Originally created 02/23/01

Small staff maintains marshland



DARIEN, Ga. - The strip of marshy land near the mouth of the Altamaha River attracts all kinds.

In the winter, hunters rise before dawn and sit camouflaged waiting for ducks and geese. At other times, people with binoculars dangling around their necks wait more comfortably to catch glimpses of a rare bird.

Neither group would have such opportunities if it weren't for David Edwards and his staff of six who maintain the 3,500 acres of old rice fields that are the main attraction at the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area.

And it's not all that easy, Mr. Edwards said.

"Those [filtered word] don't just stay there," he said of the 31 miles of earthen mounds that hold in the water. And along those [filtered word] are 34 water control structures that keep the water at its necessary level.

To the average passer-by, it all looks pretty natural, but that's far from reality, Mr. Edwards said.

"This isn't nature. It's been altered for 200 years. It's owned by the state of Georgia and somebody's got to maintain it," he said.

It's not all maintained the same way. The area flooded for waterfowl covers three islands - 900-acre Butler Island, 600-acre Champney Island and 2,000-acre Rhetts Island - that are managed differently.

Easternmost Rhetts Island is kept flooded all the time and is a favorite resting and feeding place for migrating ducks and, as a result, hunters.

The other two islands are flooded during duck season, but the water level is lowered the rest of the year except for the ditches cut through the impoundments. That keeps the soil moist and promotes growth that birds like, Mr. Edwards said.

"It's a lot more cost effective to grow natural vegetation than to plow it up and plant something," he said.

That cost is shared among the Wildlife Resources Division of the Department of Natural Resources, federal funds from the Pittman-Robertson program and the Marsh Program of Memphis, Tenn.-based Ducks Unlimited.

The management area has 30,000 acres and extends up the Altamaha almost to the Wayne County line. Much of it is river swamp that Mr. Edwards and his crew leave to nature. In the uplands, the DNR clears out small areas of thick vegetation occasionally to provide feed plots for deer.

HEAD:Working with the past

When the area was first settled, the islands were covered with trees. Those were cleared in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and slaves built [filtered word] around them for rice cultivation.

The constant movement of the tide and the flooding Altamaha River breached many of the [filtered word], and owners in the 1950s tried farming some of the land.

The DNR's garage on Butler Island was a dairy barn when Col. Tillinghast L. Huston, a former owner of the New York Yankees, owned the island in the 1920s. He later sold it to tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, who sold it to the state in 1953 after a lot of work.

That work included building replacement [filtered word], Mr. Edwards said, as he drove his truck along a dike that doubles as a road.

All the [filtered word] were covered with trees, some of them large, and to have removed them would have meant unintentionally tearing down the [filtered word] and destroying some habitat, he said. And there were hundreds of breaches on the old [filtered word] where the water was free to come and go as nature dictated.

Instead of rebuilding, the state built [filtered word] within the old ones, Mr. Edwards said. That moved them back far enough from the river and tides to give them some protection, he said.

But that's often not enough.

"We're always fighting Mother Nature. If a hurricane comes along, you start thinking," he said.

HEAD:Bird-watching resource

Mr. Edwards' staff helps droves of duck hunters that converge on the islands during the season that typically begins around Thanksgiving and ends Dec. 20 when the ducks fly south.

People who don't hunt find their own way to enjoy the area. Among them is Greg Masson, an assistant field supervisor and environmental contaminants specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who goes to the Altamaha delta for something else.

"I just go out there and do some bird-watching," he said. "It's peaceful and there's a lot of wildlife."

"There's a tremendous amount of usage by the wildlife and animals," he said. "I think a lot of people like to see the natural areas and ducks and birds coming through."

Mr. Masson's assessment is that it is managed well, a perception shared by Gary Drury, a former member of the Coastal Georgia Audubon Society and the head of Georgia Coast Watch.

Mr. Drury, however, would like to see some changes, including the management of the property year round for waterfowl.

"That's just my opinion as a birder and an environmentalist," he said.

Mr. Drury finds plenty to like on the site, including visits by rare and endangered waterfowl.

"It's an excellent birding spot," he said. "We've been using it for years for waterfowl. Birders come here from all over the Southeast to bird that spot."

That is partly because of its location in the Atlantic flyway, and also because of the management practices, said Dan Denton, a regional director for Ducks Unlimited.

Ducks Unlimited has been a partner with DNR since 1987 and helps find other companies and organizations help share the costs of creating and maintaining waterfowl habitat, he said.

Mr. Denton confirmed that hunters from all over the state travel to the Altamaha to hunt, and the habitat for ducks and geese has turned out to be beneficial to other species. Ducks Unlimited contracted for a study in a managed area that turned up 250 species of birds and 60 species of mammals, including otters and mink, he said.

Ducks Unlimited gives the DNR about $100,000 each year to spend on waterfowl areas and its Marsh Committee, made up of volunteers, meets with the DNR to decide on how to spend the money.

"We consider Rhetts and Butler the premier waterfowl areas for the state," Mr. Denton said.