For more than 70 years, nearly 90 acres of a Mitchell County bottomland lay mostly dry, drained by a shallow ditch that cut through the heart of the cup-shaped tract.
Yet in 2003, owners James and Sue Adams applied to enroll the site in a federal wetlands restoration initiative called the Wetlands Reserve Program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service approved a permanent conservation easement. The ditch, dug in the 1930s to fight mosquitoes and malaria, was plugged in 2006. Water soon flooded the tall grass and cypress trees.
And this year, like last, endangered wood storks joined a growing throng of cattle egrets, anhingas and little blue herons that have adopted the reborn wetland as a rookery.
Earlier this month, Natural Resources Conservation and Georgia Department of Natural Resources workers eased small boats across shimmering green duckweed and around cypress trees crowded with stick nests and white chicks. One pond cypress no more than 25 feet tall held seven wood stork nests. In the tree, nine storks, their black heads bowed, eyed the boats. Across the pond, adult and young birds squawked and clucked in the afternoon heat turned thick by thunderstorms roaming the horizon.
DNR Nongame Conservation Section employees estimate the site has 125 wood stork nests. The count is part of an annual spring survey of the imperiled birds in Georgia. Biologists discovered the new Mitchell County nest site after a stork the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was tracking by satellite transmitter in Florida moved to south Georgia.
James Lee Adams Jr. is pleased. The former engineer retired from farming in 2000, the same year he was named Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. But he still deals in land and has long kept close tabs on agricultural programs. Adams said it was obvious to him and his wife the property, part of a larger intact wetland covering about 200 acres and surrounded by cropland, should “never have been put into production.”
The Wetlands Reserve Program allowed them to take it out.
For wetlands degraded by urbanization and intensive farming, the voluntary program offers financial incentives for permanent or 30-year conservation easements, as well as cost-share agreements for restoration. Wetland protection and restoration are established as the main land-use for the duration of the easement or agreement. Wildlife benefit, and landowners still control access.
Commonly called WRP, the Wetlands Reserve Program had 2 million acres enrolled as of 2009. The goal is another 1 million in five years.
Keith Wooster, state wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said Georgia has about 16,500 acres in 45 sites, all in the southern part of the state. Wooster rates the Adams’ property, owned largely by the couple’s AA Land Co., as the top “two or three site in southwest Georgia.”
James Tillman Sr., the agency’s state conservationist, said Georgia has “enjoyed tremendous success” helping landowners install wetland conservation practices through the WRP. The help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service and its partners continues after the habitat is restored, Tillman said.
“This assistance may be in the form of reviewing restoration measures, clarifying technical and administrative aspects of the easement and project management needs, and providing basic biological and engineering advice on how to achieve optimum results for wetland-dependent species.”
The option for permanent protection helped attract the Adams. “I think we have a responsibility No. 1 to look after the land,” James Adams said. “… We’re just holding this land in trust.”
Controlling access and receiving a financial return also proved important. James sees public support through programs like WRP as vital so small landowners can afford to set aside land for conservation.
Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan, a strategy that guides Wildlife Resources Division and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity, emphasizes such technical and financial assistance, Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris said. “One of our top five areas of focus is working with private landowners, and I think this is a good example of a program that restored some valuable habitat,” Harris said.
What was a prairie-like field that soil conservation technician Dan Baker said “you could walk across” is now wet, rich habitat for a variety of wildlife, from eastern kingbirds and black-bellied whistling ducks to common gallinules and American bullfrogs.
Plus a lanky wading bird struggling to regain its foothold in the U.S.
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