Dr. Martin L. CipolliniAn Essay on Biodiversity and Sustainability at Berry College
Dr. Martin L. CipolliniAn Essay on Biodiversity and Sustainability at Berry College

An Essay on Biodiversity and Sustainability at Berry College

Berry College Has More “Eagles” Than You Think

Like many of you, I have enjoyed keeping tabs on Berry College’s Bald eagles. It is very rare to have eagles so close to humans and viewing them via Berry’s Eagle Cam has been an incredible experience for young and old alike. Once near extinction, environmental regulations have helped Bald eagles recover to the point at which they are no longer in imminent danger. Eagles do not thrive where food supplies are scarce and ecosystems are in disarray, which gives testimony to the bountiful natural resources of our campus. Evidence of the interest in the eagles includes the 135,000+ followers on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/berrycollegeeagles, including many die-hard birders and other outdoor enthusiasts. This led me to think about the uniqueness of Berry’s 26,000 acres, and to wonder if many members of our campus community are aware that Berry has had “eagles” of a different stripe all along. By this, I am referring to rare and unique species and habitats that may be equally – or even more – deserving of help to ensure their survival. I want to highlight a few examples, and briefly mention some others to make a more general point about biodiversity and sustainability on our campus.

Did you know that Berry is home to one of the only old growth Mountain longleaf pine forests in the world? In fact, we have Longleaf pines that were already large trees when Europeans first colonized this region! Longleaf pine forests have been reduced from over 90 million acres across the southeastern U.S. to less than 2% of their original range; this ecosystem may be the most threatened in the world. Mountain longleaf pine forests, occurring only in northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama, are especially rare and persist as small patches in an encroaching matrix of development. Threats include indiscriminate logging, conversion to other land uses, and suppression of fires that are essential for the survival of the pines and for hundreds of associated plant and animal species. Luckily, students, faculty, and staff at Berry have been working for over 20 years to restore parts of our forests to conditions thought to exist when only Native Americans inhabited these hills. You can learn more about these forests at www.berrylongleaf.com or https://www.facebook.com/berrylongleaf, or by visiting our Longleaf Trail that starts along the road to the Old Mill.

Did you know that Berry has some of the last remnants of the billions of chestnut trees that once dominated forests from Mississippi to Maine? American chestnuts once represented about 25% of eastern forest trees and often obtained enormous sizes (100+ feet in height, 8 – 10 feet wide). These were driven to near extinction by introduced blight and root rot in the early- to mid-1900s. These trees persist only as scattered small individuals that rarely grow large enough to produce flowers, let alone the huge numbers of chestnuts that sustained animals and humans alike. Once common on Lavender Mountain, our local population was reduced to only a few small trees by the early 2000s. That was until Berry students helped established a blight resistance breeding orchard about 15 years ago. Working with The Georgia Chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, students have bred American chestnuts to produce blight-tolerant trees in the hope of reintroducing such trees into the wild. Our main orchard, located on the road to Berry’s reservoir, contains about a dozen selected trees from an initial planting of over 300.  You can learn more about this project at www.acf.org/ga or https://www.facebook.com/gatacf.

Did you know that a tiny 1-acre patch of meadow near Berry’s main campus has over 200 plant species representing over 50 different plant families, including nine limestone-loving plants considered rare or threatened in Georgia? Little known Martha’s Meadow (once a favorite place for Martha Berry to take students) is located along the southwestern shore of old Victory Lake. Students and local botanists have been cataloging plants at this site since the early 2000s, and the results suggest that the site is a xeric limestone barren, among the rarest habitats in the southeast. Just because many plants there are small and not as obviously charismatic as Bald eagles does not mean that they are any less important on the whole. Fortunately, Berry College has set aside this biodiversity hot spot as a botanical reserve for future protection, management, and study. See https://www.berry.edu/academics/majors/biology/marthas-meadow. This site is closely aligned botanically with the nearby Calcareous Flatwoods community which exists almost nowhere else except on Berry’s campus and nearby properties.

Note, in “Natural Communities of Georgia”, Edwards et al. (2013) use specific locations at Berry College as representative sites to see three distinct and rare communities (1. Mountain longleaf woodlands and forest, 2. Calcareous prairies and barrens, and 3. Flatwoods communities).  See https://www.naturalcommunitiesofgeorgia.com/

I can go on.  Additional “eagles” who call Berry home include…

1) at least 80 species of trees on our main campus, including three Georgia state champion trees (Northern catalpa, Florida maple, and Japanese maple).  See https://www.berry.edu/community/campus-use-and-recreation/arboretum

2) a large array of American bluebird nest boxes that has produced hundreds of offspring over the last 10 – 15 years.

3) one of the most diverse assemblages of rare and endangered shellfish in the rivers that run adjacent to campus.

4) Loggerhead shrike, Bachmann’s sparrow, and Bobwhite quail – three species of birds that have declined precipitously throughout the southeast due to habitat loss.

5) A slew of other unusual and rare plant species, several of which were first identified in Floyd County (e.g. Stolon-bearing Hawthorn, Smooth Solomon’s Seal, Heartleaf Skullcap, Coosa Barbara Buttons, Purple Milkweed, Curly Milkweed, Purple Thistle, Yellow fringed orchid, and Nutmeg Hickory).

The point is that Berry has many rare or threatened species and habitats that have gone relatively unnoticed, and even members of our own campus community might not recognize what we have here. As mentioned at the outset, the eagles probably would not have set up shop here if it weren’t for the abundant natural resources immediately available to them. Luckily, dedicated and enthusiastic individuals and groups have recognized the incredible biodiversity that our campus harbors, and have worked quietly but passionately to help sustain these precious natural treasures. We can take advantage of the unusual opportunity that the rock star status the eagles have brought by using it as a vehicle to inform the public about our campus and the great work our students, faculty, and staff are doing. I hope that this message isn’t misconstrued as “eagle jealousy” (OK — I will admit to a little bit of that), but rather as a call to the campus community to recognize that we have a lot going on that deserves attention. There has been an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work done to identify, protect and improve campus and regional biodiversity, and hundreds of volunteers have been involved in such projects on our campus and nearby natural areas.

In collaboration with our Physical Plant, Land Resources, and Agricultural departments, our programs in Biology and Environmental Science and Studies have led the way with these initiatives. Our more recently established Berry Enterprises and Sustainability programs offer novel directions and opportunities. Our Educational Land Management program as well as collaborations with the GA Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, GA Forestry Commission, and GA Plant Conservation Alliance offer mechanisms to facilitate ecologically-friendly multiple uses for our land. Berry College, with its enormous land base and wealth of natural resources, has the potential to become a true leader in college campus sustainability in ways few educational institutions can. With further directed effort, we can both promote and improve our campus as a truly sustainable and biodiverse enterprise, and one not banking solely upon public perception. Let’s revel in the attention that the eagles have brought, but take care to not let a growing number of competing institutions, where sustainable practices are often integrated very purposefully into campus life, beat us at a game that we should rightly own.

Here are some specific suggestions for the college to consider:

  • Committing in a formal and long-term way to the preservation and enhancement of biodiversity as a fundamental part of a comprehensive land management plan. See, for example, the land management program established at one of our peer and aspirant institutions: https://new.sewanee.edu/files/resources/2019domain-management-plan-final.pdf
  • Utilizing the Sustainability Committee (https://www.berry.edu/environmental-compliance/sustainability-committee) in a more proactive way to help plan and implement sustainable actions across campus.
  • Re-committing to the President’s Climate Leadership Commitment, and developing and implementing actions designed to address Berry’s overall carbon and climate impact. Berry was an original signatory to this program in 2007, but I am unaware of any specific actions or reporting that has been accomplished since then. See https://secondnature.org/signatory-handbook/the-commitments/
  • Taking seriously the suggestions made in Spring 2023 by the Faculty Assembly Ad Hoc Committee on Land Use, particularly toward fostering a more open and inclusive approach to addressing campus land-use activities involving multiple constituencies. Current and former faculty and students, as well as their professional contacts, have a wealth of knowledge and expertise that could benefit the college in more than just academic ways.

Thanks, Berry Eagles, for the inspiration!  We hope you will continue to see our campus as your home for many years.

Martin Cipollini – Dana Professor of Biology, July 11, 2023 (on behalf of generations of Berry College faculty, students, and staff)