Altama Office

Coastal Conservation Project List 2.0 – Featured Project: Altama Conservation Gateway – Master Site Plan

($2,500 committed/$27,500 needed)

In 2015, The Nature Conservancy acquired 4000 acres in the Altamaha watershed, strategically positioned where the river meets the salt marsh in Glynn County—the historic Altama tract. Today, the property is owned and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as the Altama Wildlife Management Area with The Nature Conservancy as a permanent resident. In addition to the extraordinary landscape, Altama is home to historic buildings and other structures. Given the location of the property and the opportunity these structures represent, TNC plans to explore a restoration of the facilities and the possibility of using the buildings for management purposes, research and to anchor a coastal conservation center to be known as the Altama Conservation Gateway.

Altama is strategically located to become a Gateway for the Coast and a Center for conservation, land management and coastal resources education in the region. A Master Site Plan for the property and core building area is needed to engage stakeholders and donors in the planning process. The planning process would include but not be limited to assembling and digitizing information on the property’s natural, historical and cultural features; artist renderings of the project; formation of an advisory committee to assess historical structures, landscaping, public use and conservation issues related to the transformation of the property; conceptualization of programs outside of traditional conservation such as historic preservation efforts, cultural and artistic uses of the center, and a collaboration with the region’s robust tourism industry; and, an economic analysis that considers the cost to bring the buildings to usable condition, ongoing maintenance expenses, and potential for revenue generation. For more information or to make a contribution, contact Christi Lambert at 912-617-0143 or clambert@tnc.org. Christi serves as the Director of Coastal and Marine Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia.

View the Coastal Conservation Project List.

Photo by Scott Coleman

Willow Passage

Georgia’s Coastal Watersheds, Part II: The Ogeechee

By Dorinda Dallmeyer

High in the Georgia Piedmont south of Union Point and Siloam, springs rise in two pastures to form the Ogeechee. Unlike most of Georgia’s rivers, whose headwaters are composed of creeks and streams bearing their own names, the Ogeechee is the Ogeechee all 250 miles from its springs to the sea.

The Ogeechee is one of the few Georgia rivers not held back by high dams to create major impoundments for hydropower and recreation.  But Piedmont settlers knew how to put the river to work. Where small waterfalls interrupted the river’s flow, enterprising locals constructed low mill dams to harness energy for everything from grinding corn to weaving fabric.

Dorinda WillowsBelow the Fall Line, the Ogeechee begins its meandering path to the Atlantic. Its slow-moving “black” waters offer plenty of opportunities for fishing and boating. But where the river bends, the Ogeechee narrows and trees crowd its banks. Willows grow so thickly on both banks of the river that a paddler may realize for the first time that willow leaves have a lovely fragrance. On the other hand, powerful currents carving the meanders undercut the bordering trees. Eventually they fall, clogging downstream passage with “strainers” that require either a portage around the obstacle or a saw to cut through it.

The wide floodplain of the lower Ogeechee is studded with thick stands of cypress. Along the riverbanks grow Ogeechee tupelos, first described by William Bartram in 1765. In flower these trees supply rich nectar for honeybees to process into tupelo honey. The fruit — the so-called Ogeechee “lime” — offers a tangy juice eaten right off the tree or when made into jelly. The cypress and tupelos also provide a stronghold for one of the south’s most elegant birds, swallowtail kites.

According to Ogeechee Riverkeeper Simona Perry, “Despite the impression of a largely rural landscape, this region of Georgia is experiencing increased development pressure from population growth, water withdrawals, and wastewater discharges as well as from climatic changes leading to sea level rise. These pressures are causing dramatic changes in water quality and quantity and threaten serious ecological decline.” But Perry is undaunted. “Ogeechee Riverkeeper continues to stand alongside local communities in this fight to ensure that our children have clean waterways, abundant wildlife and fisheries, and healthy communities for at least seven more generations.”

Ogeechee Shoals at Fall LineOne of the largest landholders on the lower Ogeechee is the U.S. Army’s Ft. Stewart. Covering 274,000 acres, it is the largest military installation east of the Mississippi. In addition to protecting 14 miles along the river’s south bank, the base also encompasses a large portion of the Canoochee River watershed, the Ogeechee’s only major tributary. Working alongside state and federal agencies as well as private conservation groups such as the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and the Nature Conservancy, Ft. Stewart supports and manages populations of more than 20 state and/or federally-protected species. Some endangered or threatened species on the base include the red-cockaded woodpecker, the eastern indigo snake, the flatwoods salamander, the wood stork, and the shortnose sturgeon.

Very few people speeding south along I-95 probably glance west to notice the confluence of the Canoochee with the Ogeechee. Here the river widens and slows as the tide makes its presence felt. The river begins extravagant loops among the rectilinear remnants of rice field dikes, rice culture that once made coastal Georgia a world leader in exports. Flanked by saltmarsh, the Ogeechee finally meets the Atlantic between Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge and the Ossabaw Island Wildlife Management Area, protected at its very end as those waters from high in the Piedmont finally meet the sea.

The Ogeechee Storykeeper Project: Building Community for a River Less Travelled

By Dorinda G. Dallmeyer

Since the arrival of Paleo-Indians around 11,500 years ago, the Ogeechee watershed has been indispensable to its people. The late Jack Leigh knew the river was not just carving a path to the sea when he said,  “Water shapes our lives, and we are shaped by water.”

In 1984, it was Leigh who introduced the Ogeechee River to a world beyond its watershed in his book “The Ogeechee: A River and Its People” (University of Georgia Press). The book combined Leigh’s evocative photographs of the river and its people alongside stories gathered during two years in which he traced the length of the river. These stories revealed to Leigh that,  “The Ogeechee River is and always has been a sacred place, rooted in the hearts of its people.”

Since the 1980s, however, census figures reveal dramatic population shifts in the watershed. Some of Georgia’s fastest growing counties now span the Ogeechee tidewater, while many rural counties upstream are losing more people than they are gaining. How do the hearts of today’s people value the Ogeechee in the 21st century?

Thanks to a new project, recent arrivals and residents of long standing have another opportunity to speak about what the Ogeechee means to them. Building on Leigh’s legacy, the Ogeechee Riverkeeper and Georgia Southern University are working together to identify, collect, and share these stories. The Ogeechee Storykeeper Project seeks to ensure that the river’s unique cultures, histories, and ecosystems are documented and archived in a way that honors previous generations and helps to cultivate a new sense of community throughout the watershed.

According to Riverkeeper Simona Perry, “By connecting people along the river’s length through the power of story, we aim to strengthen community ownership and stewardship of the entire Ogeechee watershed.  Our project is a meaningful way for sharing knowledge and fostering understanding between present and future generations.”

For more information about the Ogeechee Storykeeper Project or to make a donation, contact Simona Perry at 866-942-6222, extension 1, or simona@ogeecheeriverkeeper.org.

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.

Sansavilla Conserved!

Protection of the lower Altamaha River began in 1968, piece by piece.  The pace accelerated in the last twelve years as federal and state agencies collaborated with non-profits and private philanthropy, investing more than $90 million to underwrite conservation easements and outright purchases.  The “missing piece,” a 19,500 acre property known as Sansavilla featuring 12 miles of Altamaha River frontage, is finally secure. A host of partners made it possible using a phased approach: The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Defense.  Private philanthropy played a critical role with leadership from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and the Knobloch Family Foundation. A ribbon cutting was held on October 16 to mark the closing of the final phase.

First as a footpath and then as a ferry landing, for centuries Sansavilla Bluff has been a waypoint for people crossing the immense Altamaha River floodplain. Now the Bluff serves as the linchpin in a decades-long effort to safeguard and restore the lower Altamaha.

At Sansavilla, slash and loblolly “pines in lines” are being cut or thinned to restore the once-dominant longleaf pine forest and its understory plants. With prescribed burns every few years to control competing vegetation, the rich plant diversity will support greater numbers of a wide variety of wildlife, including the gopher tortoise.

As a keystone species — one whose presence in the landscape enables other plants and animals to thrive — tortoises excavating burrows for their own living quarters draw as many as 350 species of animal “tenants,” from tiny mites to indigo snakes and burrowing owls. As testimony that Sansavilla is prime tortoise habitat, 400 tortoises already make their home there. Now the tract also will serve as a refuge for tortoises relocated from construction and mining sites elsewhere within their range. Ultimately, conservation biologists expect up to 1000 residents when restoration is complete.

While few of us will live to see the longleaf seedlings at Sansavilla Bluff reach their old-growth majesty, conservation success stories are happening right before our eyes along the Altamaha. A unique collaboration focused on conserving and restoring this historic landscape will benefit generations of Georgians yet to come.

For more information about the Gopher Tortoise Initiative and the crucial role tortoises play in the native longleaf pine and sandhill ecosystems, please see “The Gopher Tortoise: A Catalyst for Conservation,” in the previous issue of Shoreline.

Ribbon cutting photo by Lance Cpl. Moreno; Sansavilla Bluff photo by Scott Coleman.

Georgia Barrier Islands Named a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance

While few Georgians may realize how critical our coastal zone is to birds throughout the Western Hemisphere, the birds know.

On November 1, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve (WHSRN) announced the designation of a wide swath of Georgia’s barrier islands and marshes as a “Landscape of Hemispheric  Importance.” As the 100th site recognized for its importance to shorebird migration, it is only the third designated at the “landscape” scale. This new WHSRN Landscape comprises 79,709 acres of critical habitat including beaches and dunes, offshore sand bars, extensive sand and mud flats exposed at low tide, as well as salt marsh on the lee side of the barrier islands.

This Landscape supports 35 species of shorebirds during some part or all of their migratory cycle. To understand its importance, look at a few numbers. The Georgia Barrier Islands WHSRN Landscape supports more than 30% of the biogeographic population of rufa Red Knot, with approximately 23,400 of these birds resting and refueling during their southbound migration and 17,775 on the northbound return. The Landscape also supports large numbers of overwintering birds such as the Great Lakes breeding population of the Piping Plover, along with American Oystercatcher, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Black-bellied Plover. Attracted by the abundance of fiddler crabs, one of the largest gatherings of Whimbrel in North America assembles here to fatten up before departing for breeding grounds around Hudson Bay and in the high Arctic of the United States and Canada.

Georgia’s barrier islands are owned and managed by a diverse group of private and public entities, many of which have committed to the WHSRN designation. The Georgia Shorebird Alliance (GSA), a collaborative group of biologists, land managers, and organizations devoted to the protection of Georgia’s shorebirds, submitted the nomination. Commitment to the nomination comes from GSA members, including the National Parks Service (Cumberland Island National Seashore, Fort Pulaski National Monument), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex), and the privately-owned Little Cumberland Island, St. Catherine’s Island, Little St. Simons Island, and the Cannon’s Point Preserve and Musgrove Preserve on St. Simons Island. The Landscape of Hemispheric Importance also includes the Altamaha River Delta, previously designated in 1999 by WHSRN as a Site of Regional Importance.

Many of us cherish the opportunity to stroll Georgia beaches alongside flocks of small shorebirds, watching the “peeps” as they diligently patrol the swash zone for food. For more details about how these shorebirds stitch our coast into a web of vital connections stretching from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, please see https://www.whsrn.org/georgia-barrier-100th

Photos by Brad Winn.

Savannah River Cutoff Restoration Task Force: Can We Un-Straighten a River?

Fat Meat Point, Saucy Boy Point, High-Low-Jack-and-the-Game Point, Spanish Cut, Wildcat Cut, Devils Elbow, Royal Lake — names leap from old navigation charts tracing the Savannah River as it winds from Augusta to the Port of Savannah. But following a century of dredging to straighten the river, many names have been forgotten. Now a study is underway to gauge the feasibility of restoring water quality and wildlife by making the river wind once more.

Like other Coastal Plain rivers, the Savannah meanders, carving sweeping curves across its wide floodplain. In transporting Georgia commodities from the Piedmont to the sea, boatmen navigating these curves — the “points” — gave them their sometimes colorful names. With time, as a meander loops more tightly, the river erodes a shortcut across its neck — think “Wildcat Cut” — separating the meander from the river’s main flow. The meander then begins to silt in. Now connected to the river only during floods, a marooned meander transforms into an “oxbow” lake.

In an effort to keep the Savannah River competitive as a means for commercial transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regularly dredged its channels from the late 1800s until the completion of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam in 1937.  Dredging resumed from 1959 to 1976 and, in the process, the Corps cut through the necks of thirty-two meanders to shorten the distance from Augusta to Savannah by twenty-six miles. Ultimately, barge traffic couldn’t compete with cheaper, faster rail and truck transport and by the late 1970s, the Corps stopped maintaining this section of the river.

Unfortunately, channelization’s impacts remain. Consider that the longer distance a river flows, the cleaner it becomes. Meanders slow down the water to allow more time for good bacteria to clean it.  During floods, the river reconnects with oxbow lakes, those lost wetlands that help break down and assimilate toxins.  In short, an artificially straightened river impairs water quality.

The Savannah River’s water quality has been especially challenged by post-war population growth and industrial development in the Savannah Valley. The river now receives waste discharges from forty-eight industrial sites and municipalities along one hundred-mile stretch, ranking it third on the list for toxic loads in Georgia rivers. Poor water quality affects fish and other aquatic organisms, increases water treatment costs for industry and cities, and impairs the public’s ability to enjoy a wide variety of recreation on the river.

Elsewhere in the United States, restoration of natural meanders has provided substantial benefits to river corridors: cleaner, better oxygenated water; additional flood protection, improvement of fisheries and wildlife habitat; and new recreational and economic benefits.

Why not the Savannah?

A $3 million feasibility study slated for completion in 2019 should give us the answer. The Savannah River Cutoff Restoration Task Force includes federal and state agencies from Georgia and South Carolina, local municipalities like City of Augusta Utilities, the Georgia Ports Authority, non-governmental organizations, and for-profit businesses. The Savannah Riverkeeper and the Phinizy Center for Water Sciences serve as the non-federal sponsors for what Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus calls “a project of historic proportion: the potential restoration of 23 meanders.”

Half of the $3 million cost for the study comes from mitigation funds related to the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. But the feasibility study partners must raise the matching funds from non-federal sources. This presents a wonderful opportunity for conservation donors.  If you are interested in underwriting their work toward restoring this historic landscape, where place-names might no longer be only memories on a map, contact Tonya Bonitatibus at info@savannahriverkeeper.org

Photo by Savannah RiverKeeper; Illustration by Grabau, A Textbook of Geology, 1920.

Savannah River Clean Water Fund: Conserving Land for Clean Water

Floating along the Savannah River’s forested banks, you probably aren’t thinking “Wow, what a great water treatment facility!”

Maybe you should.

Nearly two-thirds of America’s clean water supply comes from stream flow cycled through forests. These natural systems filter runoff and break down contaminants, producing high-quality water to support human and industrial uses. And there’s economic value in this “green infrastructure” — it operates 24/7 and runs on sunshine. Shouldn’t we conserve these free ecosystem services and the land that provides them?

The vision for protecting the Lower Savannah watershed for the sake of long-term water quality goes back to 2009 when a group including conservation organizations, landowners, forestry companies, government agencies, and water utilities began exploring the idea.  With confidence in the premise, the Savannah River Clean Water Fund (SRCWF) was established in 2016 to coordinate the initiative.

According to Braye Boardman, SRCWF’s Executive Director, “If you ask people what the economic drivers are for Augusta and Savannah, they will list nearly everything but the river itself. We needed to change that. With approximately 75 percent forest cover here in the Savannah Valley, clean water costs our utilities about $40 million per million gallons to produce (based on data from a national study).  Without forest cover, these costs would nearly quadruple. Projections for accelerated population growth and industrial development along this river tell us we don’t have the luxury of taking thirty years to conserve our watershed like New York City did with the Hudson. Ultimately, communities around the world with an abundant, clean water supply will be the economic winners.”

The value proposition for water utilities is clear:  conserving land now and promoting better land management practices is less expensive that building water treatment capacity down the road.  So far, five water utilities have pledged a total of $1.133 million per year for three years toward land conservation, better land management practices, and science and research in the Savannah River valley.  In addition, municipal water utilities are key members of the SRCWF’s management and advisory structure along with state and federal agencies, land trusts, environmental NGOs, and philanthropic foundations. Boardman observed, ” Utilities around the country are beginning to look at investments in green infrastructure as part of their multi-tier strategy to provide quality drinking water to their customers.  But this is the first time water municipalities in two states, covering a 2.8 million acre watershed, have pooled resources together to protect their source-water and ensure a sustainable supply of clean water for generations to come. When utilities invest in clean water, they know they are investing in something important to their taxpayers and water users, especially if they can accomplish it in a more cost-effective manner,” according to Boardman.

Using maps generated by The Nature Conservancy, SRCWF has targeted 210,000 acres in the watershed as critical priorities for maintaining water quality, with a goal of protecting 8,000 acres annually.  The estimated cost over the life of the project is $52 million.  Unlike South Carolina, Georgia has no state conservation fund providing financial incentives for landowners to place their land under conservation easements or otherwise enhance protection for these critical acres.  As such, donors will play a critical role.

The project offers a compelling opportunity for conservation philanthropy. With core support from water utilities, SRCWF is committed to seeking annual matching funds to support land acquisition, conservation easements, deed restrictions, responsible land stewardship and land management practices, as well as education and scientific research related to water quality.  “We need to make the strongest pitch possible to landowners and to other funders that this is not just about conserving a landscape, wildlife, and the outdoors but also generating a real return on investment in the form of clean water — something that none of us can do without,” says Boardman. “By underwriting land conservation, we also can maintain and create family-supporting jobs in forestry and agriculture.”

For more information about SRCWF, please contact Braye Boardman at 706-530-5962.  Until SRCWF’s website is completed, a temporary site can be found at http://www.usendowment.org/ntmsrcwf.html.

Photos by Savannah RiverKeeper.

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….”

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.