GTC Donation Helps Preserve Tortoise Habitat in Mississippi

Former GTC co-chair George Heinrich made the following speech at The Nature Conservancy of Mississippi’s dedication of a 40-acre addition to the Willie F. Brown Nature Preserve on November 3, 2000.

schueler.epperson.willie f. brown.optThe event was held at the preserve site, north of Kiln, in Hancock County. The land purchase was made possible by a $13,900 donation from The Gopher Tortoise Council and an additional donation by Don Schueler. Schueler, who donated the Willie F. Brown Nature Preserve to The Nature Conservancy in 1993, read an excerpt from his book, A Handmade Wilderness, an account of his labor of love restoring the property to its natural state. Other speakers for the dedication were Clay Wagner of Hancock Bank and Martin Street, Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy of Mississippi. On hand for the ceremony were members of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce.

Speech by George Heinrich :

I am very happy to be here today representing the Gopher Tortoise Council. I want to thank The Nature Conservancy for inviting me to join you in celebrating the addition of forty acres to the Willie Farrell Brown Preserve. I am honored to have been asked to say a few words as we celebrate another special place joining the millions of acres worldwide already protected by the The Nature Conservancy. I want to acknowledge the support provided by Council members and the TNC of Mississippi folks that made it possible for me to be here today. The Gopher Tortoise Council is very pleased to be partnering with both TNC and Don Schueler.

I would like to provide you with a little information on our organization and why we chose to support this project. The Gopher Tortoise Council was formed in 1978 by a group of southeastern biologists and other citizens concerned with the decline of the gopher tortoise. Our goal is to work for the wise management and perpetuation of the gopher tortoise, the animals that live with it, and their natural habitats. In the twenty-two years since the Council was formed, we have continued to work toward those very goals. One of our earliest successes was playing a lead role in shutting down the legal harvest of gopher tortoises in Florida in 1988. A change in decades saw the Council shift from the previous emphasis on harvest closure to a much needed broader emphasis on upland ecosystem conservation. Since that time, we have continued to maintain that focus. Each fall we hold a meeting that centers around a number of papers pertaining to not only gopher tortoise biology and conservation, but to other aspects of upland ecosystems as well. In addition, we have hosted several symposia and workshops, produced and distributed educational materials, and have participated in land acquisition efforts. We have grown from what was originally an advisory council to a recognized proactive conservation organization. Like many NGO’s, we have adapted to the needs of our cause and have found ourselves evolving. If you are not already a member of the Council, please consider joining us as we work toward conserving this flagship species and the fascinating world in which it lives.

Our first venture into upland habitat acquisition also involved The Nature Conservancy, but in that case TNC suggested we take our the money elsewhere and we did. I don’t imagine that that happens too often. They knew where we would get the biggest bang for our buck or the most land for our dollar. We took nearly $2,300 that was earmarked for TNC and with their approval transferred it to the Council’s Upland Habitat Protection Project. It was then combined with an additional $3,700 which was donated for a matching program. $2,300 had now grown to $12,000 earmarked for the purchase of upland habitat. Archbold Biological Station then agreed to further this effort by matching those funds. The end result was the protection of another tract of highly endangered scrub on the Lake Wales Ridge in south central Florida. That project taught us the value of partnering.

This time around was much easier, at least for me. The Council had some money that we needed to give away. That’s a nice problem to have, but not one we experience very often. I remembered reading in the national TNC magazine about a special preserve in Mississippi, so we called the Mississippi office and arranged a donation. I wish all of our undertakings were so easy, but unfortunately that is not always the case.

The gopher tortoise is a species in decline and warrants additional protection rangewide on both a state and federal level. It is a species that lives a long life, reaches sexual maturity at over ten years of age, produces relatively small clutches, experiences low recruitment, and suffers from an upper respiratory tract disease, high levels of predation and loss of habitat. Severe losses in the western half of its range have resulted in the gopher tortoise being listed as Federally Threatened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and western Alabama.

Upland ecosystems are an important part of our natural southeastern heritage. Prior to human settlement, these ecosystems extended over vast areas of the southeastern coastal plain. However, today these ecologically valuable ecosystems have been severely reduced and fragmented. Protection of uplands through land acquisition and sound management plays an important role in the conservation of numerous listed species. Support of land conservation groups and of public land acquisition programs is of the utmost importance. Our responsibility to protect and preserve the biodiversity of these special southeastern ecosystems is quite evident.

There is a real need for strengthened conservation efforts on behalf of upland ecosystems, particularly west of the Tombigbee River. Being able to participate in the protection of this special place is very satisfying to the Council’s officers and members. Again thank you for inviting me to participate and I look forward to exploring the preserve with you this afternoon.”

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