The largest undeveloped tract of coastal Georgia salt marsh, maritime forest and logleaf pine uplands is now protected after two national conservation organizations acquired the land with the intention of transferring ownership to the state.
The Conservation Fund and Open Space Institute, or OSI, announced Friday the purchase of the 16,083-acre Ceylon tract east of Woodbine, which encompasses coastal habitat that is critical to the preservation of gopher tortoises, threatened indigo snakes and other species.
Each organization bought a portion of the property that is located along the Satilla River, according to a prepared statement.
The land is just downstream from Interstate 95 along the Satilla River and has high bluffs along the southern bank of the river on what is called Floyd’s Neck. Given the proximity to I-95 and the growth of population centers in Georgia and Florida, the land was highly threatened by resort, residential and commercial development, the statement said.
The Conservation Fund and OSI said they will work with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies over the next few years to permanently protect the entire property under conservation easements and to transfer the property to the DNR for the establishment of a wildlife management area.
There are an estimated 2,000 gopher tortoises on the land, said Andrew Schock, the Georgia state director at the Conservation Fund.
“It has the highest population and [most concentrated] density of gopher tortoises in Georgia,” Schock said.
There are 122 viable gopher tortoise populations in Georgia, and the DNR intends to permanently protect 65 in an attempt to forestall a federal designation of the tortoise as an endangered species in Georgia, the DNR has said.
Schock said the Ceylon tract could be home to two to four viable populations, but that will be determined once the DNR does more extensive surveys.
Stratford Land has held the land for the past 10 years as an investment until a buyer came along with the right offer, Schock said.
Of the 900 acres of uplands, about 300 already is longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat with the rest in commercial loblolly and slash pines, Schock said.
“It has the typical industrial forest on it,’’ and some of that will be cut to open up the ground for wiregrass and gopher tortoises, he said.
Jason Lee, a program manager of Wildlife Resources for the DNR, called the property spectacular and said the DNR will begin cutting and conducting prescribed burns as part of the restoration.
He praised Sea Island Company, which had owned the property for decades.
“Sea Island had managed it for quail. They managed it exceptionally well, expertly well,’’ he said.
The land abuts Cabin Bluff, a former Sea Island resort property now owned by The Nature Conservancy. The hopes are that the land will be divided into half with the resort buildings and other amenities along the waterfront being privately held and the DNR getting rest as a possible Wildlife Management Area. Both Lee and Schock stressed all those plans must first work their way through the governmental process.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also designated the Ceylon property as a recovery site for the eastern indigo, the country’s largest snake that is federally threatened.
The docile indigo snake is one of many species that share habitat with gopher tortoises, which is seen has a keystone species. About 350 other wildlife species take shelter in the tortoises’ burrows among them the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which is prey for the indigo.
Ceylon is about equal in size to the DNR’s Sansavilla Wildlife Management Area straddling the Glynn-Wayne county borders along the Altamaha River. It also has longlife pine habitat, about 400 gopher tortoises and indigo snakes.
When it acquired Sansavilla, the DNR cited the effort to protect gopher tortoises and prevent their listing as an endangered species. A listing would come with onerous restrictions on property owners especially forest land.
As a wildlife management area, Sansavilla has hunting, boating, biking, fishing and hiking. The DNR has not said how many recreational activities would be available at Ceylon, but Friday’s statement said it could be open for turkey hunting as early as spring.
During the interim ownership, the OSI and Conservation Fund will work with the DNR to restore the gopher tortoise and longleaf pine habitats the statement said.
Stressing, “there’s no money in the bank,’’ to transfer ownership, Schock said he expects the Navy to provide some funds because of its proximity to Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base and for the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the DNR to participate.
The Conservation Fund negotiated a contract with the owners of the property last summer and OSI joined as a partner this fall.
When the purchases closes, the Conservation Fund will own 8,555 acres acquired with funds from a series of zero-interest loans, a grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation and other philanthropic grants that The Nature Conservancy and other partners secured.
OSI will own 7,528 acres with funding from its Eastern Lands Initiative with support from the Wyss Foundation.
The Nature Conservancy also provided funding for both including grants from the Bobolink Foundation and other private supporters, the statement said.
The Chicago-based Bobolink Foundation focuses on coastal and grasslands conservation, wildlife and wild landscapes.
With headquarters in Arlington, Va., the Conservation Fund says it has worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 8 million acres of land, including more than 140,000 acres in Georgia.
Originally founded in New York in 1974 to protect significant landscapes there, it has grown and has become a partner in the protection of nearly 2.2 million acres in North America, the organization said.