The Total Conservation Picture
On any given Saturday - any day to be honest - crowds of people gather in the small landscaped parking lot. Preparing for the day ahead, they tighten the laces of their boots, fill their packs with snacks, check to see that they have enough battery power and storage on their phones to take photos. All this in anticipation of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of things that they may lack in their day to day lives. People of all ages, colors, shapes, sizes, politics. Hikers, fishermen, photographers, volunteers. The lake reflects the sky, the rapids rush over the boulders, the trails climb the folded landscape and the fish bite at the bait. People come here because it just feels right; they may not know why, or even think to ask - but they chose to be here for a reason.
Only 15 miles from downtown Atlanta, Sweetwater Creek State Park feels like 150 miles away. But it's not. That fact is evident once you leave. Cars fly east and west on Interstate 20. Trucks barrel down Fulton Industrial Boulevard. Commercial and residential sprawl radiates in every direction, forming a cocoon around the park's lake, trails and namesake creek. Atlanta is called "The City in a Forest," but Sweetwater Creek is truly a forest in the city.
On a very cold nine degree day in February 1967, before Sweetwater Creek was a state park, a small group of citizens, business leaders and academics met there. They also chose to be there for a reason. Though they hiked to the creek and took in the beauty of the awe-inspiring surroundings like many do today, their presence was not for the sole purpose of relaxation and recreation. They were there because they were concerned. Concerned not only for the future of the urban oasis that we now call Sweetwater Creek State Park, but for the future of Georgia's land and water.
It was there that the Georgia Conservancy was formed and our first major land conservation victory took place with the purchase of the property and subsequent transfer to the state.
"When you look at our Atlanta area and Georgia today, you cannot cite any group dedicated to the total conservation picture,' said Georgia Conservancy founder and former Congressman James Mackay in 1967. "Good people just don't know all the other good people who have the same interest."
The total conservation picture. Good people who have the same interest. It's a collaborative vision that remains at the heart of our work. Taking a collaborative approach with a diverse range of partners, we were successful through effective lobbying, grassroots campaigns, creative communications, and often stubborn bullheadedness. Efforts such as these helped lead to the protection of Cumberland Island by the National Park Service in 1972 and the designation of much of its backcountry as federal Wilderness in the early 1980s. Georgia Conservancy influence also helped lead to the establishment of the Okefenokee Wilderness, Cohutta Wilderness and the Chattahoochee River National Recreations Area - all now major public sanctuaries for wildlife and the passive recreation of millions of people.
Back then it was a hard thing to get the state to protect a large tract of land like Sweetwater Creek, especially one so close to Atlanta, or for the federal government to garner support for land acquisition or strong conservation designations. And the fact is, today it's not much easier. Many of the mechanisms that would benefit state-funded conservation are still being realized and remain at the top of our advocacy goals, but in order to buttress our advocacy efforts, we had to ask ourselves - are we dedicated to the whole conservation picture?
Outright purchase of land or lobbying for it, though models still used successfully today by government bodies and conservation groups, never proved to be the silver bullet with which to achieve our ambitious conservation goals, especially for an organization solely focused on Georgia. For us, a model that is inclusive of a broad range of landowners proves to be the best approach, as Georgia is a state of landowners who are historic stewards of their properties - both large and small.
As a result, other options have presented themselves into the conservation picture. A picture that now also includes statewide sustainable growth planning, year-long advocacy efforts and outreach to private landowners and local land trusts, all coupled with our longstanding strategic engagement with diverse partners.
The founders and first members of the Georgia Conservancy worked to raise funds for the purchase of iconic locations such as Sweetwater Creek and Panola Mountain State Parks. Today, our financial support is utilized in a host of other ways to increase the total conservation footprint in Georgia.
In 1995, overwhelmed by the unchecked sprawl of Atlanta, an incredible growth that truly took off in the 1960s, and understanding that Georgia's natural resources were under great pressure, Georgia Conservancy leaders again looked at other models to conserve and protect our lands. How can our cities and towns, places that need to grow, become better stewards of our landscapes and environment as a whole?
"Planning for growth and its impact on natural resources seemed to be the logical progression in the work of the Georgia Conservancy," said Georgia Conservancy President Robert Ramsay in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Blueprints for Successful Communities in 2015. "Growing from the recognition that the form of development has a direct relationship to the loss or retention of critical natural resources, Blueprints puts natural resources first when considering growth management issues."
Designed to facilitate community-based planning efforts across the state, Blueprints may not seem to be, at first glance, a natural progression of our genesis as a land conservation organization. The benefits that our planning and design efforts provide those already living in an urban environment are clear, but what is often overlooked is Blueprints' proactive approach to retain what open spaces we do have, especially the forests and fields at the urban rural interface.
Our work in sustainable growth as whole – our Good Urbanism courses, our school siting workshops and rural resiliency research - boils down to our dedication the protection of our natural resources and the conservation of our environmentally-sensitive lands by working toward development practices that are resource efficient, healthy and capable of accommodating future needs.
In 2011, under the direction of then-Georgia Conservancy President Pierre Howard, former Vice President of Advocacy Will Wingate and our first Land Conservation Outreach Director Shannon Mayfield, the Georgia Conservancy launched a dedicated land conservation program, known as the Land Conservation Initiative (LCI).
More than 90% of Georgia's 38 million acres are privately owned, meaning that the protection of our natural resources will more often than not fall on the stewardship efforts of Georgia land and forest owners. If our precious, biodiverse and beautiful farmlands and forests are to be protected, land conservation initiatives that support private landowners are necessary.
Designed to help landowners find conservation solutions which are right for their properties, LCI plays matchmaker, bringing landowners, various conservation programs and suitable land trusts together.
It's a classic win-win scenario. Landowners who qualify for state and federal programs may be able to pocket cash or take a large write-off on their taxes as long as they agree to protect their land from development. All the while, they keep control of their property and are still able to hunt, fish and farm their land.
Without committing large public or privately-sourced funds, tree canopies are preserved, carbon dioxide is pulled from the air, and streams and wetlands are protected.
The Land Conservation Initiative was immediately recognized by our supporters as an innovative and potentially effective tool for conservation. Without their support, we could not staff the talent necessary to fully engage landowners across the state.
"The land conservation initiative seemed like an unusually good opportunity to our board," said David Weitnauer, president of the Dobbs Foundation, which has provided the Georgia Conservancy's Land Conservation Initiative with $195,000 of support since 2011. "From helping landowners take advantage of incentive programs that might otherwise go unclaimed to carefully prioritizing parcels that have the highest conservation values, it's a very smart, methodical initiative, and it's also a very entrepreneurial project. You had all the pieces in place to conserve land - incentive programs, conservation-minded landowners, and land trusts (and others who hold conservation easements). But somehow this informal system wasn't working up to its potential. The Georgia Conservancy recognized the opportunity. Based on early results, the land conservation initiative looks like it's the catalyst that was needed."
In just five years, our Land Conservation Initiative has helped to protect nearly 54,000 ecologically-rich acres through direct and strategic contact with Georgia landowners, or through engagement with local and state officials.
That engagement at the State Capitol is paying off for Georgia's natural resources and for Georgia landowners. During the 2016 legislative session,we helped to introduce and pass legislation that reauthorizes the state land conservation tax credit, providing property owners with further economic incentives to conserve their lands.
We've been extremely proud of the conservation successes produced by the Land Conservation Initiative in its five short years, and we are aggressively and ambitiously planning to forward this work into the next five.
Our strategic plan has laid out some ambitious goals for land conservation, including the annual placement of 11 ,000 acres of public and private land into programs for natural habitat restoration and the permanent conservation of 500,000 additional acres of Georgia's private and public land. To obtain these outcomes, we will continue to build a strategic and collaborative approach to conservation with our partners, we will continue to advocate for strong and smart conservation measures with our legislators and we will increase engagement with Georgia's landowners and with our members.
We continue to collaborate. As a statewide leader in land conservation outreach and advocacy, the Georgia Conservancy will convene its first ever Georgia Conservation Summit this November with the goal of coalescing strategies around collaborative land conservation in Georgia. Workshops, panel discussions and extensive networking will allow for a host of land conservation and planning professionals to discuss and plan for Georgia's greatest land conservation challenges.
We continue to advocate. Founded in 2010, the Georgia Legacy Coalition, which is comprised of the Georgia Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land, Trout Unlimited, Georgia Wildlife Federation and Park Pride, has been working to establish a dedicated source for conservation funding in Georgia. During the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions, the coalition was successful in having legislation introduced that proposed such a funding mechanism. Both the Georgia Legacy bill and its partner resolution did not pass its originating chaffiber, but the coalition continues to move forward with additional strategies to achieve such an important long-term goal for
We continue to engage. The Georgia Conservancy is always in search of the next conservation success such as Sweetwater Creek or Panola Mountain. What precious place today could become the Cumberland Island of tomorrow? A group of conservation-minded individuals met at Sweetwater Creek in 1967 at what was then an incredible resource lacking the protection that it truly deserved. And today, almost every weekend, we paddle down Georgia's Heartland Rivers and break bread around the campfire with the modern-day version of our founders – other dedicated groups of conservation-minded individuals from across Georgia and across party lines. We not only introduce these thousands of people every year to some of our state's most precious places (of which many do not yet have necessary conservation protections), but we get to experience along with them the passion that many of us have for our land and water. A love, not unlike our founders felt nearly 50 years ago when they hiked the trails of Sweetwater Creek.
Found within our state lines, whether by providence or foresight, is an incredible bounty of natural resources. A bounty to be measured not by the monetary riches that it can create, but by the lasting nourishment that it can provide our diverse citizens and our state's spectrum of flora and fauna. The nourishment of water and food, the nourishment of shelter and retreat, the nourishment of reflection and recreation. Without our natural lands, whether in preservation or in continued restoration, our state and its inhabitants would be starved of the resources necessary for life. We've fought for these resources –our land and our waters - for nearly 50 years and we are excited to fight for another 50.