October 1, 2019

Forest Conservation in Georgia's Coastal Plains Supports Threatened Gopher Tortoise Habitat

ATLANTA, Ga. — Today, The Conservation Fund, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced the permanent protection of more than 7,700 forestland acres in Georgia’s Coastal Plains region. Comprised of two properties, the land has been protected with conservation easements and is now part of two new state wildlife management areas (WMAs) providing numerous benefits, including increased public recreational opportunities, protected habitat for the gopher tortoise, longleaf pine restoration and support for local timber-based economies.

The two properties include:

  • 4,361 acres in Webster County, protected with an NRCS conservation easement and managed as the new Lanahassee Creek WMA.
  • 3,375 acres in Bulloch and Bryan counties, now protected with an NRCS conservation easement and added to the new Canoochee Sandhills WMA.

 

The Conservation Fund, in coordination with partners, purchased these lands as an initial step in a larger longleaf pine and gopher tortoise conservation strategy. Together, the Fund and partners are ensuring the protection of these large forestlands by helping NRCS acquire conservation easements on each property that permanently limits development, including further protection from DNR, and require longleaf pine restoration.

Lanahassee Creek WMA is open for the 2019-2020 hunting season. Work is being done to make Canoochee Sandhills WMA available, although an opening has not been scheduled, according to DNR. For details, see www.georgiawildlife.com and the 2019-2020 Hunting Seasons and Regulations guide.

Gopher tortoise habitat in the southeastern U.S. is highly threatened by development, conversion to non-forest uses and a lack of prescribed burning. These conditions put the gopher tortoise at risk of becoming a federally endangered species. Seen as a keystone species, the tortoise digs burrows that provide shelter for more than 350 other wildlife species.

“Considering that the gopher tortoise is a priority species in our State Wildlife Action Plan, one of DNR’s key conservation goals is to keep gopher tortoises as an integral part of south Georgia now and for future generations,” DNR Commissioner Mark Williams said. “These properties, with the habitat they offer for tortoises and hundreds of other native animals and plants, plus the outdoor recreation opportunities they provide the public, is a tremendous step toward that goal.”

NRCS provided a major source of funding for the conservation and restoration efforts via a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) award to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (Endowment). The award allowed NRCS to acquire Healthy Forest Reserve Program (HFRP) conservation easements on these properties. The RCPP is a voluntary program that supports collaborative projects by leveraging partner resources to improve wildlife habitat, soil and water quality, and other natural resource values. The HFRP helps landowners restore, enhance and protect forestland resources on private lands through conservation easements and financial assistance.

“Partnership efforts like this are tremendous,” said Terrance O. Rudolph, state conservationist for USDA-NRCS for Georgia. “Being able to work together to help protect, restore, and manage these forested landscapes for rare species is a win-win for conservation and for our citizens in Georgia.”

“This type of collaboration is exactly what the RCPP program was intended to foster,” said Carlton Owen, the Endowment’s president and CEO. “The forests on these properties will be managed for multiple uses, supporting rural economies, providing unparalleled recreation opportunities and helping conserve gopher tortoises and other at-risk species. We commend NRCS, Georgia DNR and the Fund for their leadership.”

The Conservation Fund’s purchases of the properties advance the goals of its Working Forest Fund®, an innovative program that permanently protects ecologically and economically significant forestland and plays a vital role in safeguarding important wildlife habitat. During its temporary ownership, The Conservation Fund sustainably managed the lands, providing time for its partners to secure funding to keep these forests protected and working, supporting the local timber-based economies.

“Working forests play a critical role in the economic and ecological state of the Southeast,” said Andrew Schock, Georgia state director at The Conservation Fund. “With proper management, longleaf pine forests can support economic vitality for an entire region and serve as an ecological buffer for several threatened species like the gopher tortoise. Thank you to the Georgia DNR, NRCS, the Endowment, U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, U.S. Representatives Sanford Bishop Jr., Rick Allen, Buddy Carter and all of the supporters who enabled these impactful projects to become a reality.”

Longleaf pine forests once stretched across 90 million acres in the Southeast, but due to development and changes in timber management, only 4.7 percent of the original forests remain. Nearly 900 plant species are found in longleaf forests, as well as 26 species federally listed as endangered or threatened. Longleaf forests are also very beneficial in cleaning the water and air, and acting as an economic driver for the community. Protecting longleaf pine and habitat for the gopher tortoise are critical steps in combating habitat loss across the Southeast and is part of a larger effort to restore important longleaf pine ecosystems across the region.

Support from Georgia’s U.S. Congressional delegation has been critical for the restoration of longleaf pine forests and gopher tortoise habitat, as well as long-term land conservation goals across the state. The new WMAs are in counties represented by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, U.S. Senator David Perdue, U.S. Representative Sanford Bishop Jr., U.S. Representative Rick Allen, and U.S. Representative Buddy Carter.

“I applaud The Conservation Fund, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for joining together to both better utilize and protect forestlands in Georgia,” said U.S. Representative Sanford Bishop. “This agreement will allow for increased public recreational opportunities, will support responsible and sustainable timber production, and will also conserve habitats for threatened species. This will assure that these treasured areas will be utilized and enjoyed for generations to come.”

“I’m very glad to see the federal government working with the state of Georgia to support wildlife and conservation efforts,” said U.S. Representative Buddy Carter. “Efforts such as this will ensure the protection of the beauty and resources in the First District of Georgia.”

About The Conservation Fund
At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than eight million acres of land, including more than 140,000 acres in Georgia.

About Georgia Department of Natural Resources
The mission of Georgia DNR is to sustain, enhance, protect and conserve Georgia’s natural, historic and cultural resources for present and future generations, while recognizing the importance of promoting the development of commerce and industry that use sound environmental practices. To learn more visit www.gadnr.org.

About the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
USDA NRCS offers a wide variety of Farm Bill programs to help Georgia’s producers make wildlife-friendly improvements to croplands, grazing lands and working forests, as well as benefit agricultural operations. Programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, among others. USDA also offers free technical assistance in addition to competitive financial assistance to help implement conservation practices.  For more information on the different types of assistance available from USDA, visit www.farmers.gov. USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

About U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities
The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (the Endowment) is a not-for-profit public charity working collaboratively with partners in the public and private sectors to advance systemic, transformative, and sustainable change for the health and vitality of the nation’s working forests and forest-reliant communities. To learn more about the Endowment, please visit our website at www.usendowment.org.

Contacts:
Val Keefer |  The Conservation Fund |  703-908-5802 |  vkeefer@conservationfund.org
Wes Robinson | Georgia Department of Natural Resources | 404-656-6546 | wes.robinson@dnr.ga.gov
Chris Groskreutz | USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service | 706-546-2069 | chris.groskreutz@usda.gov