By Morgan Bettcher and Melanie Flood

’Ever heard of the Multistate Sandhills/Upland Longleaf Ecological Restoration Project?

Maybe not. But it is a vital conservation effort, and one we are very familiar with (more on that later).

On the surface, the project is about habitat restoration for gopher tortoises, a keystone species. But zoom out and it’s clear the overall focus is restoring part of a Southeastern ecosystem that has been degraded and threatened for generations by changing land uses.

The restoration centers on sandhills across six states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana. The work is funded by State Wildlife Grants, a federal program that helps states meet their State Wildlife Action Plan goals. In Georgia, the Department of Natural Resources joined with nonprofits, private landowners and other agencies to develop and implement the project.

Longleaf and Gophers

As the name implies, this effort is rooted in restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem. Only about 3 percent of this ecosystem is left. That startling statistic that underscores the urgency for conservation.

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Gopher tortoise exiting burrow. Photo credit: Georgia DNR

You’ve likely heard of the longleaf pine and its long, green, Dr. Seuss-like needles. The longleaf pine is an important part of this ecosystem. Another important part is the gopher tortoise. Their burrows, dug in the soft sand, can reach 52 feet long and create habitat for more than 300 other species.

The longleaf ecosystem evolved with fire; therefore, many species here need fire to thrive. Prescribed fire, or controlled burning, is the main technique used for restoration, although there are others, including planting longleaf, reducing hardwoods, removing invasive species and restoring groundcover.

Progress is gauged by protocols such as tortoise and bird breeding surveys and vegetation monitoring.

That’s where we come in. We are Morgan and Melanie (M&M). From September through December 2018, we were the Wildlife Conservation Section’s vegetation monitoring team.

That fall, we visited sandhills from the Fall Line to the coast. Before joining DNR, neither of us had seen a sandhill. Sure, everyone sees dunes when visiting the beach. But hills of sand in middle Georgia?

Rich in Life

Sandhills are unique features of the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, formed by ancient rivers, coastlines, winds and time. They are scattered widely across the southern half of Georgia. You’ll recognize them on the landscape as isolated rises where the soil abruptly changes to, you guessed it, loose, white sand.

Lichens and moss on Altamaha grit outcrop.
Lichens and moss on an Altamaha grit outcrop. Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

If you are a plant, sand is a difficult place to live. Yet the sandhills are full of life! And most of it is very different from what you see in the rest of Georgia. An exciting part of our field season was learning a new set of botanical species that specialize in surviving these hot, dry, fire-prone slopes.

When we first began the season, we were stopping every few minutes to examine a new flower or grass. If you are a botanizer, too, we recommend taking a walk in one of these areas.

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Sticky false foxglove (Aureolaria pectinata). Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

But back to our job: collecting data for the Multistate Sandhills Restoration project. Starting in 2009, before that project began in earnest, DNR picked sites around the state for long-term monitoring. Every two to four years since, crews like us have collected data on the vegetation structure to explore how the sites are responding to management, particularly prescribed fire and timber harvest. The targets are more herbaceous plants in the groundcover, fewer woody shrubs and a more open and longleaf-rich canopy – a plant community closer to what sandhills once had and better habitat for gopher tortoises.

Fire Required

Something we saw through the project is that fire works. The first area we monitored, Blackjack Crossing at Chattahoochee Fall Line Wildlife Management Area, was luscious. With a mostly longleaf pine canopy (the WMA is a former longleaf plantation), it was like we had died and gone to restoration heaven. Fire has helped open the canopy and understory, allowing light and room for a diverse herbaceous layer.

longleaf pine ecosystem
Longleaf pine at Blackjack Crossing at Chattahoochee Fall Line WMA. Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

The groundcover was a vivid green, with bursts of yellow and purple from the blooms of goldenrod and blazing stars. We filled our field notebooks with names like sandhill buckwheat and Carolina wireplant.

On the flip side, some of our most challenging sampling was in sections of Flat Tub WMA where prescribed fire has been on hold for logistical reasons. Parts were thick with blackberry, greenbrier and grape vines – not fun to walk or crawl through, especially when trying to measure vegetation in straight lines.

But the growth wasn’t just difficult for botanists; practically nothing else could grow under such a dense understory. Compared to Blackjack, and even other sections of Flat Tub, these areas were practically devoid of the wildflowers and the habitat that supports a healthy sandhill ecosystem.

Favorite Sites

A cool aspect of Flat Tub is the presence of Altamaha grit outcrops. The outcrops are patches of exposed stone in areas of clay and sandstone. As if the beautiful coloration of the stone wasn’t enough, some neat plants live in the shallow sand and moss on the rock formations. One species is rayless goldenrod. It has only star-shaped disc flowers (no sunflower-like rays as on other goldenrods), features a flat-top inflorescence (the plant is also called “flat-top goldenrod”) and bunches near the ground in a cluster of basal leaves.

rayless goldenroad
Rayless or flat-top goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii). Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

One of our favorite sites was Ohoopee Dunes WMA, which features some of Georgia’s tallest sand dunes and has seen plenty of prescribed fire. The habitat is mostly longleaf pine and scrubby turkey oaks. The tiny pine barren stitchwort is found here, its white flowers popping against the cream-colored sand background, and deer moss, a lichen that detaches from the ground with a puff to float in the wind like tumbleweed. Scarlet calamint and honeycomb head add drama with bursts of scarlet and gold.

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Pine barren stichwort (Minuartia caroliniana). Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

Toward the end of the season we finally got to visit Townsend WMA near Darien, our first coastal sandhill! We loved seeing the difference in habitat, with the saw palmettos, sand live oaks and blueberries. The sandhill area we monitored at Townsend is transitioning from invasive sand pine plantation to restored longleaf habitat, opening the way for fire to maintain unique plant communities.

Close to the mouth of the Altamaha River, Townsend is pocked with wetlands that provide refuge to water-loving plants like the state- listed rare pond spice. We also learned about more species, including rare ones like trailing milkvine and shortspike bluestem.

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Seasonal wetland with shortspike bluestem (Andropogon brachystachyus). Photo credit: Melanie Flood/Georgia DNR

Team Approach

With winter setting in, we ended our work in December, having collected data from nearly 300 coordinates across seven sandhill conservation areas. The information is being meshed with data from previous years to document how the landscapes are responding to management.

Quantifying what is seen in the field tests our assumptions, refining restoration of these unique systems.

Melanie Flood in thicket
Melanie in a Flat Tub thicket. Photo credit: Georgia DNR

This work could not be done without a network of people who care about Georgia’s natural history. Throughout the field season, we were aided by an array of DNR staff, students, volunteers and other botanical enthusiasts who did everything from fieldwork to helping us navigate unfamiliar dirt roads!

We’re thankful for all involved in the Multistate Sandhills Restoration project, and hope our efforts have helped keep these habitats on the path to recovery.

Morgan Bettcher is now a DNR wildlife technician and Melanie Flood remains active with Wildlife Conservation’s botany program.