The Georgia Department of Natural Resources recently opened 6,324 acres of now publicly owned, wooded land in Bulloch and Bryan counties, the Canoochee Sandhills Wildlife Management Area, for hunting – on allowed in-season days – as well as wildlife watching, hiking and fishing.
Additionally, the state plans to manage the area so as to protect at least two threatened species, gopher tortoises and indigo snakes, and to restore it over the long term as a longleaf pine forest.
Not actually touching the Canoochee River, the new WMA is instead along some of its tributaries, particularly Lotts Creek and Mill Branch, north of U.S. Highway 280 from Groveland, with access points on either side of Nevils-Groveland Road. Officials, among them two state representatives and DNR Commissioner Mark Williams, gathered for an opening ceremony Feb. 7 with members of the Warnell family and organizations that contributed to the land’s purchase.
“This 6,300-acre-plus property will allow us to continue to make efforts to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem and return prescribed fire to the landscape, along with providing a new location for Georgians to hunt,” Williams said. “Georgia DNR could not have obtained this property without all the amazing partnerships we find ourselves so fortunate to work with.”
Organizations that helped fund the purchases included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Acres for America grant program supported by Walmart; the National Wild Turkey Federation; the Knobloch Family Foundation; the Nature Conservancy with support from the Bobolink Foundation; the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the Conservation Fund.
Williams also listed Weyerhaeuser and the Warnell family, landowners who sold tracts to the state at reduced prices, as partners in the WMA’s creation.
“It just doesn’t happen without funding partners like that,” he said in remarks before cutting the ceremonial ribbon out in the woods.
State paid 25%
The conservation groups, foundations, federal agencies and private landowners together contributed about 75%, so the state needed to finance only about 25% of the property’s value to buy it, Williams told reporters.
“When we find a piece of property available like this, it drives our private donor base who have the same interests we have,” he said.
Those shared interests, he said, include conservation goals as well as providing access for hunters.
The appraised value of the tracts was $11,067,040, according to information obtained from the DNR the week before the opening ceremony. Cash purchases reportedly totaled $7,697,914. But officials at the ceremony noted that conservation easements placed on Conservation Fund property through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service provided $1.5 million additional value.
Tracts acquired for this WMA totaled 3,359 acres from the Conservation Fund; 1,993 acres from the Warnell family; 670 acres from the Bunce family; and 290 acres from Weyerhaeuser, stated Matt Elliott, DNR Wildlife Conservation Division assistant chief. An additional 45 acres was leased from the Warnells to be purchased by the state later this year.
Prior-sale listings on the Bulloch and Bryan County tax assessors’ websites show that the Conservation Fund purchased large tracts from a company called VZ Timberland LLC on both sides of the county line in 2016. The Conservation Fund then transferred these to the state of Georgia at reduced prices in 2019.
Williams, who referred to the indigo snake as an endangered species and the gopher tortoise as a candidate for endangered status, said the Canoochee Sandhills property will help protect these animals in two ways.
“This is direct habitat, with good populations here, and from that standpoint we’ll be protecting those species in perpetuity,” he said. “It also gives us a place where we can relocate gopher tortoises if there’s development somewhere in another part of the state in their habitat and the private sector allows us to come in and relocate them.”
The DNR plans to use prescribed burning, as he said, to help restore the population of longleaf pine trees and associated species that thrive where fire occurs periodically.
As in other wildlife management areas, the state will also plan for timber harvests.
“In order to manage it for what we’ve said we would do, both for gopher tortoises and the game species and what-not, we’ve got to harvest timber off there periodically,” Elliott said in an interview. “There’s some that is due now. It won’t be the primary purpose of the property, but it will be ongoing, timber harvest at various times.”
The state did not leave any timber rights to previous owners, he said. As with other state-owned forest land, when timber is sold, it will go through the Georgia Forestry Commission for bids from private buyers.
A goal of the DNR over time, Elliott said, will be to convert some stands of pine species such as slash and loblolly back to longleaf pine.
State Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, a member of the Game, Fish and Parks Committee, also referred to longleaf pine restoration in his remarks at the ceremony.
“When James Edward Oglethorpe landed here on this most beautiful state in the union, 93 million acres of the Southeast was in longleaf pines …,” Petrea said. “Just a few short years ago it was only three million acres. We’re at about 4 million acres right now, but opportunities like this are how we get that back.”
Rep. Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet, whose district includes the new WMA, also took part.
“It’s just a great thing to have it preserve a natural habitat for some species of plants and even animals that are of concern … and it will be a great wildlife management area for guys like my husband to come turkey hunting, deer hunting,” Tankersley said.
Fishing in a blackwater stream such as Lotts Creek could be “a lot of fun, too,” she added.
Hunting and fishing
A hunting license, fishing license or state Lands Pass is required to use a WMA. But a Lands Pass allows only non-hunting and non-fishing uses, while individuals with a hunting license or fishing license may also hike or view wildlife on a WMA.
For deer hunting, hunts will be scheduled for specific weekends during the season. Small game hunting, for species such as rabbits and squirrels, is allowed in-season on days when deer hunting is not scheduled.
Officials said the new WMA will be available for turkey season, which opens March 21. Hunters are expected to sign in at GoOutdoorsGeorgia.com or at the kiosk, which southbound on Nevils-Groveland Road is to the right, beyond DeLoach Church Road. Maps of the WMA are also available at the kiosk.