Red, White, Blue and Green: How Creativity is Good for Country and Conservation
Photo: Longleaf pine forest near Fort Benning © Mark Godfrey/TNC
By: Deron Davis, Executive Director, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia
One of the keys to an effective partnership is agreeing upon shared objectives. We at The Nature Conservancy in Georgia are proud to partner with many organizations and agencies. Trees Atlanta, Park Pride, The Georgia Conservancy, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Forestry Commission, the U.S. Forest Service… just the beginning of a very long list.
You can probably imagine the kinds of ideas we share with those groups, working together to ensure that more land is protected and managed for Georgians. But sometimes, unlikely partners emerge.
Almost 25 years ago, The Nature Conservancy began working alongside the U.S. Army at Fort Benning. The connection between conservation and national security might not be obvious, but by pursuing shared objectives this unique partnership has resulted in healthier habitat for wildlife and new outdoor recreation opportunities in this area of our state.
Here on the Fall Line near Columbus, where an ancient ocean once met what is now the Piedmont region of north Georgia and where the Chattahoochee River forms the boundary with Alabama, sandy soils supported a healthy longleaf pine forest for ages. But as people settled the South and industry grew, the longleaf pine forest was almost completely lost. Some of Georgia’s largest and healthiest remaining stands of longleaf pine are on Fort Benning.
Fort Benning is about two hours southwest of Atlanta. It spreads across an expansive 183,000 acres. To put that in context: Atlanta’s Piedmont Park is about 200 acres. Large military installations across the country, including Benning, are often islands of biodiversity. Managing land for military training can also maintain healthy habitat for native plants and wildlife. That is certainly the case at Fort Benning.
Open, sunny, longleaf forests are ideal for military training. Fire from military training sometimes mimics the lightning-induced natural fire these forests once relied on to rejuvenate and flourish. Wildlife including our state reptile, the gopher tortoise, and the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker thrive in these fire-adapted forests.
Through the decades, The Nature Conservancy has been an active partner in supporting the Army with planning, implementing and monitoring the management of longleaf pine habitat not only to avoid further loss of these iconic species, but to also encourage their populations to grow. This collaboration includes increasing the use of planned, controlled burns on the Installation.
With federal funding and the support of private landowners, local governments and the state, The Nature Conservancy is protecting and managing land in a buffer around Fort Benning so that rare wildlife has room to roam. This land conservation also supports the military mission because it is less than ideal to have homes and businesses too close to training lands. Noise, smoke and other military side effects can make for unhappy neighbors.
By 2020, our partnership aims to protect and manage at least 40,000 acres around Fort Benning. We are well on our way to this goal with 27,000 acres already conserved through land acquisition, conservation agreements with private landowners and restoration activities like planting longleaf pine and the careful reintroduction of fire to the forest.
Today, more than 10,000 acres of the land we have protected within the buffer is open to the public and is attracting visitors who come to this rural area to hunt, hike, and camp on the State of Georgia’s Chattahoochee Fall Line Wildlife Management Area.
The partnership between The Nature Conservancy, Fort Benning, the State of Georgia and many others certainly proves that when we work together and find common ground, we can achieve extraordinary results.