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Preserving Oatland 

In April 1974, the U.S. Public Health Service closed down its facility on Oatland Island and gave the building and 175 acres of forest and marsh to the Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education.

Now known as the Oatland Island Education Center, it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this Saturday, April 24.

When the center was established, Tony Cope, the first founding director said, “We realize that we have something very, very special and we intend to preserve it.”

When I moved to this area in the 1950s, Oatland Island and many of the other islands between Savannah and Tybee were covered with forests. Now most of the forests have been cleared for housing developments, markets and shopping centers. Oatland Island and a few other tracts are the only remnants of the original island forests.

The forest on Oatland is a typical island forest, a mixture of the evergreen maritime forest of the coast and the more inland deciduous forest. The evergreen trees include pines, laurel oak, water oak, some live oak, palmettos and the magnolia. In fact, the magnolia is one of the most abundant trees at Oatland. The deciduous trees, predominantly sweet gum and hickory, add splashes of red, wine and gold to the green during the winter months.

The Oatland forest is also full of under story shrubs both evergreen -- yaupon, American holly, red bay, wild olive and wax myrtle --and the deciduous -- blueberries, sassafras and the black gum (Nyssa -- sylvatica biflora). This forest is excellent habitat for many species of small birds, including the spectacular pileated woodpecker, and small mammals such as squirrels, opossum and raccoons.

In 1974 when Tony Cope took charge of Oatland for the school board, the forest was undisturbed and rarely penetrated. Over the next few years, Tony and his colleagues established a network of walking trails through the forest – trails that exist to this day, enabling school children and other visitors to enjoy the woods.

The other innovative thing that Cope initiated was a zoo for native animals. They fenced in portions of the forest and brought in animals to live there – animals that are native to the area, some that still live in Georgia and others that used to live here but are long gone.

Oatland has white-tailed deer, wolves, a black bear, bobcats, Florida panthers (otherwise known as cougars) and bison. The old red fox died, but two new kits have been introduced.

They also have aviaries with pelicans, bald eagles, a peregrine falcon and several species of hawks and owls. In addition there’s a barnyard area with goats, sheep, chickens and turkeys, a pig, a cow and a donkey.

In 1979 the Oatland Education Center established the Heritage Home site, bringing in some log cabins from the 1830’s, adding to Oatland’s historical value. Many events such as "Sheep to Shawls" are held at the home site.

While a visit to Oatland is comparable to visiting the Georgia landscapes of the 1700s, the island’s forest is actually second growth forest. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the McQueen family raised cotton on the land. However, the farm was abandoned and the forest grew back. The current forest is probably about 150 to 200 years old.

In 1927 a building was built on the site as a retirement home for Railroad Conductors. It was a large brick structure with a neoclassical portico with Greek style Ionic columns. It contained 67 bedrooms, and cost $350.000. The Home lasted until 1940 when the facility closed.

The U.S. Pubic Health Service bought it and ran it as a research hospital to conduct studies on the control of venereal diseases. In 1946 the Public Health Service converted the hospital to other uses.

In 1942 the Public Health Service established a new organization in Atlanta called Malaria Control in War Areas (MCWA) which focused on protecting our soldiers from malaria infection. The United States by this time was a combatant in World War II.

The Atlanta office had recruited engineers, biologists and medical doctors experienced in the control of malaria, but they needed a facility that specialized in research on mosquito control.

Such a facility existed in Savannah: the Carter Memorial Laboratory run by the City of Savannah. MCWA took over the Carter Laboratory and Dr. Samuel W. Simmons and this staff was offered the Oatland facility and they moved in, in 1946.

By that time the original Carter staff of five had expanded to 35. After the war, MCWA evolved into the CDC -- which originally stood for Communicable Disease Center, but was later changed to the now-familiar Centers for Disease Control. The Oatland lab was known as the Technical Development Laboratory (TDL) of the CDC.

From 1946 to 1973 when the lab closed, TDL became one of the leading labs in the world dealing with mosquito biology, pesticide use & toxicology and malaria control, publishing hundreds of papers. At one time the lab had 150 employees: biologists, chemists, engineers and medical doctors. The lab developed working relationships with labs throughout the country and many of its scientists were members of WHO’s (World Health Organization) expert committees.

I moved to the Savannah area with my family in 1950 when my father, George W. Pearce, was hired by TDL as a chemist.

He became head of the lab’s chemistry section in 1951 and was appointed head of the whole lab in 1962 by Dr. Simmons. By that time Simmons had moved to the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

In an article of this length I can’t list all of the scientific papers that came out of the lab, but I’ll mention a couple. The lab conducted many studies on DDT which had been in use since 1942 as an insecticide.

DDT is now banned because of its effect on wildlife, but at that time it was hailed as safe to humans. The insecticide in general use before DDT was Paris Green (copper arsenate) which was highly toxic to humans.

In 1952 the lab published a paper written by George Pearce, Arnold Mattson and Weyland Hayes that indicated the DDT accumulated in human fat tissue. This was the first report that showed DDT in humans. Dr. Hayes followed this report with many years of study on the affect DDT has on humans.

Despite the deleterious affect that DDT had on birds, Hayes’ studies indicated that the affect on humans is minimal. DDT is long-lasting and produces resistance among insects.

In 1955 George Pearce & Arnold Mattson discovered another potent insecticide as an impurity in another compound (Dipterix). They named it DDVP (Dichloro dimethyl vinyl phosphate) or Dichlorvos. It was more potent than DDT but it had no lasting affect because it degraded very rapidly.

My father and his colleague James Miles wanted to develop a time release system so that small quantities of Dichlorvos could be released over an extended period of time. At first they tried a wax “sausage,” then switched to a plastic strip. They published their results in 1962.

Shell bought the rights and released it as the “No Pest Strip.” Although this strip was sold for many years in the US, TDL was primarily interested in developing a method to control malaria in third world countries.

Another important project undertaken by TDL was developing procedures for disinfection of airplanes – that is, eliminating insects that could travel by air to the U.S., potentially bringing diseases with them.

Jim Miles, my father’s friend and colleague, is retired and living in Savannah. He was hired by my father in 1958 and was made head of the chemistry section in 1962 when my father became head of the lab.

Jim tells me, “TDL was one of the most exciting places I’ve ever worked. So many exciting projects happened in that lab. We accomplished many breakthroughs important to public health.”

Beginning under the leadership of Tony Cope, environmental education has always been a significant part of the program at Oatland. Cope was a pioneer in realizing the importance of environmental education.

Currently the center has 40 programs and services 13,000 students of all ages per year. These programs are an important component of the Savannah – Chatham County Public Schools education program, but the Center also services students from all over Georgia and South Carolina. The Center has five qualified science teachers plus other support staff and has classes geared to every grade level, ranging from ecology and marine biology to the classification of animals.

“Oatland Island Educational Center is a unique learning center that complements the state science curriculum while challenging the student with hands-on activities in marine biology, botany, ecology and even animal husbandry,”says current school board president Hugh Golson.

“Beyond these school support services are a wide variety of community oriented activities that draw thousands of participants, many of whom become volunteers and supporters. This unique facility is an asset that works to engage the learner while providing the community with quality programming. The Board of Education is proud of our investment in Oatland and are most appreciative of the hard work of its staff supporters."

Martha McIlveene, current director of Oatland Island, is very appreciative of the school board’s support:

“The Savannah-Chatham County Public School System should be commended for recognizing the importance of environmental education in 1974 and continuing that recognition for thirty years through their support of Oatland Island Education Center,”she says.

Oatland also has about 100 volunteers who help with animal care, maintenance and weekend events. If you wish to volunteer call Dan Genrich at Oatland, 898-3980.

When the federal government gave Oatland to the school board in 1974 the deed had a covenant that required the board to use the land and facility for educational purposes for 30 years.

This covenant expires this year, and legally the school board could do anything it wants with the property -- including selling it to a developer.

Concerned about the future of Oatland, a group of people who love the place, including Jim Miles and myself, formed a non-profit corporation, the Friends of Oatland (FOO). We adapted the following mission statement:

“To act as a physical and financial support organization for Oatland Island Education Center in order to assist the Savannah-Chatham County Schools and Board of Education in the preservation of the ecosystem, continuation of the education programs, and maintenance of the visitor facility as a community asset.”

Responding to the concerns of the Friends of Oatland and other citizens, board president Hugh Golson and the school board unanimously passed the following resolution in support of Oatland on January 7th, 2004:

“Resolved, that the Board of Education supports the Friends of Oatland in discussions with the local Congressional Delegation to seek ways to entail the gift so that the Oatland Island Educational Center will always remain the public domain and will not be privately developed.”

While the current school board is solidly behind the Oatland Island Education Center, what will happen with future school boards is up to the electorate of this county.

If the citizens of Chatham County support Oatland Island -- its unique forest ecosystem, Savannah’s only zoo, its historical structures and its significant environmental education program – then Oatland will last indefinitely.

FOO has sponsored a number of fundraising events since it was founded in 2001, including last weekend’s 5k "Run for the Animals" held at Fort Pulaski.

FOO volunteers restored a building as a restroom to be used by the new outdoor classrooms. FOO also contributed $10,000 as a matching fund in applying for a grant to repair the dock. In the near future there’ll be other events, sponsored by FOO including a classical music concert and a Medieval Renaissance Fair. To join, call Serena Nasworthy at 898-3060 or Annie Quinting at 786-8678

“I do believe that the Friends of Oatland is a catalyst in raising public awareness of how special Oatland Island is and how fortunate we are to have it in our backyard,”says FOO’s Nasworthy.

“For children who live in the inner city, it may be their only experience of walking in the woods.”

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Mallory Pearce

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Connect Today 12.09.2016

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