Sansavilla lies at the heart of Georgia’s forest industry. Its well-managed forests annually support more than 130 timber-related jobs and contribute $13.2 million in timber sales and shipments.
The area also supports prime habitat for the gopher tortoise, a keystone species found in the sandy coastal plains and longleaf pine communities of the Southern United States. Their burrows, which can be up to 40 feet long, provide shelter for hundreds of other species, including birds, amphibians and other reptiles, and the insects upon which they feed.
When a keystone species is removed from the ecosystem, the surrounding habitat changes dramatically, affecting all the other species in the area. Some species may disappear altogether.
The gopher tortoise is already listed as a threatened species in the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, and western Alabama. It could soon follow in Georgia, where it’s a candidate for threatened listing.
However, when a species is listed as “threatened,” the effect upon the state’s forest economy is dramatic. Some businesses may disappear altogether.
The State of Georgia is trying something different: it proposes to permanently conserve 100,000 acres of tortoise habitat to preclude a federal listing and protect the state’s forest products market.
The U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and two private foundations have partnered to invest $32 million to permanently conserve 19,500 acres of longleaf and loblolly pine-dominated working forestland.
A key component in this effort is the recent conservation of the Altamaha River-Sansavilla Forest, to which the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program contributed $5 million. The area not only contains critical habitat for the gopher tortoise but also sustains local jobs, contributes to the forest product and recreation economy, and provides an important buffer to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Townsend Bombing Range.
The Georgia DNR has leased Sansavilla since 1972 as a Wildlife Management Area. Under Georgia DNR’s management, sustainable forest management will continue there, and longleaf pine will be restored on 9,780 acres of uplands.
Which brings us back to the tortoise. Dominated by longleaf pine communities, the sandy ridges of Sansavilla are home to 400 adult tortoises with 250 being considered a viable population. The Georgia DNR aims to triple the population. The permanent conservation of Sansavilla is a critical component of Georgia’s innovative effort to preserve both the tortoise and the local forest products economy.