When it comes to plant conservation, the key to success is collaboration. Partners in the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA) know this all too well.

Headquartered at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia at UGA (SBG), GPCA is a network of more than 40 conservation organizations committed to preventing local extinctions of rare plant populations.

“Although each partner brings a different expertise to the network, the core of the GPCA is the connection between conservation horticulture and on-the-ground restoration,” said SBG Director Jenny Cruse-Sanders. “Botanical gardens specifically make good partners because they are in a unique position to communicate information about rare plant species and they can be instrumental in creating networks for effective conservation action.”

Since its inception in 1995, the GPCA has worked on 100 priority species projects. Of those 100, 99 have been brought into cultivation or safeguarding at a partner organization and 49 have been returned to the wild.

In November 2016, the GPCA partnered with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Atlanta Botanical Garden, Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service and the National Wildlife Refuge Association for the inaugural Southeastern Partners in Plant Conversation (SePPCon) conference. The purpose of the meeting was to bring partners together in the same place to talk about the priorities for plant conservation in the Southeast and to gather information from attendees on specific lists of plant species identified as rare or at-risk by the Fish and Wildlife Service. For the Southeast, the lists included 104 at-risk plants.

More than 160 people from 24 states and territories attended the conference, representing a wide variety of groups including state agencies, environmental research organizations, utility companies, universities, and more. As a result of bringing together these partners, one unexpected outcome was that they were able to identify plants on the list that were actually not rare enough to warrant conservation action.

“We expected to gather information and set priorities for these plant species, but we didn’t anticipate finding out that some of them actually didn’t need urgent attention,” said Cruse-Sanders. “But this was just as important. Because of limited resources for plant conservation as a whole, if you can eliminate some of these from the list, there’s a greater percentage of resources to use for those plants that do actually need it.”

Following the meeting, the group submitted a list of 10 plant species that were more common than previously thought to the Center for Biological Diversity. As a result, the CBD contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw these species from the petitioned list. For the service to review each plant, it costs roughly $100,000, Cruse-Sanders explained. “So, one result of this meeting was a million dollars in savings that can essentially be used elsewhere for conservation.”

Under the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Act, plants make up more than 50 percent of listed species, but receive less than 5 percent of available funding for conservation. This is why conservation alliances like the GPCA and meetings like SePPCon are so important, explained SBG Conservation Coordinator Jennifer Ceska.

Ceska, along with other GPCA representatives, led sessions at the SePPCon meeting for other interested parties on how to establish conservation alliances within their own states.

“While planning for the SePPCon meeting, we were able to really tease through what has made the GPCA model work for the past 22 years,” Ceska said. “Federal and state agencies asked us to teach our model to others in detail, sharing how we work with other organizations, inspire people to stay actively involved, and train volunteers to watch over the last remaining population of a species.”

Since the SePPCon meeting in November, several states have launched their own conservation alliances, including, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee. In May 2017, the first tri-state plant conservation alliance meeting with Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia was held in Chattanooga to discuss plant and habitat recovery projects for the tri-corner region. GPCA leaders have also consulted with partners in Kentucky, Texas, Arizona and Colorado on creating their conservation alliances.

“Moving forward, the goal for us at the garden, as well as through GPCA and SePPCon, is to continue this open line of communication and collaboration,” said Cruse-Sanders. “Without these partnerships, we truly wouldn’t be able to accomplish all that we do.”

To learn more about GPCA or how you can get involved, visit botgarden.uga.edu.