COULD WALKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL HELP GOPHER TORTOISES?

by Whit Gibbons

January 31, 2016

I recently learned of an atypical conservation approach that involves a lot of walking, a threatened tortoise species and an opportunity for people to make a contribution to environmental preservation in an interesting and unusual way. The challenge reminded me of Aesop's tale of the iconic race between the hare and the tortoise, which as everyone knows was won by the slow and steady tortoise.

The winners in this event will also be tortoises though they won't be participants in the challenge. The sole contestant is University of Georgia graduate student Daniel Quinn, who plans to walk the full 2,185 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Dan challenges others to pledge money for each mile he completes as he makes the trek from Georgia to Maine.

Tortoises, which are turtles that live exclusively on land, are native to all of the warm continents except Australia. The Greek tortoise, native to the Mediterranean region, was probably what Aesop had in mind.

A suitable U.S. contestant in the race would be the gopher tortoise of the Southeast, a benign creature found in coastal states from South Carolina to Louisiana. West of the Tombigbee River in Alabama the gopher tortoise is officially protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

This intriguing and charismatic tortoise is noted for living in large colonies and digging deep underground burrows in sandy soil. Some of these subterranean retreats go down 15 feet and are 30 feet long. Many serve as important refuges for other animals. Unfortunately, gopher tortoises are frequent victims of development and construction projects. But because tortoises are so appealing, people who get to know them want to protect them.

Dan is clearly an advocate of the gopher tortoise, and his chosen charity for any pledges is the Gopher Tortoise Council. As he puts it, "I picked this small 501(c)(3) nonprofit because I know the people involved and the good work they do. They primarily work to save gopher tortoise populations by restoring upland habitats like longleaf pine forests."

The GTC also supports students through research grants. Dan was a recipient of such funding while doing his master's research under the direction of Tracey Tuberville at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. His thesis involved augmenting gopher tortoise populations by releasing juveniles into natural habitats.

Dan says, "If you would like to support [the GTC] and my hike, you can pledge any amount of money per mile." A penny pledge would result in a maximum amount of $21.85 to be paid should he complete the trail. A pledge of 25 cents per mile would be $546.25. Once he has completed his hike, he will tally up the miles and each person's pledges. To avoid red tape and personal handling of money, he asks that everyone go to the Gopher Tortoise Council website www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/donations/ and simply donate the amount that was pledged. He offers a bonus to anyone making a pledge: they "will receive photos throughout the hike (I promise not to inundate your inbox)." His email address is dpq695@srel.uga.edu.

According to Dan, as many as 3,000 people start to hike the Appalachian Trail each year, but fewer than one-quarter of those who start actually finish and only half make it halfway. As he says, "People quit because it is physically and psychologically demanding to walk over mountains every day for five to six months." He admits he is not "a seasoned backpacker [but] inexperienced people do complete the trail, and attitude makes a huge difference."

He has a personal commitment to make the hike for his own edification and decided "why not also hike for charity? Hiking for something other than myself will give me a purpose to keep going when I might not otherwise have one." Dan Quinn sounds a bit like Aesop's tortoise in his commitment to getting the job done. And clearly the tortoise will be a winner in this contest, too.

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