The St. Simons Land Trust, the Brenn Foundation, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have finalized a multi-phase, multi-year major land conservation partnership on the north-end of St. Simons. Nearly half of the historic estate known as Musgrove has been sold by The Brenn Foundation to the Land Trust. The total 258-acre purchase makes this the second largest acquisition in the Land Trust’s 18-year history and one of the most important land protection projects ever initiated on St. Simons and the Golden Isles.
Musgrove is the former home of environmentalist and philanthropist Nancy Susan Reynolds and her son, Smith W. Bagley, heirs of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Purchased in 1938 by Nancy Reynolds, the 550-acre compound was built as a natural sanctuary and informal philanthropy center based upon the principles of giving back to the community.
As a continuation of that mission, former President Jimmy Carter was invited to host his pre-inaugural cabinet meeting at Musgrove after the 1976 U.S. presidential election. That event sparked the late Smith Bagley’s founding of The Brenn Foundation to serve as steward of the Musgrove Retreat and Conference Center. Today, the Foundation continues to host dignitaries, thought-leaders, and organizations from around the world that focus on public policy issues such as the environment, human rights, and civic engagement.
“I’m delighted to learn that the Bagley family, in their generosity, has partnered with the St. Simons Land Trust to preserve this unique and beautiful property,” said President Carter, who was the recipient of the Bagley family’s hospitality many times over the years. “I know that future generations will enjoy Musgrove as much as I have,” added the former president.
Conversations between The Brenn Foundation and the Land Trust to save the property began more than five years ago. The first 58-acre parcel was purchased in 2016. The second 90-acre phase closed in February of 2017. This month the final 110-acre tract was sold to the Land Trust.
“The relationship between the Brenn Foundation and the Land Trust has become one of the most important in the region. The legacy we have jointly created for future generations is in keeping with the guiding principles my grandmother instilled when she first built Musgrove – preserving the environment and giving back to the community are as rooted into our foundation as the live oaks,” said Nicole Bagley, president of The Brenn Foundation and granddaughter of Nancy Susan Reynolds. “I’m incredibly proud that we will be able to have such an important community and environmental impact through this partnership, and I only wish that my grandmother could welcome guests to experience the magic that the natural landscape of this protected property will provide.”
The Georgia DNR also provided $3 million in grants obtained through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Governor Nathan Deal approved each of the three $1 million grants as well as a perpetual conservation easement that ensures the property can never be developed.
The total purchase price of the 258 acres was approximately $11 million. As part of the agreement, The Brenn Foundation is returning a prorated amount from each of the three closings – roughly a total of $1.5 million — to the Land Trust for a stewardship endowment to help support the property’s perpetual care. Also, as part of the agreement, the land purchased by the Land Trust will be renamed, with The Brenn Foundation retaining the name “Musgrove” for the acreage it holds.
“We are grateful to The Brenn Foundation, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and the more than 400 generous individual donors for working with us to support this important land conservation effort,” said Land Trust Executive Director David Pope. “This acquisition is an outstanding example of a successful federal/state/private partnership that will protect a major forest as a quiet, undeveloped, unspoiled forest forever.”
During the next 12 months the Land Trust will begin opening sections of the land to the public. In addition to providing hiking and biking trails and opportunities for fishing, birding, kayaking, and other outdoor activities, the property is a major boon to conservation efforts on the island.
According to Jason Lee, a manager at the Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Resources Division, “The Land Trust acquisition will continue to provide both upland and saltmarsh habitat, in perpetuity, for manatee, diamondback terrapins, migratory birds and other rare plants and animals, plus allow for outdoor public recreation in the Golden Isles. The saltmarsh performs invaluable services such as reducing storm surge impact to adjacent uplands, minimizes erosion, and supports essential habitat for fisheries as well as threatened, endangered and protected species. The State is excited to partner with the SSLT for these reasons,” said Lee, who co-authored the successful grant proposals awarded through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s competitive National Coastal Wetland Conservation Grant program.
The property’s marsh also abuts and adds to the Altamaha River Corridor, which has been called by The Nature Conservancy one of the “75 Last Great Places in America”, and has been a conservation priority of DNR’s for the past 25 years.
The perpetual conservation easement on the 258 acres will be held and monitored by the State of Georgia. The easement provides a permanent legal guarantee that the land will remain a maritime forest and refuge for wildlife living in the often-harsh saltmarsh environment. “Five hundred houses could have been built on this property,” said the Land Trust’s David Pope. “Imagine the impact! Now Musgrove will remain a protected maritime forest forever.”
Scott McQuade, chairman of the Land Trust’s board of directors and executive director of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau, added that the protected property will provide a welcomed new wilderness area for visitors and residents alike. “We are looking forward to opening the property to the public and offering a uniquely beautiful piece of land to hike and explore. The acquisition of this property was an essential accomplishment to protect the natural character of St. Simons Island and furthers the Land Trust’s goal to save the last remaining pieces of wilderness for all to enjoy, forever. We are genuinely grateful to all who helped to preserve this land.”