January 13, 2008

Rare Spider Lily Can Now Bloom Forever

A retired high school science teacher from West Point, Ga., has fulfilled a longtime dream of providing permanent protection for a natural area along Flat Shoals Creek in Harris County where rare shoal spider lilies bloom in May.

Stephen Johnson, 67, has placed 323 acres in a conservation easement so the land can never be developed, including 311 acres in a residual lifetime interest that upon his death will become property of the Georgia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

"I donated the conservation easement and the residual lifetime interest to The Nature Conservancy, but left out 11 acres around the cabin," said Johnson. "We completed it Dec. 21. The easement means it must be kept in a natural state. I wanted the property to be preserved as a nature preserve."

"Stephen's commitment to preserving Georgia's natural heritage is an example for landowners across the state," said Shelly Lakly, executive director of the Georgia chapter. "His foresight will have a lasting impact for generations to come, and we at The Nature Conservancy are proud to have him as a partner."

"It's something we've been looking forward to for years," said conservation ecologist Malcolm Hodges of The Nature Conservancy. "It's been on our list of important places since the late 1980s, when The Nature Conservancy got with the Natural Heritage Program, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, to identify important natural areas in Georgia. It's one of the top 10 lists that grows to 50.

"The main thing right now, he (Johnson) has relinquished all conservation rights to that property. That's the big development we're celebrating. He has his rights as a landowner. We will work with Steve to manage the land in a way that protects the integrity of it and gets under control certain nibbling problems. We can get rid of some of the wisteria and Chinese privet. They can out-compete some of the native plants," Hodges said.

Hodges said an important aspect of the action is that there's "no possibility of timber harvest. The timber rights are ours; no disturbing of the soils. We even have rights to do prescribed burning. In some secluded areas we may try to put in fire breaks and inject some prescribed burning."

The 11-acre tract that includes Johnson's cabin will go to another conservation group, The Wilderness Network of Georgia.

By placing the property in a residual lifetime interest, the 311 acres will automatically go to The Nature Conservancy upon his death without going through Probate Court, Johnson said.

"They essentially own the title, but I still own the property and pay taxes on it. It's not part of my estate anymore," he said.

He said the property is thought to have been in his family since the 1830s, though deeds go back only to 1874. Johnson has owned the property since 1977 and part of it before that.

The rare lilies, which bloom from May 10-30 annually, bloom along a quarter-mile of Flat Shoals Creek where it runs through his property. Only three sizeable populations have been found in Georgia: Flat Shoals Creek, the Flint and Broad rivers.

It is considered a threatened plant under the Georgia listing. Johnson said he believes the population in Flat Shoals, off Ga. 103 east of West Point, may be the largest compact population.

Each May, he invites the public to visit the shoals and see the lilies, and he said he plans to do so again this year.

The Nature Conservancy's mission is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive. The 55-year-old organization has 1 million members worldwide and 18,000 members in Georgia.

Since 1964, the Georgia chapter has been involved in conservation work. It has a staff of 45, including the science team, and has an annual budget this year of $18 million. Through various programs, it helps protect 267,000 acres in Georgia.