Fifteen years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) acknowledged that a rare plant called the Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) deserved and needed protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Unfortunately, a lot of other species also needed protection—some of them much more urgently. As such, the Georgia aster was determined to be a lower-priority species and it never got the protection it needed.

But now that's changed, although not in the usual method. Under a plan announced last week the Georgia aster will finally be protected, but not under the ESA. Instead, several federal and state agencies and a number of private landowners have entered into a collaborative conservation agreement that will take actions to both protect the plant's habitat and increase its population. Signatories to the conservation plan include the FWS, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Clemson University, Georgia Power, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation department in North Carolina.

Many of the partners in this agreement were already working to preserve the Georgia aster, says Gary Peeples, education and outreach specialist for the FWS in North Carolina. "It wasn't much of a challenge to go to the extra effort," he says. "Signing on to the agreement to take a few additional measures wasn't that big of a leap for them."

Protecting the Georgia aster requires preservation of open land because the bright purple flower only thrives when it gets enough direct sun. Natural forest fires and grazing animals used to help the plants get that sunlight by keeping the populations of woody shade plants in check. Human development and fire-suppression techniques used over the past several decades eliminated that part of the equation and the asters suffered and died out in most of their locations. Today the plant only exists at 118 sites in Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas.

The agreement will help the plant at some of those sites. For example, many of the aster's remaining habitats are around utility rights-of-way, where work crews routinely mow wild grasses to ensure easy access and cut back vegetation that could damage power lines. Under the agreement, Georgia Power will avoid mowing these areas from late spring until mid-fall, when the aster is both at its tallest and most likely to be reproducing. Aster populations will also be marked so no one accidentally damages them; herbicide use will be avoided.

The agreement not only helps the Georgia aster but also serves landowner interests by keeping the plant off the endangered species list. "Once it goes on that list, regulatory protections stemming from the act kick in," Peeples says. The ESA typically identifies critical habitat for species in need, which would affect how federal agencies act in that habitat. If the list were invoked, private landowners would be forbidden from harming or killing endangered species on their properties. The agencies and landowners in this case wanted to avoid that happening yet still preserve the asters. A similar agreement was made last year to protect the Yadkin River goldenrod (Solidago plumosa), an even rarer plant that only exists in an eight-to-10-meter range on property owned by Alcoa Power Generating.

Peeples said the conservation agreement is a good alternative to protecting the Georgia aster under the ESA while accomplishing the same goals. "When you get down to it," he says, "this type of stuff—people coming together and agreeing to do, what needs to be done—is where endangered species conservation happens."

Photo by Michele Elmore/The Nature Conservancy, courtesy of FWS