Last fall, the Swainsboro newspaper had an article about a meeting between Swainsboro/Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Department of Natural Resources representatives on how the chamber and state could work together to clean up the natural community, increase eco-tourism and preserve natural resources at Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area.
Maurice McNeal, a Department of Juvenile Justice field supervisor, was paying attention.
Soon after, he called DNR botanist Mincy Moffett requesting his help with a youth service learning project. McNeal wanted his group of young men involved in what is called the Highly Intensive Team Supervision, or HITS, Program to be a part of conservation efforts at Ohoopee Dunes. The natural area, along with nearby conservation tracts, covers nearly 3,000 acres along the upper Little Ohoopee River.
After asking a few questions, McNeal and Moffett scheduled a work project for Dec. 23. This would be an early Christmas present for the Ohoopee Dunes, Moffett decided.
On the day of the project, two vans from Emmanuel and Toombs counties pulled into the kiosk area off U.S. 80. Six young men climbed out. Moffett greeted them and began to talk about the importance of the natural area, giving them a short lesson on the natural and geological history of the dune system. He also quizzed them briefly on their interactions with nature: Only one had ever really engaged in an outdoor activity, and then only rarely.
“I felt excited, and challenged at the same time,” Moffett said.
The challenge was bridging the gap in the young men’s understanding of the outdoors while also making the project “interesting and relevant so they would enjoy it,” he said. “And I think they were interested because they listened and asked questions, which was great.”
After an hour of learning, Moffett and the teens got to work, cleaning up an illegal dump on the natural area’s McLeod Bridge unit near the Little Ohoopee. They spent nearly three hours mostly hauling away garbage and construction debris, including large blocks of concrete, but also continuing to have teaching moments.
At one point the teens spotted a non-venomous scarlet kingsnake after removing a large piece of concrete. Although scared at first, the group, under Moffett’s guidance, soon learned that snakes play an important role in the ecosystem of Ohoopee Dunes and other areas of the state. Moffett also reminded them it is illegal to kill a non-venomous snake in Georgia.
“They were such hard workers and got an amazing amount of work done in a relatively short amount of time,” he said. “It is important to understand that this wasn’t just manual labor, this was the opportunity to teach them about nature and civic responsibility.”
There are more teachable moments to come. The group plans to clean up another illegal dump at the natural area in May.
Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area at a glance
Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area is one of Georgia’s most significant natural communities and floristic areas. The natural area comprises three tracts in southwestern Emanuel County. Georgia DNR also cooperates in managing an adjacent tract owned by The Nature Conservancy and another nearby tract owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These five conservation lands stretch in archipelago-like fashion across nearly 3,000 acres along the eastern boundary of the upper Little Ohoopee River.
The central topographic feature of the tracts is a spine or ridge of ancient Kershaw sand dunes known as riverine sandhills. Ohoopee Dunes Natural Area has several natural communities, ranging from dry (xeric) dunes and longleaf pine forests to moist hardwood hammocks and river floodplains.
This area contains nine legally protected plant and animal species and more than 10 others of conservation concern. More than a dozen other rare and protected species are known to occur nearby in Emanuel County.