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.

Challenging the Storage of Coal Ash In Wayne County Landfill

Coastal residents and conservation organizations are continuing to challenge plans for a Wayne County landfill to accept up to 10,000 tons of coal ash per day from neighboring states.  This represents a more than 500% increase of their current daily intake of 1,800 tons of municipal solid waste.

The Broadhurst Landfill is nestled within a complicated system of connected wetlands and sits squarely between the pristine Satilla and Altamaha Rivers, just south of Jesup. The proposed quantity of coal ash to be moved into this small landfill combined with the hydrology of the area presents a significant threat to the region’s drinking water, groundwater and wetlands.  In addition to the massive influx of coal ash, there is concern about how to protect the surrounding wetlands from coal ash being washed off of 100+ rail cars a day at a proposed washing station adjacent to the landfill.

Coal ash storage is a problem all across the South where coal fired power plants have produced hundreds of thousands of tons of toxin-laden waste.  Much of the region’s coal ash is stored in a wet form or “slurry” in large ponds or lagoons adjacent to major rivers.  These pools are often unlined allowing contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, thallium, and selenium to leach into the rivers and underlying groundwater.  Activists all over the country are fighting to have coal ash moved from storage ponds to lined landfills.  Although the Broadhurst Landfill is lined, it is surrounded by wetlands and has a relatively high water table.  Flooding of the landfill presents the greatest risk as it would likely result in toxic coal ash washing into the Altamaha and Satilla Rivers and impairing wildlife that are regularly harvested from these rivers for food. If Broadhurst’s lining were inadequate or compromised, coal ash toxins could also leach into underlying groundwater thereby compromising the area’s drinking supply.

The Board of the Department of Natural Resources passed new rules on October 26 that regulate the storage of coal ash in Georgia.  While regulations were needed, the new rules lack necessary protections for communities living around Muncipal Solid Waste Landfills such as Broadhurst.  One Hundred Miles and fellow members of the Georgia Water Coalition are working to build support for a state legislative amendment that addresses the loophole that allows coal ash to be stored en masse in Municipal Solid Waste landfills.  This will likely become an issue of concern for local communities throughout Georgia’s coastal region.  For more information on how you can help, please visit the One Hundred Miles website:  http://www.onehundredmiles.org/coal-ash-in-wayne-county/

ILLUSTRATION BY POWELL

Coming to a Screen Near You: “Cultivating The Wild: William Bartram’s Travels”

More than two centuries have passed since the publication of botanist William Bartram’s Travels in 1791. Bartram’s descriptions of his journey through the American South between 1773 and 1777 continue to ignite the imagination of those who love nature and the thrill of discovery. In addition to Bartram’s catalogue of the region’s flora and fauna, Travels also contains some of the first written descriptions of early American society and the culture of both Cherokee and Creek Indians. A moral visionary, Bartram countered the notion of American Indians being “savage” and in need of civilization. His writings are still examined by scientists and historians seeking a better understanding of the Southeast.

A new documentary film, “Cultivating The Wild: William Bartram’s Travels,” is now in production.  Co-produced by Eric Breitenbach and Dorinda Dallmeyer, the film presents a scholarly examination of the scientist’s life and work as well as a meditation on what has come to pass in the more than two hundred and twenty years since Bartram traversed the pre-Colonial South.  The differences between the landscape Bartram experienced and described and what we know today are striking.  Sadly, the region’s natural resources have suffered mightily from neglect and exploitation. The film will make a committed stand for protecting our natural world by telling Bartram’s story and the stories of select modern day “Bartrams” – people who continue his work and philosophies today.

This independent film is being made possible by the dedication of its co-producers and the generosity of a host of donors who contributed over $30,000 by way of a “Kickstarter” campaign. With its focus on bringing creative projects to life, Kickstarter.com is one of several web-based crowdfunding platforms where entrepreneurs seek financial support for their projects and ventures from a large number of people.  It’s estimated that crowdfunding campaigns generated over $34 billion in 2015.

The Bartram Kickstarter campaign drew support from as far away as Iceland and India and included contributions from direct descendants of the Bartram family.  The project also has strong coastal ties.  William Bartram visited Wormsloe Plantation with his father, John Bartram, 251 years ago in 1765. William returned to Savannah in April of 1773 to spend a full year exploring the natural communities along the coast of Georgia. He left us with a rich legacy of our biological heritage. Reinforcing the durability of ties to William Bartram in coastal Georgia are substantial donations to this film from the Wormsloe Foundation and the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History.

If you are interested in learning more about the project or making donations to defray post-production costs, please visit the film’s website: www.cultivatingthewild.com.

ILLUSTRATION: WILLIAM BARTRAM, TRAVELS

The Mixson Family and St. Catherines Island

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

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

PHOTO BY CHRISTA HAYES

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO BY SARAH EDDY WASSAW ISLAND 1866

Crowdfunding an ATB: Shorebird Conservation On Cumberland Island ($6,500 In, $3,500 To Go!)

During the 2016 Conservation Donors Roundtable, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) announced the award of a $75,000 grant to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Non-Game Division (DNR) and several partners for monitoring, studying, and protecting shorebirds along the Georgia Coast.  Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist with DNR, will administer the program on behalf of a partnership that includes St. Catherine’s Island, Little St. Simons Island, Cumberland Island, Jekyll Island, TNC-Georgia, VA Tech, UGA, and DNR.  Partners have committed both financial and in-kind support to the multi-year effort.

Cumberland Island will be an important venue for the project because it supports nesting habitat for shorebirds that are declining in many areas.  Up to now, only limited shorebird conservation work has been done on Cumberland Island due to limited resources.  The NFWF grant will allow DNR to place a conservation technician on Cumberland for regular monitoring of beach nesting shorebirds.  But one obstacle remains!  The technician will need an all-terrain vehicle for monitoring the nearly 18 miles of beach on Cumberland. Unfortunately, the project budget does not include funding for this equipment.

Here’s where we come in!  Conservation donors are working together to raise $10,000 to purchase the vehicle and associated equipment and, in turn, donate it to DNR for dedicated use for shorebird conservation work on Cumberland Island.  The vehicle will enable the new conservation technician to monitor critical nesting activity by American Oystercatchers, Wilson’s Plovers and Least Terns.  It is expected that the technician’s activities will include posting signs and rope barriers to keep people away from critical habitat, assisting with predator management, and helping with banding adult and hatchling Oystercatchers.  Without the ATV, it will be impossible to address these needs across the entire 18 mile stretch of beach.

Thus far, conservation donors associated with Stewards of the Georgia Coast have contributed $6,500 to the project.  In the spirit of crowdfunding, we’re calling on others within the Stewards network to contribute.  Any amount will make a difference!

The Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation has offered its Conservation Fund as a vehicle for donations. Make an online donation at coastalgeorgiafoundation.org or send your check to Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation, ATTN:  Coastal Conservation, 1626 Frederica Road, Suite 201, St. Simons Island, GA  31522.

PHOTO BY BRAD WINN

$1 Million Challenge Grant Fuels Musgrove Campaign

An anonymous donor took major action this July with a $1 million challenge grant to the St. Simons Land Trust’s Campaign to Preserve Musgrove. “Now is the time to take care of this island,” he said, citing land conservation as a great way for folks to make a positive impact on St. Simons Island and retain the island’s natural and cultural character for the future. All additional gifts to the Campaign through January 31, 2017 will be matched by this pledge, up to $1 million. The anonymous donor is a St. Simons resident and longtime supporter of the Land Trust. This gift would be the donor’s largest to both the St. Simons Island community and to conservation.

The Land Trust campaign will preserve 260 acres of the Musgrove property.  The large, mid-island tract includes more than 200 acres of mature maritime forest, pond pine flatwoods, and rare plants.  The positive impact of preserving Musgrove benefits not only the immediate area of the St. Simons Island, but extends to the Altamaha River’s estuary and delta, five miles to the north, linking conservation lands on barrier islands to the south with the extensive Altamaha River corridor. This alone endows the land with the highest priority for protection.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) agreed in December to hold a conservation easement on the property. “The Musgrove property is a significant addition of habitat to the permanently protected lands in the Altamaha estuary and the entire coast,” said Jason Lee, program manager in DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division. “The state-held conservation easement guarantees proper management of these priority habitats,” he added. “Georgia DNR is excited to partner with the Land Trust in this conservation effort.”

Once acquired, the St. Simons Land Trust will open Musgrove to the public to provide a multi-faceted experience for learning about the island’s natural history and ecology with low-impact recreation through three miles of trails as well as waterfront access.

The Musgrove property will be a compelling neighbor to the Land Trust’s 600-acre Cannon’s Point Preserve. Between these two properties, there lies a unique opportunity on rapidly developing St. Simons Island to establish a three-mile wilderness corridor where shorelines are relatively undeveloped, maritime forest remains untouched, and varied wildlife thrive.

“I have been inspired by the Land Trust’s vision for a wilderness corridor on the north end of St. Simons, bookended by Cannon’s Point and Musgrove,” says Wendy Paulson, who has contributed significant time and resources to the preservation of Cannon’s Point.  “They offer residents and visitors the opportunity to experience what I call ‘Georgia Primeval,’ an opportunity increasingly unavailable in our highly developed, highly tech-centric society.”

The St. Simons Land Trust has raised $5.9 million towards its $11 million goal for Musgrove, with a lead gift of $2 million from the National Coastal Wetlands Competitive Grants Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When new donors help the Land Trust claim the $1 million matching opportunity, the campaign will be within 30% of the goal with $7.9m raised.

To learn more and co-invest in the Campaign to Preserve Musgrove, please call the St. Simons Land Trust at 912-638-9109 or visit www.sslt.org.

PHOTO BY H2O CREATIVE GROUP