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A Unique Blackland Prairie Protected

Globally Rare Habitat is One of Just a Few in Georgia

By Laura Hall, Land Steward

Conservationists and landowners Russell Bennett and Carlton Walstad have established conservation easements preserving some important habitats for Georgia.

A total of 1,200 acres is located in Houston County, near Perry, and includes both chalk woodlands and rare Blackland Prairie.

Blackland Prairies, also known as Black Belt Prairies, are sometimes called “gumbo flats,” due to the sticky consistency of the limestone-rich clay when it’s wet. The prairie hosts hundreds of native grasses and showy wildflower species.

Created by a combination of seashells left behind when ancient seas ebbed and frequent fires, Blackland Prairies are found along a shoreline that once curved from middle Georgia through northern Alabama. Unfortunately, in many areas, these grasslands have been destroyed by agriculture and by efforts to suppress fires, which results in less fire-tolerant plants.

According to Tom Patrick, a botanist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Blackland Prairies are a globally rare habitat and are found in only a few locations in Georgia, including the Atlantic coastal plains and the red uplands of Houston County. Examples open to the public are found in the Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), owned by the state near Kathleen, Georgia. The wildflowers typically peak in July.

Patrick has identified several species of conservation concern on the property, including Southeastern Bold Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), which has previously only been found in northwest Georgia.

Patrick also has found Boykin’s milkwort (Polygala boykinii), and Dakota vervain (Glandularia bipinnatifida) on the properties. These plants, which are considered rare in Georgia, have been added to the Georgia Rare Natural Element database.

The landowners are planning to continue prescribed fire as part of the future management of the prairies.

While protecting Blackland Prairie is important, the “associated mesic chalk slope” forests and bottomlands found near these areas are also of “significant conservation concern,” according to Kristina Sorensen, a biologist who completed the documentation of the natural resources on the properties.

“These woodlands have a slightly different composition than typical mesic and bottomland hardwood forest due to the alkaline nature of the soils,” Sorensen says. “Typical overstory species include chinkapin oak, Shumard oak, white ash and redbud with dwarf palmetto in the understory. And in the bottomland green ash, Florida maple, sugarbery, laurel oak and swamp chestnut oak. There is often no midstory and the understory is dominated by dwarf palmetto, river cane, numerous ferns, vines and large expanses of Cherokee sedge (Carex cherokeensis).”

In addition to the Blackland Prairie easements, Bennett and Walstad have also preserved 100 acres of greenspace that is contiguous to Hard Labor Creek State Park in Morgan County.

This property contains mesic and bottomland hardwood forests along Rocky Creek, which flows into the park and adjoins another 900 acres that the landowners preserved in 2016.

Photos by John Gwaltney. The purple flower is Dakota vervain (Glandularia bipinnatifida) and the white flower is Boykin's milkwort (Polygala boykinii).

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