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Conservation groups make major land buy along Georgia coast
Tortoise
In this April 11, 2004 file photo, a gopher tortoise lumbers across the forest floor at Reed Bingham State Park near Adel, Ga. The Conservation Fund and Open Space Institute announced Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, that they had bought a 16,000-acre (65-square-kilometer) site along the Satilla River east of Woodbine, Ga., which they described as one of the largest unprotected open space parcels along the southeast Atlantic coast.

ATLANTA – Conservation groups have purchased a swath of land in Georgia that they describe as one of the largest unprotected open space parcels along the southeast Atlantic coast.

The Conservation Fund and Open Space Institute announced Friday that they had bought the 16,000-acre (65-square-kilometer) site along the Satilla River east of Woodbine. They declined to say how much they paid for it.

The groups plan to sell it within the next few years to the state of Georgia for use as a wildlife management area where people can hunt, fish and hike.

“It’s providing a tremendous opportunity for the people of Georgia to enjoy our great outdoors,” said Andrew Schock, Georgia state director at The Conservation Fund.

The land near Cumberland Island — dubbed the “Ceylon property” — has several types of habitat, including salt marsh and longleaf pine forest.

Longleaf pine used to cover tens of millions of acres in the southeast U.S., but now only a few million acres remain and most of that is fragmented and in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new property is also home to an estimated 2,000 gopher tortoises, whose burrows provide shelter for many other species.

Conservation groups and Georgia officials are aiming to protect 65 of the roughly 122 viable gopher tortoise populations in the state to try to prevent the turtle from a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The new site alone may have as many as four gopher tortoise populations that are capable of sustaining themselves, said Maria Whitehead, senior program manager for the Open Space Institute.

Whitehead said the property is also remarkably pristine. There are no structures on it, and it has no development except for a well and cemetery, she said.

“That in itself is just incredible," she said.

The property had a timber mill in the 1870s that processed longleaf pine coming down the Satilla River, said Jason Lee, with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

But the surrounding town was eventually abandoned, and the property returned to its natural state, Lee said.

“We’re really excited to be able to work on something not just this large but this intact from a habitat standpoint,” he said.

The conservation groups bought it from the investment firm, Stratford Land. Schock said the property was zoned for homes, commercial development and a marina.

The next step is to raise funds to allow the state to purchase it.