History, both natural and human, lives in Georgia coastal preserve
Woodbine, Georgia — The state’s newest Wildlife Management Area sits a half mile off Interstate 95, yet a world removed from the hurly-burly of modern life. Pass the entrance on Ceylon Road, which runs through some of the Southeast’s most beautiful and pristine coastal lands, and step back in time.
Stately stands of longleaf pine and live oak, some two centuries old, tower over savannah-like prairies and freshwater wetlands. More than 4,000 burrows, home to at-risk gopher tortoises, dot the landscape. Artesian water bubbles up from the ground in spots from the aquifer below.
And then there’s the vine-covered Ceylon Cemetery, with one graveyard for whites and another for blacks, offering stark reminders of the former plantation and timber mill communities that once prospered along the banks of the Satilla River.
History, both manmade and natural, abounds at the Ceylon Wildlife Management Area, an enchanting coastal redoubt made possible, in part, with financial and scientific support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Cynthia Bohn, who, until recently, was the Service’s Coastal Program coordinator in the Southeast. “The large expanse of undeveloped coastline. The sort of untouched old growth areas. The history. And the habitat for just a whole myriad of coastal species. It’s one of the premier coastal properties in Georgia, for sure. It’s a special place.”
Yet the importance of the Ceylon tract goes well beyond cultural and recreational amenities (including hunting) offered by the one of the largest unprotected tracts along the Eastern seaboard. Ceylon, and the adjoining Cabin Bluff tract, serve as critical linchpins in conservationists’ plans to create a seamless conservation corridor along the Georgia coast and into Florida.
“Ceylon is the connective tissue tying together the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, the Satilla River, the salt marshes and the barrier islands,” said Jason Lee, head of wildlife conservation on the coast for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “We’re creating all sorts of pathways for red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, black bears, migratory birds and wading birds. It’s really just a big transportation corridor. And it’s not just for Georgia; it’s a regional corridor.”
“Tons of history all over this place”
Ceylon isn’t the typical public-private conservation deal. The wealth of habitats and rare species makes the 16,000-acre tract a naturalist’s dream. And then there’s the fascinating history which, Lee insists, will remain a key part of Ceylon’s story.
The village of Yufera, home to the Timucuan Native Americans, was perched on a bluff above the Satilla River. By 1650, though, with the advent of Spanish settlers and their diseases, the Timucua who once spread across large swaths of Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida had been wiped out. A century later, the English conveyed land grants to their settlers, including James Nephew, a prominent planter in Georgia and South Carolina. The plantation was named for Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), the South Asian country renowned for its rice and tea plantations. Roughly 120 African-American slaves worked the rice fields before the Civil War, according to the state of Georgia.
After the war, with the slaves freed and the plantation system dead, locals turned to timber and naval stores for their livelihoods. Massive longleaf pine logs were floated down the Satilla to a deep water harbor alongside Ceylon for export. The Ceylon Mill Village, built in 1874, flourished into the new century until the pine forests were decimated. In 1915, according to local lore, a night watchman didn’t add enough water to the mill’s boiler prompting the boiler to explode and rocket to the other side of the river.
About all that remains today are the dead. The Ceylon Cemetery is shrouded in moss-covered oaks, tall pines, sparkleberry and saw palmetto. Most of the headstones are illegible or decayed. Not William McNish’s. He was a plantation owner, who died in 1828, and wealthy enough to encircle his rather ornate tombstone with a wrought iron fence to keep hogs and cows at bay. Mrs. Eliza J. Peaddick wasn’t as fortunate: a gopher tortoise burrow lies underneath her headstone.
Nobody knows how many African-Americans are buried in the sandy soil. Surveys indicate 76 graves, but most are unmarked, their wooden crosses long since disintegrated in the near-tropical torpor. Baileys, Harrises, Mungins and Sheffields are buried here, though. And so is Corporal Andrew Bailey, an ex-slave believed to have served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
“We definitely want to clear all this up,” said the DNR’s Lee, who spent seven years cobbling together the Ceylon deal. “There’s just tons of history all over this place.”
Stitching together the needed funding
The Sea Island Company, owners of the posh Sea Island resort 15 miles up the coast, also owned the Ceylon and Cabin Bluff tracts and offered prime hog, deer and turkey hunts to their well-heeled clientele. Cabin Bluff served as a hunting club and retreat, with golf course, swimming pool, conference center and just-so cabins. There were plans to build 10,000 homes, shops and marinas until the economy collapsed in 2008. A Texas private equity group bought the properties in 2010. The Nature Conservancy, along with the Open Space Institute (OSI) and private donors, bought the 11,000-acre spread eight years later to, in essence, hold until the state of Georgia and partners could afford it. TNC, though, is selling the cabins, conference center and 3,250 acres for $15 million. A conservation easement will remain on the coastal property no matter the buyer.
The Conservation Fund, along with the OSI, bought the adjoining Ceylon property and will one day transfer it to the state as well. A slew of private nonprofits, including the Robert W. Woodruff, Bobolink and Knobloch Family foundations, have also kicked in substantial money. Lee is busy applying for grants from federal and state sources. Georgia, via its still-new Outdoor Stewardship Program that voters approved in 2018, will kick in $6 million for the Ceylon and Cabin Bluff properties. The U.S. Department of Defense may join the funding bandwagon due to its desire to keep boats away from its submarines at the nearby Kings Bay naval base.
Fish and Wildlife is considering requests from Lee, including two, million-dollar National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant which are funded via excise taxes on fishing equipment and motorboat fuel.
“When a state like Georgia identifies areas that are critically important to us, and our trust resources, we try to provide them the financial support and expertise they need,” said the Service’s Bohn, who’s now a National Coastal Barrier Resources Act specialist. “These properties are expensive and you have to piece together lots of other funding sources.”
“The foundation of conservation science”
“Trust resources” are things like migratory birds, fish, threatened and endangered species — of which Ceylon has boatloads. Lee has tallied more than 2,000 individual gopher tortoises, a huge number that could go a long way towards keeping the at-risk species off the federally threatened or endangered lists. The turtles are keystone species that burrow deep into the ground providing habitat for 300 other reptiles, birds, amphibians and insects, including threatened eastern indigo snakes. Biologists have tagged 14 indigos on Ceylon and the Service expects to use the property as a recovery site for more snakes. Ceylon can also expect the translocation of red-cockaded woodpeckers, possibly from the nearby Fort Stewart Army Base.
“We’re assuming this is pretty much ready-made red-cockaded woodpecker habitat,” Lee said in the midst of a near-perfect, 200-acre longleaf pine savannah filled with tortoise burrows and pitcher plants. The state, like previous owners, will prescribe fire across the old plantations to boost pine habitats.
The abundance of more common species also excites wildlife officials.
“The wilderness conditions here are incredible, yet a huge emphasis in our work is public access and recreation,” said Maria Whitehead, a senior project manager for OSI while standing atop a 25-foot bluff on a bend in the Satilla River. “This is the largest unprotected piece of coastal property in Georgia, and maybe on the entire East Coast. And it’s all easily accessible to the public.”
Long-term, though, Ceylon’s real benefit might just be its location. It’s a key piece in a conservation puzzle that, once put together, will extend from Savannah through Fort Stewart down the Altamaha River corridor over to the Okefenokee and into the Big Bend area of Florida. Hundreds of years from now, even with the vagaries of a warming climate, creatures large and small will be able to migrate virtually unimpeded across hundreds of Southeastern miles.
“Wildlife corridors are the foundations of conservation science,” Bohn said. “Ceylon really puts that philosophy into action.”
Dan Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
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