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UGA to open Sapelo research center

POSTED: May 24, 2007 5:02 a.m.

ATHENS — Georgia First District U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, University of Georgia President Michael F. Adams, representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other dignitaries will be present when the Barrier Island Research and Learning Center at UGA’s Marine Institute on Sapelo Island is dedicated Monday.

The new center, built at a cost of nearly $2.3 million with funds from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the UGA Research Foundation, Inc., resulted from a partnership between UGA and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. The center will be administered by the UGA Marine Institute, a unit of the university’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The dedication will take place at 10 a.m. on May 7. Others attending the event are expected to include Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioners Noel Holcomb; UGA Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Arnett C. Mace Jr.; and Garnett S. Stokes, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The Barrier Island Research and Learning Center contains dormitory style housing for 20 people and can be configured with two independent two-bedroom apartments for longer-term stays by research scientists. The new building contains a kitchen-patio complex capable of serving approximately 40 people and adds to the Marine Institute facility, which already features a lecture hall, a teleconference center, classroom and laboratory space, administrative offices, a library and a small area for interpretive and educational materials.

“It is my hope that through renovation of existing space and by developing quality facilities for housing, lectures and research around the central campus, the scientific research and learning community on Sapelo will benefit,” said William Miller, director of the UGA Marine Institute. “We should be the gathering place for all researchers and students on the island and a place people want to return to.”

Tim Hollibaugh, head of the department of Marine Sciences at UGA, agrees.

“The BIRL Center will provide much-needed support for the growing research and instruction programs at the Marine Institute,” he said. “Barrier islands are crucial elements of Georgia’s coastline, they are subject to development and are threatened by sea level rise and climate change. The BIRL Center will provide state-of-the art facilities from which a new generation of marine scientists can address problems related to Georgia’s barrier islands and hammocks, continuing the tradition of excellence and creativity in salt marsh and estuarine research that have long been a hallmark of UGA.  

“Georgia’s coast harbors the most extensive tracts of undisturbed salt marsh, barrier islands and hammocks on the coast. Through its classrooms, student laboratories and distance-learning facilities, the BIRL Center will bring this unique environment to thousands of additional students, members of the public and scientists.              

“This Center will foster collaboration between the Marine Institute’s resident research scientists, SINERR staff, visiting researchers, undergraduate classes, graduate students, local citizen groups and scientific working groups from UGA, Georgia and around the world.”

The UGA Marine Institute was founded in 1953 and has been a center for near-shore ecological and geological research since its inception. The mission of the institute is to understand the processes that affect the condition of the salt marshes and other coastal resources. The goal of the BIRL Center is to improve not only the primary research mission of the UGA Marine Institute but also to upgrade the overall educational outreach capacity of the Institute.

The fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, Sapelo is accessible from the mainland only by ferry. This relative inaccessibility has served to limit human impact on much of the island.

The 8,240-acre R. J. Reynolds State Wildlife Refuge, containing extensive stands of managed pine forest, supports wild turkeys, white tail deer and nesting bald eagles. SINERR protects pristine reaches of upland, salt marshes and adjacent tidal waters.

Sapelo’s marshes and adjacent estuaries account for approximately a third of all the remaining salt marsh wetlands on the Atlantic seaboard. The long and fascinating history of human habitation of Sapelo Island has been the source of numerous archaeological and cultural studies. Sapelo is home to a unique African-American coastal community with traditions rooted in the early history of Georgia.

Since its establishment, the Marine Institute has been a world center for research into basic salt marsh and estuarine ecology, addressing the flow of energy, minerals and nutrients through the land-sea margin to the coastal ocean environment.

Research carried out at Sapelo has been supported for many years by a wide range of state and federal agencies as well as by grants from the Sapelo Island Research Foundation (now called the Sapelo Foundation).

These funded studies have resulted in the publication of more than 900 scientific papers dealing with the geology, hydrology, history and anthropology of barrier islands; marshes; coastal ecology; and the management of coastal resources.  In 1990, a panel of experts, convened by the NOAA-funded National Sea Grant College Program, cited the Marine Institute’s research on coastal wetlands for its excellence and for its importance in the development of wetlands protection legislation worldwide.

The prominence of Sapelo in the field of estuarine research was recognized in 1976 by NOAA when the marshes surrounding the institute were designated the nation’s second National Estuarine Sanctuary.  This title was changed to the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1986 to emphasize the intent of the national program to conduct long-term studies in these reserves.

The new facility that will be dedicated May 7 is architecturally consistent with the existing 70-year-old complex and will be the first institute building a visitor sees on approaching the institute from the ferry dock. With its low profile, red clay tile roof, copper cupola and stucco exterior, the new building is well-matched to the existing complex that has served UGA and the coastal scientific community for many years.

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