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This undated drone photo provided by The Nature Conservancy shows the mouth of the Altamaha River. 

Provided photo

“This,” said Jason Lee atop a 40-foot bluff overlooking the Altamaha, “is Sansavilla.”

Just upriver from Altama Plantation, Sansavilla has taken on almost mythical status among conservationists. It was the corridor’s missing piece, a 19,500-acre chunk of land finally cobbled together last year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state, the military, the U.S. Forest Service, nonprofit environmental advocacy group The Nature Conservancy and the Conservation Fund.

Native American, Spanish and English troops and travelers traversed the river here on a footpath to St. Augustine, Fla. Mary Musgrove – perhaps the most interesting woman in Georgia history – ran a trading post and ferry in the mid-1700s. The Old Post Road hugged the sandy ridge through the otherwise impenetrable forest.

Today, the former slash and loblolly pine farms are being clear-cut or thinned and replaced with wildlife-friendly longleaf pine. The tracts will be burned every few years to create a healthy undergrowth of grasses and legumes for endangered species, gopher tortoises in particular.

The Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation agencies have spent millions of dollars to keep the tortoise off the endangered species list. Sansavilla, and much of the Altamaha corridor, is considered prime tortoise habitat. Already, 400 turtles have been tallied at Sansavilla. The goal is 1,000 or more.

“Once they began clear-cutting or thinning heavily, and burning, the tortoises just came in and took over,” said Lee, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) program manager, pointing out burrows under a power line. “It has exceeded our expectations, definitely. And the tortoise population will just fan out further and further as the habitat improves.”

The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species, without which the entire ecosystem would suffer. Its burrow, for example, is favored by eastern indigo snakes, burrowing owls, gopher frogs, the Florida mouse and more than 350 other species. Lee shared rare photos of an endangered indigo photographed recently alongside a burrow at the nearby Penholloway Creek Wildlife Management Area.

“We pride ourselves on what we call proactive conservation: trying to protect species while they’re still abundant,” said Lee, a landscape ecologist. “It’s a way to identify habitat and prevent those species from being federally listed. The Altamaha corridor is a perfect spot to protect the gopher tortoise.”

DNR, in its 1978 land-use study, said the corridor must be protected. Tracts were added piecemeal over the years. Since 2005, though, public and private groups have spent $93 million protecting the river via fee-simple purchases or permanent easements. Typically, The Nature Conservancy or the Conservation Fund would buy a tract of forest land and hold it until the Fish and Wildlife Service or the state – leveraging nongovernmental organizations, U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), or private foundation dollars – came up with enough money to take control of the land.

Georgia and non-military federal partners put up about $23 million each, with the Service contributing the lion’s share of the federal cost, largely through bird and wetlands conservation grants.

Coexistence with the military

The Altamaha corridor is critical habitat for the U.S. Marine Corps too. F-18s, A-10s and other war birds follow the river up from the coast to the Townsend Bombing Range, across from Sansavilla, and drop “inert” (non-explosive) bombs on targets. The mostly undeveloped corridor makes for an ideal bombing run and buffer zone. Various DOD grants have helped buy land or easements along the corridor with the proviso that tall structures can’t be built.

The range today is 5,200 acres. Soon it will expand to 34,000 acres – with thousands of acres re-planted in longleaf pine. Numerous threatened, endangered or candidate species, including the gopher tortoise, indigo snake and frosted flatwoods salamander, live seemingly in harmony with the bombs.

“We’ll be managing an entire ecosystem,” said Gary Herndon, a natural resource manager at the Marine Corps air station in Beaufort, S.C. “We’ll enhance the habitat, preserve and promote a diversity of species all while protecting our mission.”

One day the bombing range will link with Fort Stewart to the north, creating an even larger wildlife corridor and further buffering the two military installations. Lee, the DNR ecologist, is also cobbling together a 120-mile corridor from Florida through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge and up to Fort Stewart.

Corridors, in essence, are what the Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy is all about: conserving public or private lands now so that the ravages of urbanization, industrialization and climate change don’t harm flora and fauna in the future.

Dink NeSmith, a newspaper publisher in Jesup and owner of a conservation easement along the Altamaha, sees the river’s threats firsthand. Pollution from a paper mill coloring the river an unnatural brown. Toxic chemicals seeping from factories in Brunswick. Herbicide running off from pine plantations. Saltwater creeping upstream killing live oaks.

A Jesup native, NeSmith began buying up Altamaha River property in the early 80s. Nearly 3,000 acres of his land – oxbow lakes, cypress swamps and hardwood forests – has been placed in everlasting conservation easements with TNC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That translates into five miles of protected riverfront.

“I can remember paddling in one of these oxbow lakes when my daughter Emily was about eight years old. She was shaking her head, pigtails flopping and she said, ‘Dad, why does God even make red bugs, ticks and mosquitos. Why?’” NeSmith recalled. “I said, ‘Miss Em, that’s his way of reminding us we aren’t in heaven yet. Because if you took those annoyances away, this is pretty close to heaven already.”

Dan Chapman is a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who now works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.