The 19,500 acres of public land at the Sansavilla Wildlife Management Area along the Altamaha River serves a few worthwhile purposes.

The huge swath managed by the Georgia Department of Natural is meant to be the last piece of an impressive preservation and conservation effort by the state and federal governments. It is part of a 40-mile-long, 2-mile-wide stretch of land along the Altamaha River that is now protected after roughly $100 million were spent over 12 years to purchase and conserve the 180,000 acres.

When the WMA was dedicated last year, it meant that the free-flowing Altamaha, Georgia’s Amazon, would remain how it is for the foreseeable future, without development and without impediments.

Much of the 40-mile stretch consists of wetlands, areas integral to the ecosystem that are home to key species of wildlife in Coastal Georgia. Sansavilla, however, is mostly upland, meaning some of the species, namely the state reptile, the gopher tortoise, has somewhere to thrive. As it is now, the 19,500-acre tract is home to about 400 tortoises, the DNR’s Jason Lee told The News last week. He and his colleagues hope to see that number jump to 1,000 with proper management. The tortoises are considered a keystone species because their burrows become home to all sorts of other animals, including the fascinating indigo snake, the largest snake native to the U.S.

Part of that management is to take down the loblolly pine that had been grown commercially there in favor of planting native long-leaf pine. Tortoises thrive in long-leaf pine forests. By improving habitat for the ancient reptiles, conservationists are hoping to keep them off of the endangered species list. If the mission is successful, it will be a boon for the commercial timber industry that also thrives in Southeast Georgia.

Joe Hopkins, president of a Folkston-based timber company, said naming the tortoise as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act would become very expensive, very quickly and deal a difficult blow to the timber industry here. He was on-board with using Sansavilla as a place to save the state reptile.

On top of completing 40 miles of land conservation along the Altamaha and the potentially game-changing effort for the tortoise, Sansavilla is another large piece of unique Southeast Georgia habitat that is open for the public to experience. We live in a unique area. Sansavilla and its sister WMAs, like Altama Plantation, offer us an opportunity to get outside and enjoy our wonderful great outdoors.

We are looking forward for a chance to visit again.

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