Beauty scale

Above the Waterline: Missed Opportunity for Conservation Lands in Georgia

Ceylon Wildlife Management Area in Camden County. (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

I have long admired Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin Franklin for their heroic efforts to improve the lives of all Americans, but it is their incredible legacy of conservation that has me concerned this spring.

Theodore’s crusade to save wildlife, ecosystems and scenic beauty for future generations is described in fascinating detail in The Desert Warrior by historian Douglas Brinkley – an excellent (and long) book that I just finished reading.

Propelled by a love of nature since childhood and a deep concern about the destruction of the country’s natural resources through rampant logging, mining and development, Theodore saved 234 million acres of land in during his presidency in the first decade of the 20th century.

Working with scientists, TR has protected many of the places we recreate today, more than 100 years after acting boldly, often in the face of significant opposition. Through his leadership and that of his conservation colleagues, we can enjoy 23 national parks and monuments, including the Grand Canyon, 150 national forests and 51 bird sanctuaries. Many species have not only survived extinction, but have thrived because TR has made conserving wildlife habitat a priority.

Brinkley wrote a similar book about TR’s cousin called Legitimate Legacy – Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. Franklin’s conservation legacy is equally monumental, from founding the Civilian Conservation Corps to building state parks and scenic drives and protecting places like the Great Smokies, Everglades and Mammoth Cave. I recently visited FD Roosevelt State Park in Georgia and sat next to the statue of FDR (also seated) on Dowdell’s Knob with its awe-inspiring view of the valley below Pine Mountain: a place where Franklin would have greatly enjoyed the scenery and solitude whenever he visited his nearby Little White House. When my sons were young, we often stayed in the park’s log cabins and hiked its trails.

Many of our family’s best memories were made outdoors on public lands in Georgia and across the country, accessible through the foresight, investment and, at times, sacrifice of those who came before us. They understood the importance of generational impact – of safeguarding America’s natural heritage to sustain people and wildlife now and in the future.

Bad record

Georgia is incredibly rich in diverse ecosystems that support a wide variety of plants and animals from the coast to the mountains; we rank sixth among the states for overall species diversity. Strategies for protecting landscapes and habitats with conservation funds and technical assistance are detailed in Georgia’s National Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), created by more than 100 conservation partners.

Yet our state’s record of investing public funds to protect natural assets is poor, especially compared to other states in the Southeast. Just four years ago, the state of Florida budgeted five times more per capita for conservation than Georgia. Rather than relying on the annual budgetary whims of elected officials who come and go, a dedicated source of funding for conservation land acquisition has been a priority for environmental and recreation groups for decades.

In 2018, the state legislature finally passed the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act (GOSA), which establishes a dedicated conservation land trust fund; it was overwhelmingly approved in a subsequent public referendum. The historic, bipartisan success was led by the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Coalition, comprised of the Conservation Fund, Georgia Conservancy, Georgia Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy, Park Pride and Trust for Public Land.

GOSA stipulates that trust fund dollars must be extra charge— not replace — current funding for outdoor recreation capital projects. With projected annual revenue of $20 million per year from the new portion of the existing state sales tax on outdoor sporting goods, conservationists and lawmakers have been eagerly awaiting address the land conservation priorities outlined in the SWAP. They understood that some of the “Conserve Georgia” grants could also be used to manage existing state properties and regionally significant local recreation areas.

Bait and switch?

As implemented by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the GOSA did not follow well its original intent presented to legislators and the public. While the trust fund – now around $28 million in revenue a year – has supported excellent acquisitions, such as the Ceylon Wildlife Management Area, the vast majority of funds have been used for projects local and some state investment centers: visitor centers, park design, boat launches, trails and stormwater management.

These investment projects are laudable, but they represent routine activities that could easily be financed by local and/or state bonds. Some observers call the result a “bait and switch,” noting that state managers appear to be biased against expanding state ownership of protected lands. This bias and the need to address unforeseen issues with the application process may explain why few grant applications have been made, to date, for landscape-scale acquisitions. Deron Davis, director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, calls this a “missed opportunity.”

In the decade before GOSA was passed, the state spent an average of $8.4 million a year on land conservation, according to conservationists. Since voters overwhelmingly approved the purchase of additional land, an average of only $5.2 million has been spent for this purpose. Did voters across the state approve of using those funds to build a park in a wealthy suburb? That’s exactly what happened when the town of Johns Creek in North Atlanta received a $3 million grant from Georgia Conserves to build a new local park.

“A third of the way through GOSA’s ten-year authorization, it is our responsibility to fulfill the commitments made to lawmakers and the people of Georgia,” said Mike Worley, president of the Georgia Wildlife Federation. I guess Theodore and Franklin would totally agree.