Thousands of acres dedicated here to conservation project

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Posted: Monday, February 4, 2008 10:52 pm | Updated: 11:16 am, Tue Jul 29, 2014.

MOULTRIE — The Pine Barrens of Colquitt County are gone. Less than 5,000 acres of “the way we were” remain, and that’s precisely why John Carlton and a handful other property owners have chosen to set aside thousands of acres in conservation easements.

Once upon a time, 30 million acres of longleaf pine extended throughout the U.S. Coastal Plain. Now in the whole country, only 3 million acres are tallied.

With more than 100,000 acres under conservation easement in the greater Red Hills Area, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy is the largest regional land trust in Georgia and Florida. In Thomas County alone, more than 25,000 acres have been placed under conservation easement.

Of the 23 conservation easements done through Tall Timbers last year, 18 were in Southwest Georgia, Tall Timbers Land Conservancy Director Kevin McGorty said Monday. That means nearly 30,000 acres of land have been preserved from development. Carlton Farms is the first in Colquitt County to set aside property into a conservation easement.

Carlton Farms put 1,175 acres of longleaf pine and wiregrass into a conservation easement. Local attorney John Carlton’s great grandfather bought the land in 1895. Over the years, some of it was developed into subdivisions such as Carlton Woods, Countryside and Wiregrass.

When the federal government presented a new, juicier carrot to tempt landowners into creating preserves, Carlton, who has worked on numerous conservation easements for the Nature Conservancy over the years, realized the time had come. He presented the idea to shareholders and to their children, the next generation of shareholders, to see whether they would rather have the option of potentially having a lot of money or protecting a bit of the wild.

“And all the next generation said they would rather keep the property like it is. That’s the Ochlockonee River bottom right there,” he said, pointing through a break in the woods. “And a lot of turkeys come right up through this pipeline, and Mike said there were five gobblers down there the other day. This is just a wildlife haven, because nobody messes with them.”

Mike works for Ashburn Plantation, which has rights to hunt quail on the property. No one is permitted, Carlton said, to shoot turkey.

In the U.S. currently, there are 1,700 land trusts with 30 million acres of land conserved through this conservation easement concept, McGorty said. President Bush enhanced federal tax incentives for conservation easements through the Pension Act in 2006. Congress is poised to make that benefit permanent or at least extend it through 2008, he said. The U.S. Senate has put the enhanced tax benefits in the farm bill while the House has put the enhancements in another bill. The proposals are now in conference committee.

Before, landowners could deduct 30 percent of the land’s value off income tax up to a five-year period. The enhanced incentive offered a 50-percent deduction, Carlton said, which can be taken over a 15-year period. Georgia is providing a substantial tax credit for donated easements and has established a $50 million pool to purchase easements as well, he said.

Several landowners in Colquitt County scrambled to get in paperwork before expiration of the enhanced incentives at the end of 2007.

Other properties entered into conservation easements locally are owned by Hoyt Whelchel and family, Victor Beadles and family, John Norman of Quail Ridge Plantation and family and Jimmy Jeter and Dr. C. Richard King of Arrowhead Farms.

“At one time the southeastern United States contained over 90 million acres of longleaf pines which were flourishing in a native wiregrass groundcover ecosystem. Less than 2 percent of that ecosystem remains today, and that drastic decline makes it one of the most critically endangered ecosystems in the world,” Jeter said. “Our parcel is tiny by many standards, but we are certainly willing to give up the development rights on that land in order to leave it the way God created it.”

“The federal government recognizes it can’t buy all the environmentally sensitive land,” McGorty said. “It can’t make it all national parks and national forests, and so this is a great way in keeping watersheds clean, keeping great forests intact — these upland pine forests intact. Families can keep owning them, pay the local taxes on them, continue to farm them and continue to have sustainable forestry (with the exception of within hardwood bottom areas), continue to hunt on them. Property owners can still maintain ownership, but the conservation values that are identified in the easements are protected in perpetuity.”

The easements would even allow a family to build a new housesite, he said. But really, the easements are set forth to prevent speculative development.

In Colquitt County, the easements protect the headwaters of the Ochlockonee River and the some of the last remnants, he said, of the longleaf pine and wiregrass stands. A conservation management plan is required to protect existing species and forested area. Clearcutting is prohibited.

“We’re not looking to take the economic value out of the land. We’re not looking to strip that value. What we’re looking to do is to present an option for families to still use it economically as they’re currently but not flip it to box stores or to a residential subdivisions,” McGorty said.

“I think in the future recreational use of woodlands is going to be very, very valuable, because there’s not any more of it,” Carlton said.

The longleaf/wiregrass forest in some cases has a higher degree of biodiversity than South America, he said.

“Biodiversity isn’t in the trees, but it’s in the ground cover and the plants associated with it. We have about 65 endangered species in this area as well,” he said.

The longleaf pine ecosystem can have as many as 50 species of plants per square meter.

“In the spring when everything starts blooming, you get all these different little wildflowers and you get blues, whites, pinks and yellows. They go through a succession of blooming all summer long,” Carlton said.

While in the stand, Carlton squats down to examine a woody stem only inches high.

“That is an oak tree. That is a full-grown oak tree,” he said, showing off a dwarf oak also known as a runner oak. “Once you plow it up, it’s gone. And it only exists in native habitats.”

The Carlton Farms easement is home to state and listed species, including gopher tortoise, Sherman’s fox squirrel, the reclusive Bachman’s sparrows, Henslow’s sparrows and potentially the mimic glass lizard. Auburn University determined the Carlton Farms to be second most prolific area for gopher tortoise in the area of Worth, Thomas and Colquitt counties.

On Carlton Farm, several species of special concern were found by Tall Timbers ecologists, including state protected species of insect-eating trumpet and hooded pitcher plants and three species of orchid. The property is potentially habitat for Tracy’s dew-threads (a hooded pitcher plant) and parrot pitcher plant. Canopy species of tree include red maple, tulip poplar, water oak and laurel oak.

What is now Arrowhead Farms in Worth County, owned by Jeter and King, once was owned by the late Phillip Causey. Although he farmed all around it, Causey left that 150 acres as hunting grounds for the community, Jeter said. Found on Arrowhead Farms’ 482 total acreage are hooded, trumpet and parrot pitcher plants, beauty berry, St. John’s wort, wild azalea and numerous types of fern and gopher tortoises. Also found in the longleaf/wiregrass habitat are Georgia’s signature bobwhite quail and species on the decline such as brown-headed nuthatch, red-headed woodpecker and field sparrow, including Bachman’s sparrow.

Arrowhead Farms provides breeding and migratory habitat for neotropical migrant songbirds, including warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers, cuckoos and thrushes. Also detected on the property were the northern parula, yellow-throated vireo, summer tanager, eastern wood pewee, yellow billed cuckoo and wood thrush.

The easement preserve is also a recharge area for the Floridan aquifer and is leased to Quail Ridge Plantation for pen-raised quail hunting.

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