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Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance Formed

Volume 2 Number 7 - December 1996

J. Affolter & J. Ceska

For years, numerous organisations and individuals across the State of Georgia have been working to gather information concerning Georgia's rare plants and to actively ensure their survival. We are pleased to report that in July, 1995, these groups formed a new coalition - The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance - for the specific purpose of conserving Georgia's most threatened and endangered plant species. The State Botanical Garden played a major role in creating the Alliance and we are proud to be one of its charter members.

The Alliance includes four botanic gardens, government agencies, non-profit environmental organizations, and the University of Georgia. It is one of the first coalitions of its kind and is already being studied by neighbouring states and national conservation organizations as a model for their own programs. The mission of the Alliance is to coordinate and carry out research, education, and conservation programs concerning Georgia's endangered plants. As a group, members of the Alliance can draw upon resources that no individual organization in the state could possibly match. Collectively we own or manage research facilities and nature reserves across Georgia. Our combined professional expertise embraces the entire field of plant conservation, from laboratory research to natural areas management and conservation education. Finally, Alliance organizations already reach out to a large percentage of the state's population through newsletters and a variety of public education programs. The four botanic gardens alone attract more than one million visitors annually (see BOX).

Charter Members of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance

  • The State Botanical Garden of Georgia
  • Atlanta Botanical Garden
  • Callaway Gardens
  • Georgia Southern Botanical Garden
  • The State Heritage Programm (Dept of Natural Resources)
  • U.S. Forest Service
  • The Nature Conservancy of Georgia
  • The University of Georgia

Just how urgent is the need for plant conservation in the United States? After all, we hear frequent news reports about disappearing tropical rainforests and endangered owls, but when was the last time the network news flashed a picture of an endangered shrub from Georgia on the screen? It's not surprising that most people are more interested in soft furry endangered animals than in rare plants (botanists have been losing that public relations battle for decades) but it is surprising that many people in the United States who are genuinely concerned about tropical forests are unaware of the extinction clock ticking in their own backyards.

Commercial development, expansion of metropolitan areas, immigration, the Olympics - all these high profile activities reflect the rapid growth taking place in Georgia. But one of the downsides associated with this changing human landscape has been the gradual erosion of the number of native plant species that occur in our state, as well as the size and health of their individual populations. This is part of a much larger pattern of species loss occurring across the country. A national survey of botanists and horticulturists completed in 1988 by the Center for Plant Conservation concluded that 680 plant species in the United States could become extinct by the year 2000. A recent report by The Nature Conservancy considers nearly oneÄthird of the nation's estimated 15,495 species of flowering plants to be of conservation concern.

We are fortunate in having an excellent and up-to-date reference for Georgia's rare plants that was published by the Georgia Natural Heritage Program in 1995 - Protected Plants of Georgia. This manual provides detailed information concerning 103 of the most threatened plants in the state, those that are formally protected by the Georgia Wildflower Preservation Act of 1973. This is only a short list however; the Georgia Natural Heritage Program database tracks 609 Georgia plants that are of conservation concern.

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance was created to target this issue and one of our first tasks was to identify four projects that addressed top priority plant conservation needs in the state. Since one of the strengths of the Alliance is the diverse expertise of the participants, we chose projects that combine research (e.g., propagation methods, genetic surveys) with on- and off-site management activities (e.g. establishment of cultivated germplasm collections, controlled burning of natural habitats to discourage overstorey growth).

These projects can be summarized as follows:

  • protection and management of Elliottia racemosa (Georgia plume), a rare and beautiful shrub found only in eastern Georgia;
  • recovery of Torreya taxifolia, a conifer now known from only a few localities along the Georgia Florida border; the remaining populations are few in number and severely infected with a fungal blight;
  • conservation of Georgia's diverse mountain and coastal plain bog communities; these wetland habitats and their endemic pitcherplant species are disappearing at an alarming rate due to drainage, shifting hydrology, invasion by weedy species, erosion, and fire suppression;
  • a systematic search for Georgia's historical plants (approximately 50 species have not been seen in the state for the last 20 years, but may still exist in isolated areas).

The Alliance also has a scientific advisory committee and an edcuation committee. The education committee has already received a grant from the Eisenhower Foundation to provide teacher-training workshops this summer for an in-school endangered plant program.

We anticipate the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance will grow as we develop new partnerships and welcome additional specialists to our conservation programs. Faculty members, postdoctoral researchers, and staff at the University of Georgia are already participating and more students will be encouraged to become involved in rare plant research and conservation education programs. The opportunity to work with prominent conservation organisations in Georgia will provide a unique educational experience for students and exposure to some of the many different approaches to rare plant conservation.