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Coastal habitats mapped; seven new communities described
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BRUNSWICK — After three years, dozens of trips to the field, hundreds of hours in front of the computer and at least 20 collaborative meetings, a simple idea that grew into a full-blown multi-agency project is approaching the finish line.

A comprehensive habitat mapping and assessment project coordinated by the Nongame Conservation Section of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division will be completed this month, providing up-to-date information on the location and condition of natural communities in Georgia’s 11 coastal counties.

The vegetation mapping project is part of the larger Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative. The collaborative effort between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Conservancy and the Association County Commissioners of Georgia is aimed at preserving critical coastal lands and promoting sustainable growth and development in the state’s coastal region. The coastal assessment was outlined as a priority conservation action in the State Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides Wildlife Resources and DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.

To complete this massive mapping project within three years, the coastal counties were divided into two tiers. Georgia DNR botanists Eamonn Leonard and Jacob Thompson took the lead on the first six — Camden, Glynn, McIntosh, Liberty, Bryan and Chatham. Here, Leonard and Thompson mapped natural communities at the association level, the most detailed level in an international vegetation classification system developed by NatureServe, a nonprofit conservation organization.

The other five counties, Effingham, Long, Wayne, Brantley and Charlton, were mapped at the ecological system level by Matt Elliott, a nongame program manager, and Dylan Severens, a DNR GIS intern. While the ecological systems level is coarser in resolution, associations are nested within ecological systems in the NatureServe classification scheme, providing a common basis for conservation planning and regional assessments.

Jon Ambrose, assistant chief of the Nongame Conservation Section, said the products of the mapping project "represent an unprecedented data set that will be used in conservation planning for years to come."

DNR and its conservation partners will use the information to identify high-priority conservation lands in the coastal region through the Coastal Georgia Land Conservation Initiative.

Leonard said the work also illustrates to county planners, other biologists and the public "the richness of natural communities and resources that make up the Georgia coast."

The ecological communities of the coast represent a diverse set of natural resources that provide habitats for many rare plant and animal species, while also supporting basic ecological functions on which people rely. For example, the barrier islands and associated intertidal salt marshes help reduce the impact of storm surges on adjacent habitats, homes and developments.

The coastal assessment and mapping project has resulted in several notable discoveries. Seven previously undescribed plant associations have been documented and added to the international database of plant communities.

Thompson said botanists had to create names and descriptions for those natural communities. "For me, that was one of the more rewarding parts of the job," he said.

Efforts to define and protect globally rare natural communities will continue as a focus of the project in years to come.

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