By Terry W. Johnson
On a hot summer day in 1990, during the dedication of the office of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ fledgling Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program, I overheard a dignitary in the audience say to the person beside him, "I give the program three years before it folds."
Fast-forward to 2019. Fortunately, that dire prediction proved wrong. The Nongame-Endangered Wildlife Program is now the Wildlife Conservation Section. What began as a staff of a single biologist now has more than 100 full- and part-time employees. As a result, DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, of which the Wildlife Conservation Section is a part, is better able than ever to address the conservation needs of Georgia's nongame wildlife and plants.
While many people played integral roles in this remarkable success story, that success is due in large part to the tireless efforts of dedicated conservationist Eva Persons.
Historically, one of the biggest obstacles facing programs focused on conserving animals not legally hunted and fished for as well as rare native plants and natural habitats across the nation has been the lack of a dependable source of funding. When I was selected to head DNR’s new nongame program in 1988, the plan was to operate solely off donations and federal grants.
Legislation creating a voluntary state income tax checkoff had just been signed into law. Since the law would not come into effect for three years, Gov. Joe Frank Harris established a committee to raise operating funds for the program. Eva Persons, of Monroe County, was named to this elite group. Members were charged with raising $100,000. If they reached that goal, Gov. Harris pledged that the state would match it with an additional $100,000. The funds would fund the program until the state income tax check off kicked in. Fortunately, the committee succeeded.
However, as has been the case in all states where tax checkoffs have been used to fund nongame conservation, the success of Georgia’s checkoff quickly attracted the attention of other worthy causes. As lawmakers approved more checkoffs to support those causes—adding more competing checkoff options on Georgia’s income tax forms—donations to DNR’s nongame program plummeted.
It soon became clear that a dedicated funding source, such as the federal excise taxes that have financed the management of game species such as trout, largemouth bass, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, was needed before Georgia's program could effectively address the conservation needs of nongame—which makes up 95 percent of the state's wildlife species.
Realizing that the program would soon wither away from a lack of funding, I was charged with exploring new funding sources. One option was to form a friend's group. The organization would be an advocate for the program and raise funds for its conservation efforts. Eva agreed to take on the task.
Her unique set of skills made her the perfect person for the job. At that time, she was the nongame program’s first and only volunteer. In this capacity, she had developed a nature trail on Rum Creek Wildlife Management Area, laying out the trail, creating signage and writing a teacher's manual.
Before becoming a DNR volunteer, she had accumulated a wealth of other volunteer experience with organizations at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park and Jarrell Plantation State Historic Site. She had worked for years, as well, with local scouts and presented programs to area schools.
It also helped that she has a great personality, has hunted and fished throughout North America, and is a passionate student of Native American history and a keen supporter of wildlife conservation.
Eva quickly demonstrated she was up for the task. She first settled on a suitable name for the organization, picking something simple but descriptive—TERN, which is an abbreviation of The Environmental Resources Network. She also tackled the complex task of developing by-laws, preparing Articles of Incorporation and filing for tax-exempt status with the state and the IRS.
While doing all of this, she also selected a distinguished, hard-working group of men and women to serve with her as TERN's first board of directors. Eva was elected TERN's first president.
The economic impact of TERN has been tremendous. To date, TERN has raised more than $1.4 million for nongame wildlife conservation in Georgia. That is an amazing accomplishment, especially since it took place during some of the country's worst economic times.
Throughout the years, Eva has used her leadership skills, engaging personality, love for wildlife and strong work ethic to promote TERN and its work. Her energy, enthusiasm and passion for the natural world are contagious. All have contributed to DNR promoting wildlife conservation education and implementing the state’s first comprehensive nongame wildlife initiative.
Eva exemplifies a hands-on leadership style. She has always been just as willing to meet corporate leaders and politicians as she would to get her hands dirty helping children plant a demonstration garden. Throughout the years she has been involved in Wildlife Conservation Section projects, from helping biologists conduct shorebird surveys to helping lead environmental education programs.
It would be a mistake to assess TERN's value to nongame wildlife conservation solely on its fundraising efforts. The TERN members who Eva recruited to serve on the board have accomplished so much more. For example, one member, Emmy Minor, was key to starting the annual Weekend For Wildlife fundraiser and was the driving force behind creating DNR’s first nongame license plate. Together, these sources generate much of the operating funds for today’s Wildlife Conservation Section.
When the Legislature slashed the amount of money that the section received from the sale of the tags, another long-time board member, Brooks Schoen, led the fight for passage of legislation that restored the lion's share of funds for the agency generated through the sale and annual renewal of the plates.
All of the other TERN board members have also worked hard to raise money and support for the Wildlife Conservation Section. You would be hard-pressed to find a case where so few have given so much.
It is hard to believe that it all started with one woman willing to try to make a difference. Recently when I presented Eva with a list of TERN’s accomplishments, she responded, "I am amazed. It sounds like a tremendous amount of work but all I remember was a lot of fun and great companionship. We met some wonderful, helpful people during those years and I have some great memories."
Eva’s work earned a number of honors. DNR presented her with the coveted Rock Howard Award. The Georgia Wildlife Federation named her Conservation Educator of the Year. At TERN’s 2019 annual membership meeting, Eva was presented a framed letter of commendation from Gov. Kemp.
We will never know how many lives this unsung conservation hero has affected. One thing we do know is that the money TERN has raised has helped enable biologist to conduct scores of research, survey and management projects. The ripple effect has spread far beyond Eva’s Monroe County home, north to the small Southern Appalachian wetlands where rare bog turtles live and south to longleaf pine woodlands where endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers nest and the barrier island beaches where threatened loggerhead sea turtles set a record nest total. Funds raised by TERN also have helped train teachers and teach students statewide about importance of living harmoniously with our wildlife neighbors.
Eva Persons reminds us that the success of wildlife conservation is not dictated by the dedicated efforts of biologists and technicians alone. It also requires the support of a host of others, such as administrators, teachers, conservation-minded corporations, the public and conservation groups.
Aldo Leopold wrote, "There are those who can live without wild things and those who cannot." Fortunately, for Georgia and its rich wildlife heritage, Eva Persons is one person who cannot.
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”