Baldwin played pivotal role in Red Hills conservation
July 21st, 2015 by Red Hills
published in Tallahassee Democrat, 6/11/15
A seemingly trivial historical event that would nonetheless have profound environmental repercussions in the Red Hills of south Georgia and north Florida occurred when Samuel Prentiss Baldwin married Lillian Converse Hanna on Feb. 15, 1898. Both were from prominent Cleveland families. Baldwin was a retired lawyer with a peculiar hobby: bird banding. Some of Miss Hanna’s siblings had become extraordinarily wealthy through The Standard Oil Company.
Towards the end of the 19th century, these Hannas, along with several other Cleveland business partners and friends, acquired large hunting plantations made up from former cotton farms in the scenic region between Tallahassee and Thomasville known as the Red Hills.
Their favorite game was the abundant native quail, the Northern Bobwhite that thrived in the system of scattered agricultural fields surrounded by a pine forest fire ecosystem. The pine woods burned periodically because of lightning strikes or deliberately-set fires that had been a part of local culture since aboriginal prehistory.
Around 1920 the U.S. Forest Service joined a warped effort to eliminate fire from all woodlands. With fire forbidden and suppressed, the pine forests grew into thickets, poor habitat for quail that consequently became difficult to find and hunt. The Hannas and their friends despaired.
Meanwhile, S. Prentiss Baldwin (1868-1938), the retired Cleveland lawyer, had become a pioneer in the infant science of bird banding. He and his wife, Lillian, usually spent two months of each late winter with Seville Hanna Morse and her husband Jay C. Morse at their Inwood Plantation near Thomasville. In 1915 Baldwin set up traps on Inwood and began banding there. Through 1924 he banded 2,560 individuals of 38 species at Inwood and published many of the results.
Baldwin was not a hunter like his in-laws, but he enjoyed accompanying his friends and relatives as they stalked bobwhites. He suggested to the plantation owners that the answer to their problem of dwindling quail numbers might be found through a scientific banding study.
In 1922, several bird-banders from the Midwest founded the Inland Bird Banding Association. One of the group was Herbert L. Stoddard, a 33-year old museum collector and taxidermist, whose burgeoning interest in scientific ornithology had encompassed banding and its relatively small universe of practitioners; he was made Treasurer of the new organization.
In 1923 the Red Hills plantation owners agreed to sponsor a quail study on their lands by the U. S. Bureau of Biological Survey to be called the Co-operative Quail Investigation. Baldwin and others recommended to the Chief of the Biological Survey to call upon the relatively unknown Herbert Stoddard to lead the study during which he identified the suppression of fire, the most important actor in the Red Hills pine ecosystem, as the chief culprit of the quail’s decline. Stoddard, of course, later became a highly esteemed ecologist, ornithologist, and wildlife manager and was a key figure in forming Tall Timbers Research Station.
The what-ifs pile up about Baldwin: what if he had not married Lillian Hanna and so not known of the quail problems in the Red Hills? What if he had not taken up bird banding, and thus been in a position to recommend a banding study to the hunters? What if he had not through bird banding established scientific credentials that allowed him to be consulted by the Biological Survey about the study? What if he had not known of Herbert L. Stoddard through bird banding connections and had not been able to recommend Stoddard for the investigation?
Would another investigator have had the insight of Stoddard to recognize the role of fire in the Red Hills ecosystem and recommend saving the remnant groves of longleaf pine? Then, especially, would the region have become overgrown into un-huntable jungle, unwanted by the plantation owners, who might well have sold off the virgin longleafs for timber and then moved on? If so, the town houses of Tallahassee might now reach into Georgia, and there would be no such things in the Red Hills as virgin longleaf pines and the Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy.
Robert L. Crawford lives in Thomasville. He worked for 15 years at Tall Timbers Research Station and in 2012 published The Legacy of a Red Hills Hunting Plantation: Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy.