Originally created 08/24/02

Federal funding supports research



A federal grant awarded to Savannah River Ecology Lab will finance four years of research into the unique ecology of the Sand Hills region that includes much of east Georgia, including Augusta.

Scientists will use the $940,000 grant to focus on rare and endangered plants and wildlife at three military properties - Savannah River Site, Fort Gordon and Fort Benning, Ga., near Columbus.

"A number of military bases, and Savannah River Site, happen to be located on the Fall Line area," said Rebecca Sharitz, the study's principal investigator. "Historically, it was poor agricultural land - not of high value - and maybe easier for the federal government to acquire."

The Fall Line, or Sandhills area, is a line of prehistoric sand dunes that once flanked an ancient seashore. It bisects the Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions and supports an array of unusual wildlife.

"Today, with development, these bases have become much more important in maintaining higher species' richness," Dr. Sharitz said. "Some of the best and most unique communities are found on these federal lands."

The project's list of objectives and potential applications are as long as its name: Impacts of Military Training and Land Management on Threatened and Endangered Species in the Southeastern Fall Line/Sandhills Community.

The Sandhills region includes the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally endangered species that prefers 100- to 125-year-old longleaf pines for nesting.

At one time, there were 90 million acres of longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat in the Southeast, but only about 10 percent of those areas remain, and less than 1 percent of what remains is old growth.

Gopher tortoises, whose unique burrows provide shelter for scores of other species and many rare or threatened plants, also inhabit the areas to be studied, Dr. Sharitz said.

"We saw an opportunity to carry out a study that looks at not just exploring ways to protect a single species of conservation concern," but also finding out more about entire ecosystems, she said.

The research will be used to develop methods to better protect and restore rare habitats and offer advice to military authorities on how best to mingle defense activities within the fragile ecosystems.

Other SREL scientists involved in the study include Steve Harper, Whit Gibbons, Beverly Collins, Kurt Buhlmann, Tracey Tuberville, John Dilustro, Don Imm and James Westervelt.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.