When the state of Georgia closed on the purchase of the 19,500-acre Sansavilla Wildlife Management Area last fall, it meant that the last piece of a 40-mile-long, 2-mile-wide corridor along the Altamaha River was finally under the protection of a state or federal agency.
The land the state had formerly leased from private timber companies was the last piece after the expenditure of about $100 million over a dozen years to conserve 180,000 acres.
“It was kind of the capstone of the Altamaha corridor project,’’ said Jason Lee, manager of the Non-Game Species program at the Department of Natural Resources Coastal Resources Division in Brunswick.
It will also go a long way toward the conservation of Georgia’s state reptile, the gopher tortoise, and the big snake that becomes its roommate each winter.
That is possible because Sansavilla, unlike much of the rest of the 180,000 acres, is high and dry. Its 10,000 acres of uplands comprise nearly half of all the 25,000 acres of high ground throughout the corridor.
“All the rest is wetlands, bottomlands,’’ flat woods that can flood when the Altamaha runs high, Lee said. “We’ve been focusing on wetlands a number of years.”
For good reason. The wetlands protect the flow of freshwater needed by shrimp and blue crab nurseries and are home to waterfowl and a number of rare plant species.
Sansavilla’s sandy uplands provide ideal habitat for the tortoises, or Gopherus polyphemus for those who prefer the scientific name.
“Sansavilla has about 400 tortoises,’’ he said. “We hope to have at least 1,000 tortoises if you can manage it well.”
The tortoises, like others in Georgia, have been pushed into small areas, roadsides, graveyards, power line and, in Sansavilla’s case, natural gas pipeline rights-of-way. Those areas have the low growth that gopher tortoise prefer, but Sansavilla has another element essential to the tortoises; deep, deep sand.
The management area is divided roughly in half between Glynn and Wayne counties. The dividing line is at the Mount Pleasant community where those uplands begin. Howard Road tracks north and northeast from Akin United Methodist Church. To the east, the land drops into the bottomland swamps, but to the west it appears flat.
The road is on the edge of the Talbot Ridge, an ancient dune line, and when the pavement runs out, the road turns to sand. It’s a bit red from clay added for stability, but the ditches and banks are nearly white and good enough for beaches.
The gopher tortoises have only about a foot of hard digging before they hit sand and can burrow quickly, he said.
“You can dig down 30 or 40 feet and find nothing but beach quality sand,’’ Lee said.
But they don’t need just sand: They also need that low growth, and that, Lee said, is where the management comes into play. The DNR is clear-cutting the loblolly pine grown for commercial harvest and replacing it with native longleaf pine that grows more sparsely above stands of wiregrass. Frequent prescribed burns will prevent the palmettos, oaks and other hardwoods and shrubby growth from again taking hold.
“The tortoise is what we call a keystone species,’’ he said. “Its burrows are important to about 300 other species.’’
Those include eastern diamondback rattlers, spiders, several species of mice and another that is very important, that a snake that needs both wetlands and uplands for survival.
“The eastern indigo snake wouldn’t be around if not for these burrows,’’ Lee said.
The indigo snake spends the warmer months in the wetlands, but come winter it heads for the high ground and beds down in a gopher tortoise burrow, he said.
The jet black eastern indigo is the largest snake in North America and is prized by collectors because it is so docile. That makes them valuable and is one reason they are so rare.
Thus protecting the gopher tortoise also protects the indigo snake.
Lee drove to Sansavilla Bluff overlooking a deep bend in Altamaha to show evidence of what the DNR hopes to accomplish. The concern in Georgia is that the gopher tortoise population is mostly older adults, but Sansavilla has signs the youngsters are making a comeback, he said.
In a wide power line right-of-way on the bluff, there were small burrows, some the size of a fist, with small aprons of sand indicating those were home to tortoises two to three years old.
As for enlarging the habitat, there is also evidence that is also working. In a pipeline right-of-way off Sansavilla Road near U.S. 341. There were abundant burrows in the right-of-way, and DNR had thinned the adjoining pines and burned beneath those left.
Stepping out into the wild blackberry briars, Lee walked to a burrow with an enormous apron of white sand. Pacing about 12 feet behind it in the direction of the tortoise had dug, Lee said, “The tortoise is probably about right here.”
The gopher tortoises had expanded from the power line right-of-way into the newly opened areas almost immediately, he said.
The indigo snake won’t be the only beneficiary if the project works.
“We’re trying to keep the gopher tortoise from being listed as an endangered species. That would be huge for the timber industry,’’ Lee said.
If the federal government were to list the tortoise, every landowner with potential habitat would have to manage their property in a prescribed way with a lot of reporting, and that is very expensive, Lee said.
Joe Hopkins, president of a Folkston-based timber company, agrees.
“Anytime you can keep from dealing with an endangered species” it’s a good thing, Hopkins said.
He was in Wayne County recently marking off a cut line for logging pines.
“The program is all stick and no carrots,’’ Hopkins said of the Endangered Species Act. “If you violate it, you’re looking at federal prison and enormous fines. It gets really ugly, really fast.”
Needless to say, Hopkins hopes the DNR is successful at Sansavilla. At least Hopkins, who lives on the edge of Folkston, is doing his part.
“My yard is full of them,’’ he said of the tortoises.
Hopkins said he hopes someday the DNR does research to determine whether coyotes, an invasive species in Georgia, are literally eating into the population of the slow gopher tortoise. If so, coyotes could have an effect in Sansavilla.
As he drove along an old logging road, Lee looked down at the sand and noted, “Coyote tracks.”
Later, when he was stopped at the gas pipeline, a southbound freight train sounded its horn at a crossing. Almost instantly, coyotes east of the tracks answered with high-pitched yips and howls.