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The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance

A Network for Conservation and Collaboration

James M. Affolter, Ph.D., GPCA Chair
Jennifer F. Ceska, Conservation Coordinator


Home | Contents | Abstract | The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (USA) | GPCA and Its Members | Need for Plant Conservation in Georgia | The GEPSN Education Project | Settling In and Gaining Support



Abstract

In July of 1995 a statewide network for plant conservation was established — the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA). For the first time in Georgia (USA), botanical gardens, state agencies, universities, and non-profit environmental organizations joined forces to coordinate research, education, and conservation programs focused upon threatened and endangered plants. Charter members of GPCA include three botanical gardens (Atlanta Botanical Garden, Callaway Gardens, and The State Botanical Garden of Georgia), the State Heritage Program, US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, and the University of Georgia. This Alliance, one of the first of its kind in the United States, is already being studied by neighboring states and national conservation organizations as a model for their own programs. GPCA’s interdisciplinary structure is well suited to addressing the scientific, social, and regulatory complexities of conservation issues.

GPCA has made a commitment to keep this alliance by and for specific projects. Current projects include restoration and management of pitcherplant bogs and the creation of a manual on bog habitat management; propagation, genetics, and management of a Georgia endemic tree, Elliottia racemosa; safeguarding Torreya taxifolia; and creation of historic species manuals to promote the search for Georgia’s lost plant species. We also have an in-school conservation project titled the Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (GEPSN) where children become stewards of the environment by propagating and caring for rare plants. To increase communication around the state, we have just produced our first annual GPCA newsletter, and to better support teachers and students in the stewardship network, we created a GEPSN newsletter, the Green Plant Blues News, and a GEPSN web site. From rigorous scientific research to hands-on stewardship projects with elementary schools, the combined resources, expertise and outreach strategies of GPCA members provide powerful tools for plant conservation in Georgia.

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A little more than two years ago, representatives from a diverse group of organizations agreed to form a new statewide organization in the state of Georgia, USA - the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA). The driving concept behind the new Alliance was to bring together institutions from around the state to develop and implement a cooperative agenda of plant conservation programs. Our hope was that by sharing our individual resources and fields of expertise, we could collectively begin to reverse the patterns of extinction and destruction of critical habitat that are overwhelming our native flora. We also hoped to cut through some red tape and bureaucratic inertia in the process.

For years numerous organizations and individuals across the state have been working to gather information concerning Georgia's rare plants and to actively ensure their survival. In July of 1995, organizations that had been working together informally for more than a decade formed this conservation network in an effort to limit duplication of projects, but more importantly to pool resources. We organized our activities around specific projects, chosen to represent a range of research and management approaches. We also adopted what is known as an "integrated conservation strategy," combining on-site and off-site activities and utilizing a range of technologies drawn from ecological, genetic, and horticultural sciences. Each project involves a team of participants — botanical garden staff, land managers, state and federal botanists, and university scientists — working side-by-side. The informal network of collaborators has grown to include private landowners, volunteers, and conservation professionals in Georgia and adjacent states.

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GPCA And Its Members

The Alliance includes three botanical 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 neighboring 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 GPCA member organizations own or manage research facilities and nature reserves across Georgia (see map). Our combined professional expertise embraces the entire field of plant conservation, from laboratory research to natural areas management and conservation education.

The second major commitment of the Alliance is to highlight Georgia’s rich natural heritage and its present state of endangerment. This effort draws upon one of the greatest resources of the Alliance — a built-in audience of hundreds of thousands of people who visit and support its member institutions. GPCA participants include skilled educators experienced in bringing the subject of plant conservation to life though in-school programs, garden exhibits, publications, field trips, and electronic media. Establishment of the Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (described later) is one of the Alliance’s most exciting accomplishments.

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Need for Plant Conservation in Georgia

Just how urgent is the need for plant conservation in Georgia? The state's flora is diverse, with more than 3,000 species of vascular plants and numerous unusual and fragile habitats. It's borders extend from the Atlantic Ocean into the southern Appalachian Mountains, supporting a wide variety of mountain, piedmont, and coastal plain plant communities. Sites rich in endemics include the Blue Ridge Mountains, granite outcrops, cedar glades, the Ohoopee Dunes, and the Okefenokee Swamp. But the southeast is also one of the most rapidly developing regions of the United States.

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 one-third 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 approximately 609 Georgia plants that are of conservation concern. It is becoming more apparent all the time that cooperation between institutions charged with the responsibility of conserving species is a fundamentally important strategy for plant conservation.

GPCA was created to target this issue, and one of our first tasks was to identify 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 overstory growth). These long-term projects illustrate the depth of collaboration in GPCA. We emphasize projects to stay "project driven." Beyond investigating these projects, we work to distribute our results to land managers, scientists, and educators through direct correspondence and through publications.

The following projects are in progress and each represents a long-term commitment by the Alliance membership:

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The GEPSN Education Project

The Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (GEPSN) mentioned previously is GPCA’s premier education project developed by Anne Shenk and Jennifer Ceska of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. Launched in 1996, the GEPSN project is an in-school plant propagation project where students become stewards of the environment by propagating and caring for native species (including state protected plants) both in their classroom and on their school site. To participate, teachers first attend a training workshop, titled "The Green Plant Blues." Five GEPSN workshops have been held to date with approximately 120 teachers trained and 26 outdoor classrooms and bogs built. Workshops prepare participants to teach about Georgia's endangered species, conservation issues, propagation, and related science inquiry activities. The workshops also provide an opportunity for teachers to meet and learn from GPCA scientists. We plan to offer several workshops a year at host sites around the state. In 1999 we will offer our first workshop via the distance learning network to enable teachers throughout the state access to this program. The GEPSN project has its own web site (www.uga.edu/BotGarden/GEPSN) and newsletter (The Green Plant Blues News). Funding has been provided by grants from the Eisenhower Plan for the Advancement of Math and Science and the Turner Foundation, Inc.

Although teachers can apply for seeds of several species of protected plants of Georgia for their outdoor classroom including Ocmulgee Skullcap (Scutellaria ocmulgee) and Atlantic White Cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), the pitcherplants and bogs are being featured initially in the project. Their carnivory is a useful teaching tool allowing interpretation of plant/animal interactions and loss of habitat due to multiple complicated factors. Plant material of these species is available for their propagation in schools thanks to the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG). Ron Determann (ABG) provided technical expertise to develop pitcherplant bogs on school sites which has been a very exciting and successful element of the project. Data classes collect in their outdoor classrooms (pollinators, bloom time, seed counts) may assist scientists studying Georgia's endangered plants.

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GPCA Settling In and Gaining Support

During January, 1996, we were fortunate to welcome Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson (BGCI) and Dr. Brien Meilleur (CPC) to one of the Alliance meetings. Collaborating with national and international conservation networks is a natural and important step for regional alliances, and we appreciated the advice they were able to provide. In addition to continuing work on our conservation projects, our immediate goals include formalizing the governance and by-laws for the GPCA, drafting an action plan, and broadening our base of financial support.

One of the most pleasant surprises during our first three years has been how smoothly the gears of this new organization have meshed. In part this is due to the fact that many GPCA participants have been working together on smaller projects for years; pieces of the network were already in existence. We also made the conscious decision to stay lean and grow slowly. By focusing on specific projects, we hoped to avoid creating an administrative marshmallow that would collapse upon itself when initial funds or enthusiasm ran out. Finally, the timing was right. Georgia needs a coordinated effort to protect its endangered flora. GPCA member institutions saw the wisdom of joining forces in the effort.


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