GDOT discovers rare plants ahead of road project

Published: Aug. 22, 2020 at 8:55 PM EDT
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VALDOSTA, Ga. (WCTV) - The discovery of a rare, state-protected plant species growing along Georgia Highway 31 could lead to more legwork for the Georgia Department of Transportation’s upcoming project.

The Lanier County Sheriff Nick Norton reached out to GDOT last week expressing concern over uncut grass on both sides of the Valdosta-Lakeland highway, and the agency informed him about its environmental study underway.

The study is a routine, preliminary process in the department’s upcoming roadwork project. Engineers are analyzing the existing environment in the area before committing to the drawing board.

GDOT’s plan for Highway 31 is to widen the road by at least 12 feet at about four locations to add one-mile passing lanes: two in Lowndes County and two in Lanier.

“It’ll just be a three-lane section at each of those locations,” Jason Willingham, a district pre-construction engineer with GDOT, told WCTV.

The design is scheduled to take shape in late 2022, tentatively.

During their preparatory environmental study, Willingham and his team came across carnivorous Hooded Pitcher Plants along the road and halted further lawn care in the area.

“That’s kinda why there were sections not mowed, is cause we’re trying to avoid those particular sections where those plants are located,” he said. “If there are impacts, you know, to protected plants, protected species, that sort of thing, then we’re just gonna try to mitigate those impacts.”

Willingham has been with GDOT for 13 years this month but says he’s never personally encountered pitcher plants on any other project in South Georgia.

Although seven out of the total eight pitcher plant species found in the United States are native to Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, all are considered rare, vulnerable, threatened or endangered.

They can be found on the state’s protected plants list and are sheltered by the Wildflower Preservation Act of 1973.

“More than just the law: You know, GDOT’S mission is to deliver a transportation system, but we’re also good stewards of the environment,” Willingham said. “So we wanna always do our due diligence, you know, to try to evaluate environmental impacts, you know, wherever we’re doing a project.”

He says Hooded Pitcher Plants seed and begin to grow throughout the summer, and they’re supporting the process by not mowing.

“Then when we are allowed to mow, or able to mow later in the year, then it actually will help spread those seeds and so there can be more stands of these plants,” Willingham said. “So yes, I mean, we’re trying to do our part.”

Gretchen Quarterman, a 10-year “Master Gardener” and the executive director of WWALS Watershed Coalition, tells WCTV Hooded Pitchers live in nutrient-poor bogs, or wetlands. They trap and consume insects to obtain nutrients for survival.

“When a bug goes in there, that [top hood] closes up, and the bug is stuck, and it’s sticky on the inside, so they can’t get away,” she said. “And then the bug gets decomposed and digested by the plant.”

Quarterman has had her own pitcher plant for about six years and says the best way to obtain one yourself is by purchasing it from a special “native plant nursery” licensed to sale.

But to find new clusters of the protected plants growing in the wild looks like environmental progress to Quarterman. Still, she advises never to touch them in their natural habitat.

“I’m excited that they’re on the side of the road,” Quarterman said. “I think the fact that they’re coming back means that we’re doing something right in the environment. We’ve done a lot of things wrong, and we still do a lot of things wrong. But that some of the plants and animals and birds are coming back, we must be doing something right.”

In the next step towards GDOT’s Highway 31 project, engineers will reach out to the Department of Natural Resources for guidance on what to do with the plants.

Willingham says they’re looking into either moving them, planning construction around them or building an even better environment for them to thrive in.

“I’m happy to know that DOT is protecting them,” Quarterman said.

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