New Partnership Protects Wetlands, Endangered Plant

LEESBURG, Ga. – Landowners and government agencies are teaming up in southwest Georgia to conserve rare wetlands and their rarest plant species – endangered Canby’s dropwort.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded $1.19 million to restore and permanently protect 850 acres of cypress wetlands and their Canby’s dropwort populations in Lee County, just north of Albany. The funding through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership, known as WREP, will be used for conservation easements and ecological and hydrological restoration. Partners include local landowners, Georgia’s Natural Resources and Transportation departments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, a group committed to conserving the state’s endangered flora.

NRCS State Conservationist Terrance O. Rudolph said the agency is “is excited to be a part of a true partnership in conservation with this project.” “Working with private landowners, as well as public and private partners, to better manage the land through voluntary conservation is our goal.”

The focal site is Neyami Savanna. Named for the nearby Neyami community (pronounced like “Miami” but with an “N”), Neyami Savanna is a large complex of boggy grasslands with open canopies of pine and cypress. The wetlands are home to one of the state’s largest populations of Canby’s dropwort.

Canby’s dropwort is a slender member of the carrot family that can top 4 feet tall and in late summer dots these grasslands with clusters of tiny white flowers. The loss of cypress savanna wetlands has decimated the species and undermined others. Recovering the plant to the point the species no longer needs federal listing is a priority for the Fish and Wildlife Service and Georgia DNR.

Neyami Savanna is a conservation priority for other reasons, as well. It provides foraging habitat for threatened wood storks. Within three miles downstream, five federally listed or at-risk mussel species need the freshwater supplied by this and other wetlands. Adjacent uplands are habitat for gopher tortoises, Georgia’s state reptile and a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the new partnership will provide for unified protection and management of the wetlands, which are divided into multiple tracts. The Georgia Department of Transportation acquired part of Neyami Savanna when it widened U.S. 19, and DNR helps manage that tract. However, for long-term ecological restoration, the wetlands must be managed as a whole, according to Lisa Kruse, a project leader and botanist with DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section.

“Our neighbors are critical to the success of any management here,” Kruse said.

One of those neighbors is Glenn Smith. This fall, his son Kyle walked DNR and DOT staff through a family-owned wetland that is part of Neyami Savanna and will be preserved in a conservation easement under the partnership. Kyle said the move fits his family’s desire to protect the property, provides more resources to restore it and makes financial sense. Agency staff also proved key, he added.

“It’s like any business deal, you want to do it with someone you enjoy working with.”

Canby’s dropwort occurs in cypress savanna depression wetlands from Georgia to North Carolina, with one disjunct population remaining in Maryland. Eighteen of Georgia’s 21 sites are on private land.

Sharon Swagger, NRCS conservation easement specialist, said the Neyami Savanna project is similar in scope and importance to one the agency started in Dooly County in 2011. “Restoration is ongoing there,” Swagger said, “but the habitat functions are already returning to that site. We look forward to the same long-term protection and restoration of the Canby’s dropwort in Lee County.”

Protection of the species perfectly fits NRCS’ Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership, which is voluntary and designed for conservation on private lands. Landowners are compensated financially for protecting wetlands permanently in conservation easements and partnering in the restoration, while retaining ownership of the property.

NRCS will provide technical and financial help in restoring Neyami Savanna. DNR, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance will consult on species habitat requirements and monitor results. Georgia DOT will coordinate on restoration activities.

“Georgia DOT made a commitment to protect and manage a population of Canby’s dropwort and a portion of the Neyami Savanna many years ago,” said Lisa Westberry, special projects coordinator with DOT. “There have been a few successes in the past; however, we are excited about being a part of this program that will work towards a holistic approach to restoration and long-term protection. Being good stewards of the natural environment is a component of Georgia DOT’s mission and this new partnership will help Georgia DOT fulfill those commitments made years ago.”

The funding covers permanent protection of the 850 acres and restoration work that is expected to take five years. The plan is to complete restoration of Neyami Savanna’s hydrology and the initial vegetation restoration in that time. Maintenance with prescribed fire and forest management will be ongoing.