Nestled along the Georgia coastline, the Ceylon Wildlife Management Area features a pristine and extraordinary mix of salt marsh, maritime forest, and fire-adapted longleaf pine habitats enjoyed by birders, hikers, hunters, and fishermen. Yet not long ago, the future of this magnificent place was completely in doubt.
Once highly threatened by resort, residential, and commercial development, these 16,000 acres were, until late 2019, the state’s largest undeveloped, unprotected Atlantic coastline property. That is, until the Open Space Institute — with support of the Wyss Foundation — and The Conservation Fund stepped up to protect the property, enabling creation of the Wildlife Management Area in early 2020.
Safeguarding a keystone species
Not only does the vast, uninterrupted size of the Ceylon property make it a must-see for local recreationists, it also creates the ideal home for one very special creature.
With wise eyes and scaly, shovel-like front legs, the Gopher tortoise is a keystone species whose burrows provide shelter for approximately 350 other wildlife species. More than 2,000 individual tortoises live on the property — whose conservation has brought the state’s long-term Gopher tortoise protection goals to 90 percent completion.
In 2015, the Open Space Institute was challenged by the Wyss Foundation to identify large swaths of land available for conservation in the Eastern US that abutted existing public land, with an eye toward expanding wilderness in the dense and fragmented part of the country. In just four years, OSI’s Eastern Lands Initiative successfully met this challenge — protecting five large properties totaling more than 37,000 wilderness acres and connecting to nearly 2.7 million acres of protected land. This project was protected as a part of the Eastern Lands Initiative which continues to practice largescale conservation in the Eastern US.
The property is also home to Eastern indigo snakes, the longest snake native to North America, and has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a recovery site for the federally threatened snake species.
Reassurance in the face of a changing climate
Conservation of the property also provides some insurance against climate change: with no development to interfere, the marsh will be able to move upslope and persist even as sea levels rise.
This natural buffer will provide some support to local communities and infrastructure, and over the long term to the growing population centers along the Atlantic coast.