A conservation victory for Georgia: Protection of 6,000 acre Boyles Island on the Altamaha River
The Altamaha River in southeast Georgia has been called “Georgia’s Amazon.”
It is a mighty river, formed at Lumber City by the confluence of the Oconee River and the Ocmulgee River, and flowing 137 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. The Altamaha meets the sea near Little St. Simons Island, pouring into it 100,000 gallons of fresh water per second.
Its lower reaches follow a serpentine course through Long, Wayne, McIntosh and Glynn counties, flanked by hundreds of thousands of acres of lush wetlands, deep swamps and sandy ridges. The river corridor harbors over 100 rare and endangered species of plants and animals, many of which are endemic to the watershed.
In the early 1990s, the leadership of the state recognized that the unique biodiversity of the lower Altamaha deserved protection.
Over the past 20 years, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has worked tirelessly to achieve permanent protection of a wide swath of the river corridor by working with a variety of private partners, including the Nature Conservancy in Georgia, the Georgia Conservancy and the Altamaha Riverkeeper. As a result, by 2009 almost all of the lower Altamaha was permanently protected.
This December, one of the last remaining unprotected tracts on the lower Altamaha, Boyles Island, also received permanent protection. The 6,000 acre island in the Wayne County portion of the Altamaha consists of oxbow lakes, bottomland hardwoods, freshwater wetlands and sandy river beaches.
Gov. Nathan Deal authorized the purchase of Boyles Island with a combination of state and federal funds and matching donations from private citizens. DNR will hold fee while the U.S. Marine Corps will hold a restrictive easement over the property.
“Boyles is full of endangered species from mussels to birds and turtles and provides incredible bird watching – warblers, wood ducks and swallow-tail kite,” said Noel Holcombe, former DNR Commissioner and one of the strongest proponents of conservation along the lower Altamaha. “A lot of the birds that we see nesting there will make their way to South America. This is such an important area in their lifecycle.”
In the fall of 2011, in response to a substantial challenge grant from the Knobloch Family Foundation for the purchase of Boyles Island, Conservancy President Pierre Howard met with Gov. Deal to advocate for inclusion of funds in the FY13 state budget for its purchase. When the governor included funds for the purchase of Boyles, the Georgia Conservancy advocacy team, led by Will Wingate, lobbied hard to make sure that the line item for Boyles Island funding stayed in the budget all the way to the governor’s desk. Current DNR Commissioner Mark Williams was instrumental in getting approval for the purchase from the board of DNR and from the General Assembly.
“The permanent protection of Boyles Island, a rare ecological gem, is an example of what can be accomplished when Georgians work together to protect our heritage,” said Conservancy President Pierre Howard. “Without the initiative and leadership of Gov. Deal in putting funding in his budget for the purchase of the island, its preservation would not have been possible since state funding is a pre-requisite to getting the federal and private funding necessary to meet the purchase price.”
“The preservation of Boyles Island will be a lasting legacy for Gov. Deal,” Howard continued. “And it is something that he will always be proud of. There is plenty of credit to go around, but I know full well that the fate of Boyles Island was in the governor’s hands. Our thanks also go to U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who helped us secure federal funding for the project.”
The acquisition of Boyles Island is a major victory for conservation in the state and for the eastern seaboard. Permanent protection of Boyles and the lower Altamaha is crucial for both the conservation of such a sensitive region and for access to the river by paddlers, birdwatchers and others who appreciate the natural beauty of this important watershed.
“When I lived on Ossabaw Island and Sapelo Island early in my career,” said Holcombe, “I began to understand just how important the lower Altamaha River and its delta are to the surrounding environments. There is just so much natural history, coastal history and sensitive ecology associated with that region that it would be a shame for it not to be protected. We should all be proud of this achievement.”
Following photos courtesy of Rayonier, Inc., former owner of Boyles Island:
The Georgia Conservancy will lead two paddling trips on the Altamaha this spring - Altamaha River to Sea Paddle in Darien (March 22-24) and the Three Rivers Paddle at Towns Bluff (April 19-21). SAVE THE DATE!