The Gopher Tortoise: A Catalyst for Conservation

When a conservation initiative protects an at-risk species and business and industry interests at the same time, it’s a win-win for Georgians across the board.  The Gopher Tortoise Initiative does just that.  Supporters for this collaborative effort include federal and state agencies, private landowners, non-profits, donors and business leaders from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.  The consortium’s goal is to permanently protect 100,000 acres of gopher tortoise habitat across Georgia’s coastal plain, preventing Georgia’s state reptile from getting to the point of needing to be listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as an endangered species. Though early in the effort, the group is already delivering uncommon results.

The problem for gopher tortoises is habitat loss. Tortoise populations need large parcels of undeveloped land and only remnants remain of their native longleaf pine and sandhill ecosystems.  In the face of increasing fragmentation from development – roads, parking lots, and buildings – they can’t find sufficient burrow space or food and are more likely to experience risks associated with close contact with humans and their vehicles.  “They get pushed from the small patches of suitable habitat to the sandy roadsides of timberlands or agricultural fields,” explains Jason Lee, Program Manager for Coastal Nongame Conservation with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “It is dire.  In 20-30 years they could be pushed out altogether from many areas…gone.”

The tortoises are considered a keystone species because their burrows provide shelter and refuge for hundreds of other species of animals, including the Eastern indigo snake, the gopher frog, and many small mammals, insects and birds. When the tortoise populations decline, so does the habitat of  many other plants and animals.

If the tortoise population was at the point of needing to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, significant regulatory requirements could drain energy, resources and enthusiasm from efforts to facilitate the species’ recovery. The Gopher Tortoise Initiative unites landowners, timber growers and businesses across the state to proactively enhance gopher tortoise populations and habitats.  The result is a powerful convergence:  everyone’s working together to prevent the listing.  What’s good for the gopher tortoise is good for landowners, businesses, and an entire ecosystem. If successful, they will also be conserving iconic habitats on a historic scale, demonstrating how tortoises, landowners, and industry can coexist.

With generous commitments of financial resources and expertise from founding team members including U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, and conservation donors including the Knobloch Family Foundation and the Bobolink Foundation, the Gopher Tortoise Initiative is well on its way. “We are more than half way to our goal,” said Jason Lee. “Thirty six of the sixty five properties we have identified as suitable tortoise habitat are now under conservation easements or have been acquired fee simple. One of our most recent acquisitions, the Altama Wildlife Management Area, located on the coastal mainland along the south bank of the Altamaha River, currently has a population of 182 tortoises with room for the population to expand.  Another property just up river, Sansavilla, has 400 tortoises.”

“Our goal is to protect gopher tortoise habitat now, while lands are still available that can be managed to sustain healthy populations,” said Lee.  He explained that the investment we make today in protecting their habitat will eliminate the need for costly impact studies and mitigation that could be required in the future if the gopher tortoise is listed as an endangered species.  “We have a rare opportunity in that we have time to fix this,” he said.  “It’s good conservation.”

“The gopher tortoise habitat won’t recreate itself,” said Lee. “Management efforts will be necessary, such as prescribed burning, removal of woody undergrowth, longleaf pine tree planting, and restoration of native grasses, and there are costs involved with that.” The Gopher Tortoise Initiative includes the establishment of a fund that will be used to help cover the costs of habitat restoration.

Carl W. Knobloch, Jr., a philanthropist and major supporter of the Gopher Tortoise Initiative, who passed away in 2016, believed “the preservation of natural ecosystems is critical to the continued economic strength of the country, as well as the health of all Americans.”  The Gopher Tortoise Initiative presents the opportunity for donors, large and small, to invest in the preservation of a rare species and, at the same time, an entire ecosystem.  From co-investment in the Initiative’s land protection goals to operating support for the non-profit partners, there’s a place for everyone to make a meaningful contribution.  For a list of participating organizations, click here.

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.

Private Philanthropy Fuels Applied Research at Wormsloe

A highly collaborative restoration effort is underway at Wormsloe, a historic plantation site on the Isle of Hope near Savannah, Georgia.  Entering its third year, the objective is to restore a native, maritime longleaf pine community and monitor effects of sea level changes on this rare habitat. Longleaf pine communities were once dominant across the coastal plain and they support a great diversity of plant and animal life, an estimated 100-300 species per acre.  This long-term restoration and research effort will inform future conservation taking place along the Georgia coast.

The project is funded by philanthropists Craig & Diana Barrow and the Wormsloe Foundation.  The Barrows are long-time donors to coastal conservation efforts and they’ve been particularly supportive of applied research – scientific inquiry designed to inform real-time conservation practices.  Craig Barrow observed, “As the ninth generation to own and live at Wormsloe, we have a very strong sense of stewardship. Diana and I believe that if Wormsloe is going to exist for future generations it has to be driven by research and education.”

Wormsloe’s longleaf restoration project has been made possible with assistance from the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, the Longleaf Alliance, and the Georgia university system. “It is a multi-disciplinary effort,” said Sarah Ross, Director of Education and Research for the Wormsloe Foundation. “The State Botanical Gardens of Georgia in Athens supplied us with 4,000 seedlings.  In addition, we collected seeds from native understory species on the nearby barrier islands of Sapelo, St. Catherines, and Little St. Simons.”  Jon Calabria, Assistant Professor at the UGA College of Environment and Design heads the restoration team.  Landscape architects from the Odum School of Ecology set up research plots to study seedling survival rates and the success of different native grasses in the understory. Students from Savannah Country Day School, whose science program partners with Wormsloe, planted left over seedlings on their campus.

“We are also using emerging research tools to create 3-D models to forecast the effects of changing sea levels on longleaf,” said Ross.  “With this research, we are getting the type of data that will enable us to ask and answer more sophisticated questions about the impacts of sea level rise.  This will inform and help guide conservation efforts elsewhere on the coast.”  Three years in, the project is coming along nicely.  “We’ve had our first prescribed burn and the seedlings are doing well,” reports Sarah Ross, “They are looking green and robust.”

This type of applied research and similar projects conducted at Wormsloe is a vital component of coastal conservation.  Lessons learned from these projects will inform conservation management practices, restoration efforts, and policy making.  The Barrows’ commitment of charitable resources to this type of research has great implications that extend far beyond the boundaries of their property.

Crowdfunding Produces Win for Shorebird Conservation

Thirteen donors joined forces in a crowdfunding effort to raise $10,000 toward equipment needed for shorebird conservation on Cumberland Island.  The concept emerged during the 2016 Conservation Donors Roundtable when it was announced that the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) had awarded $75,000 for the first year of a 3 year collaborative shorebird conservation effort led by Georgia DNR’s Non-Game section.  With NFWF funding and in-kind support from partners the project had everything needed for Year 1 except a four wheel drive all terrain vehicle (ATV) for use on Cumberland Island and trail cameras.  An ATV is essential for covering Georgia’s longest beach — nearly 18 miles.  High definition, infrared cameras are needed for placement near nests to confirm cause(s) of breeding failure or success.

With the donated funds, a new Kawasaki 4×4 “Mule” was purchased and delivered to Tim Keyes of Georgia DNR’s Non-Game section along with nine Cuddeback E2 IR Long Range Trail Cameras.  The beautiful thing about crowdfunding this type of project is that every dollar matters.  Gifts ranged from $250 to $2,000 and included matching grants from two private foundations.  The following conservation donors contributed to the project’s success:  a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, Boog & Sam Candler, Beth Holder, Wanda Hopkins, Cody Laird and the Dobbs Foundation, Jeannie Kauffman Manning, Joe Massey, Jim & Sally Morgens and the Morgens West Foundation, and David Weitnauer.

The project’s success is also due to growing collaborative efforts by the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation (CCGF) and Stewards of the Georgia Coast.  Many thanks to Paul White, CEO of CCGF and his predecessor, Valerie Hepburn.

Crowdfunding bears out the old adage: many hands make for light philanthropic work!

Donors Learn Together: Right Whales & Philanthropy

An enthusiastic group of 55 participated in the 2nd Annual Conservation Donors Roundtable on March 9th at the A. W. Jones Heritage Center on St. Simons Island.  Co-sponsored by Stewards of the Georgia Coast and the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation, the Roundtable is an opportunity for donors to learn together about coastal conservation and the varied ways that donors go about their conservation philanthropy.

This year’s program featured conservation efforts on behalf of Georgia’s state marine mammal, the North Atlantic Right Whale.  The speaker was Clay George, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Nongame Conservation Section and Coordinator of DNR’s Marine Mammal Program.

With a population estimated at roughly 450, right whales’ status as a critically endangered species is a legacy of the commercial whaling industry.  Contemporary threats include entanglement with fishing gear and collisions with ships, though the latter has been diminished somewhat by the adoption of mandatory speed limits.

Right whales spend much of the year in waters off Canada and New England but they migrate each winter to the Georgia and Florida coasts to give birth.  DNR biologists, along with their partners at NOAA, Florida Fish & Wildlife and Sea to Shore Alliance, monitor the population by flying aerial surveys and doing research from small boats.  They are particularly interested in documenting calving rates and searching for whales that arrive entangled in commercial fishing rope.  When possible, they work to free the whales by cutting away heavy rope and other gear, much of which originates in Canada and New England.  (View a dramatic video that captures such a rescue.)

When asked about options for funding right whale conservation, George explained three options.  “Georgia residents can purchase hummingbird and bald eagle license plates for their vehicles.  Donors can make contributions via T.E.R.N. (The Environmental Resources Network), the friends group which raises funds for DNR’s Nongame program.  They can also contribute directly to right whale conservation by supporting Sea to Shore Alliance, a small nonprofit that runs our aerial survey project.”

Following Clay George’s presentation, a donor panel featured Walter & Judy Hoyt, longtime donors to Georgia DNR’s Nongame program. With a shared interest in science and nature and a love of the outdoors, it’s not surprising that conservation philanthropy has been a longtime passion.  Reflecting on their philanthropy, they emphasized the importance of volunteerism with their children and observed they they’ve typically provided philanthropic support for organizations for which they volunteered first.  Having vacationed on Sea Island over the years, the Hoyts have been impressed with DNR’s nongame conservation work which is funded primarily by federal grants, license plate revenues and private donations.  True to form, Walter volunteers as a board member of T.E.R.N.  Nongame DNR’s friend’s group has become the Hoyts’ primary vehicle for conservation philanthropy on the coast.