The St. Simons Land Trust was created to protect the unique qualities of this barrier island. This beautiful land is conserved to enhance the quality of life for present and future generations. Winn-Dixie has supported this organization through the Community Bag Program.
Tell us about the St. Simons Land Trust.
St. Simons Land Trust preserves the natural and scenic character of St. Simons Island, Georgia. We do this through land preservation to benefit present and future generations. When land isn’t protected, especially on an island that isn’t getting any larger, over-development can be a real issue. If we don’t focus on preservation, the most beautiful aspects of the island will disappear.
The Land Trust was founded in 2000. At that time, St. Simons Island had a boom in development, both residential and commercial. A few concerned citizens got together and started looking into what it would take to create a local land trust. They researched nearby land trusts to gather ideas and information. It came together quickly, and less than a year after founding, we received the first gifted donation – a 40-acre tract of land.
Since that time, we have preserved over 30 properties on more than 1,200 acres of land, roughly 10 percent of the island. A majority of that was purchased, but a fair amount was donated. Some smaller properties belonged to landowners or homeowners who didn’t want to see the land developed. We also hold conservation easements, where we don’t own the land but help protect its conservation values with proper management. This means it’s not a financial burden for us, but it is something we have the opportunity to monitor, and the landowner can apply for a credit against their state income taxes.
Today, one of our big focuses is educating the younger generation. We’re doing things to reach out and ensure that kids as young as elementary school age are familiar with what a land trust is, what it does and the importance of protecting land.
What services do you provide to the community?
Our main service is providing publicly accessible land for hiking, biking and birding. Not every single one of our properties is publicly accessible, but for the most part, the majority of our properties are widely available.
These preserved lands provide an area for people to connect with nature. I can’t begin to tell you the importance of what that provided during the pandemic. During that time, we focused on getting people on the land. That’s where our communications and marketing focus shifted. Being out on the land is healing, especially during trying times like that.
These preserved lands provide an area for people to connect with nature.
Our team also provides other things for the community, including educational outreach. We host events throughout the year and have an ambassador group of young professionals that puts on family-friendly events. We provide educational nature tours and scavenger hunts for the families and kids. We host a movie night every year and invite the community to one of our properties to learn more about what we’re doing while also enjoying a night out. And then, the Land Trust hosts an annual oyster roast, where we get over a thousand attendees. These are great ways to spread awareness of our mission and give back to our community.
We also love partnering with other local nonprofits and organizations in any way that we can. It’s essential to spread the mission and the significance of protecting our habitats.
What sets you apart from other nonprofits in your community?
Locally, we’re the only land preservation organization. Several nonprofits in the area focus on educating about the importance of environmental protection because we are such an ecologically rich area. But we’re the only ones protecting the land in perpetuity.
A little broader than that, we are only one of seven land trusts in Georgia. And we’re the only one accredited in the Southeast. Accreditation is awarded to land trusts meeting the highest national standards for land conservation, including fiscal accountability, strong organizational leadership, sound transactions and lasting stewardship of the lands it conserves.
Please tell us a story that illustrates your organization’s good work.
There are so many beautiful stories of people who donated land or helped us acquire significant properties.
The Old Stables Corner is a property that embodies what the Land Trust is all about. Before the Land Trust was founded, there was a property on the corner of two main roads on the significantly developed part of the island. For decades, this property served as a horse stable. It was a landmark on the island; you couldn’t miss it because of its location. Thousands of people went to these stables for riding lessons or to take riding tours. In 2010, it went up for sale. It was pretty evident, because of how developed its surroundings were, that if a developer were to purchase the land, most everything there would be demolished, paved over, and built on.
The Land Trust began a fundraising campaign in hopes that we would be able to purchase and preserve this beautiful and community-loved property. The fundraiser was launched, and in less than 100 days, we raised more than two and a half million dollars. The community rallied behind the protection of this property, and we were able to ultimately purchase and enhance the Old Stables Corner, making it the beautiful 2.3-acre green space it is today.
There are numerous environmental benefits to saving this property, including the absorption of CO2 emissions. If we never saved the Old Stables Corner, the live oaks and magnolias that make up the tree canopy wouldn’t be there to help absorb the emissions coming from all the cars at that busy intersection.
Without community support, properties like this one may not exist on the island.
There are numerous environmental benefits to saving this property, including the absorption of CO2 emissions.
What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?
Looking at a map of St. Simons, most of our properties are under 10 acres. But Cannon’s Point Preserve, on the north end of the island, is 644 acres. We are very proud of this acquisition and the opportunity to protect those acres forever.
The land that makes up Cannon’s Point Preserve was initially owned by a company with plans to turn it into a large neighborhood with a golf course. But when the economy crashed, it came up for sale. It was a long process and involved many partners, donors and grants, but after an eighteen-month capital campaign that raised more than $25 million, the Land Trust was able to purchase the property in 2012.
This acreage is held under a very strict conservation easement by The Nature Conservancy; it’s only open three days a week from nine to three. Volunteers must be on the property while it’s open, another reason there are restricted hours. Even with its opening limitations, people will travel from out of state to visit. Not only is it full of beautiful maritime forests and other incredible habitats, but it is also a place of historical significance. This land housed a plantation, so there are plantation-era ruins still visible on part of the property.
The other piece that makes this property special is that it enables us to conduct research. We partner with schools and organizations nationwide to do everything from bat and bird surveys to archaeological research and implementing living shorelines. A living shoreline is a protected and stabilized shoreline that is made of natural materials such as oyster beds. Living shorelines enhance the environment and provide a habitat for fish, manatees, crabs and other marine animals.
One of the most exciting projects going on right now, because it’s the only one of its kind, is the Maritime Forest Restoration research. We’re working with New Mexico State University and Purdue University to determine the most successful way to restore a maritime forest. There are a lot of coastal areas where maritime forests have been cut down for development or to plant pine trees, and they are looking to restore the original habitat. Cannon’s Point Preserve is the one place where this important research is happening.
Amazingly, we get to share this land with island residents, visitors, and students. We partner with local elementary schools and the local college to teach students about the Preserve’s important environmental and historical assets. Cannon’s Point Preserve is a place we are very proud of.
Amazingly, we get to share this land with island residents, visitors, and students.
What do you want people to know about the St. Simons Land Trust?
We want to protect as much land as possible and manage it in the best way possible. This important work requires a significant amount of funds. Our annual memberships, sponsors and partners are the driving force behind our ability to do this.
Outside of financial contributions, we rely heavily on our volunteers. If we didn’t have volunteers educating visitors or maintaining the property through trail trimming and other tasks, Cannon’s Point Preserve would not be open to the public. From trail maintenance and garden watering to docent volunteering and event planning, we are grateful for all their hard work. We often tell people, if they can’t give financially, to please consider contributing time. It is incredibly valuable!
We have a wonderful giving program called Pennies for Preservation. This program was launched in 2017, and it’s an opportunity for local businesses to contribute to land preservation on St. Simons. Since its inception, the program partners and their patrons have raised over $750,000, and this is cents on the dollar. A good example is if you go to one of our partnering restaurants and your bill is $50, a voluntary 1% (50 cents) of that is donated back to the Land Trust.
We also have fantastic service partners that generously donate ad space and photography for our events. We have such a generous community of donors, partners, volunteers and sponsors.
How will you use the funds raised from the Winn-Dixie Community Bag Program?
The Community Bag Program is outstanding. It’s such an easy way for the community to contribute to the organizations that mean the most to them, and it shows a fantastic partnership between our local Winn-Dixie and the Land Trust.
Every dollar we get from this program goes to protecting the land, managing those properties, and providing educational outreach to the community. We’re so grateful to receive all donations, and it’s great when it can be through a partnership with a larger entity like Winn Dixie.
Raleigh Kitchen is the Communications and Partner Outreach Manager at the St. Simons Land Trust.
Published September 28, 2023.