Little tortoise could slow Ga.’s efforts to lure Volvo

A gopher tortoise emerges from a burrow.

Georgia’s state reptile — the gopher tortoise — could turn out to be one of the Peach State’s worst enemies.

A wetlands permit application filed this week for an Elabell, Ga., site — believed to be one of two proposed locations for a Volvo manufacturing plant — lists the gopher tortoise as a known inhabitant of the industrial property.

That could mean a time-consuming tortoise relocation program for whatever “mega-site manufacturing facility” — as described by the application — decides to locate there. It also could become a public relations nightmare, depending on how humanely the typically less-than-foot-long reptiles are extracted from the burrows where they live.

Some environmental groups “have screamed bloody murder when they see the bulldozers coming in” to remove the tortoises, said John Jensen, senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Gopher tortoises are a federally endangered species in several states, but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hasn’t included Georgia because the federal agency doesn’t have the money to expand its endangered species list. Until that funding becomes available, federal officials consider the Georgia tortoises to be eligible for the list.

By contrast, a wetlands permit application for property South Carolina officials are believed to have pitched to Volvo — the Camp Hall Commerce Park near Ridgeville in Berkeley County — does not show any federally endangered or threatened species at the site.

Volvo has not confirmed either location, but has said it will make its decision on a U.S. manufacturing site by the end of next month.

It is legal to remove gopher tortoises from private property in Georgia, but it takes a permit and government oversight to remove them from public lands or sites requiring federal permitting — such as the Elabell property.

Trip Tollison, president of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, could not be reached for comment Friday. An authority spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment. Tollison filed the permit application on behalf of a newly formed group called the Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority.

Jensen said the relocation process typically involves trapping the tortoises and then putting them in pens at their new home. The tortoises must be kept in the pens for at least nine months “because most have strong homing abilities,” he said.

“They’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to get back home,” if they aren’t penned properly, Jensen said.

Gopher tortoises are found in the Lower Coastal Plain of the Southeast, from southern South Carolina to Louisiana and throughout Florida. They dig extensive burrows — some over 45 feet long and 10 feet deep — where they spend the majority of their time, emerging in warm weather for food and mating. The burrows also serve as homes to hundreds of other species, making the tortoise a “keystone species” or one that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions.

The two wetlands permit applications believed to be tied to Volvo are working their way through the Army Corps of Engineers offices in each respective state.

The Georgia application, filed Thursday, proposes filling more than 142 acres of wetlands. In exchange, the development agency has proposed buying wetland mitigation credits from the state, although the number of credits needed for that size of a project currently don’t exist, according to the application.

A wetlands permit application for the Berkeley County site was filed April 16 and has received positive reaction from Charleston area environmental groups. The application proposes filling nearly 195 acres of wetlands at the Camp Hall site. In exchange, the application proposes a mitigation plan that would preserve, restore and enhance 1,533 acres of wetlands on four tracts in the Dean Swamp and Walnut Branch watersheds, which are tributaries of the Four Holes Swamp blackwater river.

“The consensus is that the mitigation plan is a good one,” said Dana Beach, executive director of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League. Beach said the proposal to preserve wetlands at Four Holes Swamp fits into conservationists’ larger goal of obtaining strategic parcels to create a greenbelt around the Charleston region.

“Berkeley County is one of the hottest growth areas,” Beach said. “We’ve got to work hard to secure a protected boundary around that area so that Charleston doesn’t ultimately merge with Orangeburg and Columbia. This proposal shows that the industrial agenda can be compatible with the agenda of environmental groups.”

Beach said planning for the Berkeley County site appears to have been in the works for some time.

“There is definitely an effort to move this along as quickly as possible,” he said.

The application for the Camp Hall permit says it is for a large manufacturing facility that would employ up to 4,000 people over the next decade on a 2,800-acre parcel.

Volvo said last month that it intends to build a $500 million manufacturing plant in the U.S. in the hopes of doubling its annual sales in this country to 100,000 automobiles over the next few years. Volvo has been owned by Chinese automaker Geely Holding since 2010. It currently has two plants in Europe and two in China.

Reach David Wren at 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_