ash waste from power plants. Despite the toxic heavy-metal content of coal ash, Georgia currently regulates coal-ash waste disposal no more stringently than it does household garbage. South of Folkston, the Chesser Island Road Landfill continues to receive ash not only from Georgia but also from a plant in Puerto Rico. That ash arrives via bulk-cargo ships which dock near Jacksonville and offload the ash into dump-trucks for transport to the landfill – a site less than five miles east of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.

An additional threat to the Okefenokee, the St. Marys, and potentially the water supply for the whole region is the proposed expansion of surface mining. According to Laws, “Mining heavy minerals concentrated in the sands of ancient beach ridges has been carried out for many years at a relatively small scale in the region. However, this new proposal envisions an extremely large mine site close to the Okefenokee with unknown impacts to the hydrology of the swamp and the St. Marys, our invaluable groundwater supply, and impacts on endangered and threatened species.” Currently the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering whether or not the proposal requires an environmental impact statement before its approval.

The St. Marys ties Camden County’s coast to the wild places it shares with Charlton County. For many years, the Okefenokee has been a tourist destination, not just to see alligators and cypress but to also for visitors to envision what the earliest people arriving there might have seen in 3,500 B.C.E.  To help build the sustainable growth of ecotourism in the region, the St. Marys Riverkeeper is in the process of working with the counties to improve access to the river by developing riverside parks and installing more boat ramps and canoe/kayak launch sites.

According to Laws, “Between Folkston and Moniac, which is close to the headwaters, there are not many places to get onto the St. Marys and enjoy what its blackwaters and riparian forests have to offer.  We’re currently working with Georgia River Network to expand access to paddling north of Folkston, the traditional head of navigation for traders plying the river.”

And so, maybe soon you will be able to re-enact Ellicott’s decision 220 years ago on where to draw the line — where a swamp becomes a river.

St. Marys Riverkeeper has two conservation projects underway that need philanthropic support. The first is the outreach program to educate homeowners along the watershed on best septic system maintenance practices. The second is the expansion of the water quality monitoring program to include not only bacterial tracking but also the collection of chemical and macroinvertebrate data. To support these efforts, contact Anna Laws at

Wildlife and Recreation on the St. Marys River

By Burch Barger

From its cypress and bottomland hardwood swamps to its salt marshes and mud flats, the St. Marys Basin provides habitat for a diversity and abundance of animals and plants. There is a large diversity of native tree species found in the basin, including bald cypress, several species of pine, sweetgum and tupelo gum, southern and sweetbay magnolia, red maple, several species of holly, tulip poplar, Carolina willow, river birch, and a variety of oaks. Wildlife in this area includes white-tailed deer, river otters, beavers, raccoons, alligators, gopher tortoises, wild turkeys and ribbon snakes. The middle portion of the river supports black bears, bobcats and the red-cockaded woodpecker.

The St. Marys River offers many opportunities for recreation and sightseeing. Canoeing, boating, fishing, and camping are just some of the ways to enjoy the river. The upper reaches of the St. Marys – the north and middle prongs – are narrow, twisting streams with good current and beautiful cypress and tupelo trees. After the two prongs meet, the river becomes wider and is characterized by bluffs, swamps and snow-white sandbars. Development along the banks is scattered and infrequent and campsites are plentiful. Popular sportfish include redbreast sunfish, bluegill, largemouth bass and various catfish.

If you are looking for a nice spot to start a kayak trip on the St. Marys — or perhaps just a scenic picnic locale — Riverkeeper Anna Laws shares, “Traders Recreation Area in Folkston is located near the Okefenokee Swamp and has a campground. For advanced paddlers, this section of river is lovely!” Once a fort and settlement, Traders Hill today is a 32-acre recreation park on the banks of the St. Marys River where visitors can launch a boat, camp, fish, swim, or enjoy the natural beauty of the river.

Coastal Conservation in a Pandemic—Manomet: Finding Solace in Nature

By Abby Sterling

With all of the uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, there is a tremendous amount of solace to be found in nature. As Manomet’s shorebird biologist for the Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative, I am being kept busy with our nesting shorebirds, like American Oystercatchers and Wilson’s Plovers, and our migrating shorebirds that are heading up to the Arctic, like Red Knots and Dunlin. Ever an optimist, I look for silver linings in every situation. While this crisis highlights many challenges for all of us in the non-profit world, there have been some interesting opportunities as well.

I’ve been working on a project with partners from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), National Audubon and Virginia Tech to better understand how both birds and people use our publicly accessible beaches. This March, while the beaches were closed for two weeks, I was able to continue monitoring. And while that short window wasn’t enough time to see a true shift in how the birds were using the beaches, we did see Wilson’s Plovers starting to explore sites where we had not observed them nesting before. Tybee Island, normally so busy with people, had hundreds of Tree Swallows roosting on the empty beach. During one survey, I saw three Black-necked Stilts at the surf, a long-legged black and white shorebird that is typically found in quiet beach ponds or impoundments. And at another site, just last week, a Wilson’s Plover nest hatched all three eggs, and now fuzzy chicks are zipping around on a beach that is still closed to the public.

We’ve also been so lucky that we are able to work with our partners to continue to prioritize data collection and management, while carefully following local ordinances and health guidelines. We were able to install symbolic fencing at Gould’s Inlet on St. Simons Island to protect nesting Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns, many volunteers are still collecting International Shorebird Surveys, and we are coordinating an evening count of Whimbrels this week. Every evening at sunset, Whimbrels leave the marshes where they feast on fiddler crabs and fly to remote sandbars to roost for the evening where they can be safe from disturbance and predators. It is an incredible spectacle that lasts through May, until the well-fed Whimbrels fly to the Arctic to nest. The Whimbrel count is part of a project supported by NFWF to determine what sites could serve as long-term counting locations to help us better monitor the populations of this declining species.

At Manomet, we’ve been working hard to fill in the gaps that were generated by cancelled events and talks to connect with people digitally. Some of you may have tuned in for our Whimbrel webinar, which can be accessed here, and we hope to have more of these offerings in the future. We are working hard to continue building strong connections within our communities to address some of the most pressing challenges that shorebirds face in our region. We are using this time to continue planning programs to reduce recreational disturbance, build partnerships to support habitat protection and conservation, and raise awareness for the fragile resources that exist within the Georgia Bight. To support our efforts, please click here, and specify in the comment space that you’d like your gift to be designated for Georgia’s shorebirds.

We thank you for your interest, and we look forward to the next time we can all be together safely!

Coastal Conservation in a Pandemic—One Hundred Miles: Prioritizing Advocacy and Education

By Burch Barger

With the Georgia legislature suspended due to the Coronavirus pandemic and local volunteers and donors sheltering in place, the rhythm and location of Megan Desrosiers’ work as President and CEO of One Hundred Miles has changed.  But the mission has not. Megan and her staff remain committed to protecting our coast – “no matter when, no matter what” – and the necessary work of coastal conservation, in the forms of both advocacy and education, continues in the midst of this uncertain time.

On the state level, bills addressing coal ash, flood risk reduction projects, and land use restrictions in the Satilla River watershed are all still alive in the General Assembly. During this temporary hiatus, Megan and her staff continue to work at the grassroots level to ensure these issues remain priorities when the session reconvenes.  On the local level, One Hundred Miles continues to advocate against the proposed Spaceport in Camden County, to advocate for responsible revisions to the rural zoning ordinance in Glynn County, to push for cleanup of superfund sites in Glynn County, and to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from proposed nearby mining.

For coastal stewards who are eager to brush up on their ecological education and/or to connect with fellow conservationists while still sheltering at home, One Hundred Miles offers a variety of online programming. There are three weekly programs for digital nature education, including Nature in Your Neighborhood, Family Nature Friday, and Animals, Authors and Art. One Hundred Miles also facilitates an environmental book club that meets online and organizes advocacy workshops that are conducted virtually. For more information, visit their Facebook page.

One Hundred Miles is not immune to the economic impacts of Coronavirus. After taking difficult measures to reduce overhead costs and to stretch donor dollars to the farthest extent possible, Megan remains positive. She believes that, with the continued generosity of conservation donors, One Hundred Miles will be better and stronger in the long run.  To support the ongoing advocacy and education work of One Hundred Miles and to ensure the long term viability of this important organization, visit their website or call Megan Desrosiers at (912) 223-8608.