Nonprofit secures large riverside property for longleaf pine restoration, sustainable timber management, and potential recipient site for orphaned gopher tortoise
The Conservation Fund announced last week that it has purchased 6,154 acres in Long County along the Altamaha River from Rayonier Inc.
The future conservation of this sizable, contiguous property called Beards Creek Forest will enhance protection for the state’s largest river and expand habitat restoration efforts in Southeast Georgia.
The Conservation Fund purchased the land through its Working Forest Fund®, dedicated to mitigating climate change, strengthening economies and protecting natural ecosystems through the permanent conservation of at-risk working forests.
The nonprofit will manage the land over the next several years, maintaining sustainable forestry operations and traditional recreational uses via existing private leases, while restoring surface hydrology and the longleaf pine ecosystem that supports a variety of species, including the gopher tortoise. During its interim ownership, The Conservation Fund will work with partners to develop, raise funding for, and implement permanent conservation strategies that will protect this working forestland and safeguard jobs, wildlife habitat and water quality.
Beards Creek Forest features nearly six miles of riverfront land, and its permanent protection will support aquatic species native to the Altamaha River and several endangered mussels and fishes, like the Atlantic sturgeon. Roughly half of the property is comprised of wetlands, which play an important role in protecting coastal communities from the impacts of more frequent and intense storms, such as storm surges, flooding, and erosion. Protecting and restoring the longleaf pine forest also ensures it will continue to absorb carbon dioxide—a critical tool in addressing climate change.
“Protecting the integrity of forests that buffer the Altamaha River is an important and effective way to improve water quality and lessen the impacts of flooding after severe weather events because of the forests’ ability to absorb excess water,” said Andrew Schock, Georgia and Alabama State Director for The Conservation Fund. “Our purchase ensures Beards Creek Forest will remain a working forest forever. Through our sustainable management and restoration efforts, we are committed to also improving the ecology and quality of wildlife habitat—a win-win for nature and local communities.”
In addition, the protection of this land will help preserve the military training mission of nearby Fort Stewart Army Base, ensuring a connected corridor of undeveloped land that will buffer Fort Stewart from incompatible development. Beards Creek Forest is also of special interest to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) because once conserved it will add to the long-term protection of priority species as a restoration area. The Conservation Fund is working with Georgia DNR to determine the overall potential for the property to become a recipient site for orphaned gopher tortoises that have been displaced from the wild.
Jason Lee of the Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia DNR, said: “DNR has so far determined that this important site has adequate gopher tortoise habitat to support a viable population, while currently having few tortoises. The property’s protection and management towards the longleaf wiregrass ecosystem, combined with augmenting the population with waif tortoises, would be beneficial for gopher tortoise conservation. It is also connected to other conservation lands in the area, greatly enhancing its ecological value.”
“Rayonier is proud to work with The Conservation Fund to protect 6,154 acres of working forests,” said Rhett Rogers, Rayonier’s Vice President of Portfolio Management. “This is another great example of how sustainable forest management and environmental stewardship work together to protect water quality and wildlife habitat, while sustaining rural jobs and supporting local economies.”
The Conservation Fund used loans from the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority, funded through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, to purchase Beards Creek Forest. The nonprofit also utilized capital from the nation’s first green bonds dedicated solely to conservation in the United States, issued in collaboration with Goldman Sachs.
As one of the nation’s top land conservation funders, the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s legacy is etched across every state—with over 4.5 million acres of environmentally sensitive areas protected throughout America. Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, noted: “The Foundation’s partnership with The Conservation Fund spans more than 30 years, and together we have protected nearly 3.7 million acres in all 50 states. This important project in Georgia represents an innovative approach to conservation finance, one that is now attracting for-profit investment firms—an affirmation that holds great promise for future land conservation, and that is testament to both the soundness of our conservation strategies, and the Fund’s ability to deliver on projects.”
This purchase builds upon The Conservation Fund’s ongoing efforts to conserve lands and waters that support the Altamaha River’s vast watershed—the second largest in the volume of freshwater inflow to the Atlantic Ocean in the country. To date, The Conservation Fund has protected nearly 40,000 acres and 68 miles of rivers and streams within the Altamaha River watershed. In another of Georgia’s large watersheds, The Conservation Fund protected what is now the Ceylon Wildlife Management Area in Camden County, securing over 11 miles of the Satilla River in partnership with Georgia DNR and the Open Space Institute.