Friday, February 13, 2009

Wal-Mart Foundation Grant Will Spur Education About Sandhills

A Wal-Mart Foundation grant announced today will help the Georgia Department of Natural Resources inform the public and teachers about sandhills, one of the state’s most biologically diverse habitats.

The Wal-Mart Foundation is providing $33,145 for The Environmental Resources Network Inc., better known as TERN, to develop with the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section an education campaign on this distinct but often overlooked Coastal Plain habitat.

Found from the fall line to the coast, sandhills are areas of deep, sandy soils that generally feature a mix of longleaf pine and scrub oak species in a low, open-tree canopy with drought-tolerant shrubs, grasses and forbs. Sandhills support protected species such as the endangered eastern indigo snake, sandhills golden aster and the gopher tortoise, Georgia’s state reptile. The State Wildlife Action Plan, a guiding conservation strategy, rates sandhills a priority habitat.

The sandhills project will team this year with educators to translate technical information explaining sandhills and other Coastal Plain habitats into K-12 curriculum resources such as lesson plans. An advanced Project WILD workshop including field trips will train teachers about these habitats and how to relay relevant information to students.

TERN’s mission is to foster and aid in the protection, knowledge and enhancement of nongame and endangered wildlife throughout Georgia. President Brock Hutchins said the 501(c)(3) nonprofit will use “100 percent of the grant” to fund the project.

The grant comes through Wal-Mart’s State Giving Program, which supports organizations that align with the company’s mission to create opportunities so people can live better. Grants reflect the foundation’s focus areas: education, workforce development, health and wellness, and environmental sustainability.

“Wal-Mart is excited to be part of such a reputable and well respected organization such as TERN,” said Glen Wilkins, senior manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations for the company. “At Wal-Mart, we believe that we should be a good community partner. Here in Georgia, we have so many natural resources we want to make sure that they are preserved for future generations, and we are excited to be part of the education process for the future.”

The grant was announced at St. Simons Island following Weekend for Wildlife, an annual Nongame Conservation Section fundraiser TERN helps hold on Sea Island. The Nongame Conservation Section receives no state funds for its mission to conserve nongame animals, native plants and natural habitats, depending instead on fundraisers, grants and donations. Nongame wildlife includes animals not legally hunted, fished for or trapped.

Nongame Conservation Section Chief Mike Harris said wildlife conservation ultimately depends on public support grounded in an appreciation and understanding of wildlife species and habitat.

“Our Georgia sandhills house a unique and interesting group of animals,” Harris said. “This project will help more people understand the importance of the gopher tortoise, a keystone species, and other wildlife that share sandhills with them.”

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