Forward From Fifty
The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act
As with any milestone, the desire to reflect upon and to assess the past is strong. Nostalgia for some, curiosity for many, will unearth stories worthy of celebration, as well as stories that beg the question, “what if”?
Without losing sight of our present and future goals, the Georgia Conservancy has proudly celebrated our 50th Anniversary for the last 18 months, shining a light on the dedication of our members, supporters, and past staff and board members to protect and conserve some of our state’s most precious places, such as Cumberland Island National Seashore, the Okefenokee Wilderness, Sweetwater Creek State Park, the Cohutta Wilderness and the Flint River. These places today are iconic, both in their beauty and in the protections that they provide for our biodiverse flora and fauna. They also remind us that conservation is an unending effort – often a series of battles – and that the places that we celebrate and continue to advocate for today, could have been lost forever. Fifty years from now, we do not want to look back on today and ponder “what if?” in regard to some of our biggest conservation challenges, so right now we are working to preserve for future citizens of Georgia the next precious places of which to be proud.
So, what’s in store for the next fifty years?
It’s an ambitious question, and one truly worthy of consideration as we work on a number of projects that have the potential to influence Georgia for decades to come. Since our founding in 1967, Georgia’s population has nearly tripled to 11 million. Atlanta has seen tremendous growth that has greatly increased the footprint of the metropolis. Our continued research and outreach around sea level rise along Georgia’s coast, comprehensive updates to our climate change policies, and our advocacy for improved water quality and water conservation are focus areas that we believe will tremendously benefit not only our state’s land and water, but also the quality of life for our growing population.
Growth will continue, though, and how we manage that growth through conservation must evolve. One project, in particular, has the opportunity to immediately influence and provide a blueprint for decades of strategic land conservation and sustainable growth.
Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act
For nearly 10 years, the Georgia Conservancy, along with a coalition of partners including the Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Land, The Conservation Fund, Park Pride and the Georgia Wildlife Federation, has actively pursued the passage of legislation that would establish a long-term dedicated source of funding for land conservation in Georgia. Known as the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act (GOSA), the benefits of House Bill 332 would have a lasting impact on Georgia.
“Currently, Georgia lacks a dedicated funding mechanism that ensures critical lands can be protected, conserved and managed,” says Georgia Conservancy Advocacy Director Leah Dixon. “The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act would provide our state with the financial resources necessary to acquire lands identified as critical in the most recent Georgia State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), better manage existing parks and wildlife management areas, and allow for local greenspace matching funds.”
The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act does not call for an additional tax. Monies would be appropriated from the existing state sales tax on outdoor recreation equipment – items as diverse as shotgun shells and hiking boots. Three-fourths of every dollar spent by outdoor enthusiasts on the products they use for recreation would be set aside for land conservation and would help to ensure that our precious lands and waters will remain for current and future generations to enjoy.
Georgia’s robust outdoor industry, one of the strongest in the nation, is a signal that sustainable conservation funding is good for both the environment and the economy. It is estimated that the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act would direct as much as $40 million dollars annually for land conservation without raising taxes.
In addition to providing much needed habitat protection for the nation’s sixth most biodiverse state, dedicated conservation funding would protect and manage the lands, waters and parks where we study, recreate and relax.
How do we ensure that these dollars will be used as intended? Companion legislation, House Resolution 238, would allow for the Georgia Constitution to be amended through a ballot referendum. If passed by Georgia voters during the November 2018 general election, the fund established by the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act would be constitutionally lock-boxed and those dollars could only be used for their intended purposes.
Land Conservation + Growth
Through polling, and as seen in recent conservation referenda in Georgia, both sides of the political aisle are viewing dedicated conservation funding as a positive step forward in the protection of our natural resources. In November 2016, with the support of the Georgia Conservancy, the conservative-leaning metro Atlanta communities of Johns Creek and Milton separately voted to increase their greenspace and conservation lands through bond referendums totaling nearly $65 million.
The Georgia Conservancy’s Sustainable Growth and Land Conservation programs have continued our support of the City of Milton’s efforts into 2017 by engaging and collaborating with city leaders to develop a detailed list of priority conservation tracts eligible for protection with the bond funds.
Communities in metro Atlanta are recognizing the importance of greenspace and maintaining and conserving land and water resources, not only for the health of their citizens, but also for growing a viable economy by attracting and retaining a workforce along with community-minded businesses.
“It’s a win-win,” says Georgia Conservancy Senior Director of Sustainable Growth Katherine Moore. “Georgia is going to continue to grow, but that doesn’t mean that we have to sacrifice critical acres to development. Cities and towns across Georgia have found value in the revitalization of historic town centers, the repurposing of existing facilities, the redevelopment or restoration of brownfields, and maintaining undeveloped lands for conservation and passive recreation. Understanding that our natural assets can also become economic assets through conservation has been a revelation for many communities in our state. The Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act and the overwhelming turnout by voters in North Fulton support this notion.”
The economic benefits of conservation and the need for conservation funding through mechanisms such as GOSA are beginning to be understood and valued, not only in our urban and suburban communities, but in the rural reaches of our state as well.
The listing of the red-cockaded woodpecker as an endangered species in the early 1970s provided a number of protections that helped the population of this rather unusual bird slowly rebound across the Southeast. However, due to a number of federal restrictions, the economic effects of such a listing can be tremendous for residents and businesses who derive their income from the land. When extending federal protection to additional species is proposed, backlash from nearby communities can be expected, along with the potential erosion of political support.
In a prolonged effort to head off such concerns, the Georgia Conservancy and a coalition of partners in the public, private and nonprofit sectors are working to conserve a minimum of 100,000 acres of critical gopher tortoise habitat before a federal endangered species listing for Georgia’s state reptile becomes necessary.
Keystone Species: Gopher Tortoise
Like the red-cockaded woodpecker, the gopher tortoise is a keystone species, meaning that other plants and animals within the same ecosystem are in some way dependent on this species for survival. The gopher tortoise’s burrows, which are largely found in the once-vast longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem, provide habitat for the striped newt, indigo snake, flatwoods salamander, gopher frog, southern hognose snake, eastern diamond‐backed rattlesnake, and many more. Conserving and restoring thousands acres of this south Georgia ecosystem, through voluntary conservation easements on both private and public lands, as well as through the creation of state wildlife management areas, is not only vital for the recovery of the gopher tortoise, but also in the protection of dozens of other species.
The Georgia Conservancy and our partners in the Gopher Tortoise Initiative intend to leverage the dollars which could be potentially dedicated through the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act to acquire additional matching funds from federal and philanthropic sources. To date, more than $78 million has been pledged to the effort to conserve, restore and protect the lands needed for the gopher tortoise to thrive and for industry to avoid the economic hit that an endangered species listing could bring.
“Among our most important efforts in our 50 years,” says Georgia Conservancy President Robert Ramsay, “is our current collaboration to champion the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, as the passage of this bill and subsequent referendum will have the potential to literally affect the landscape of Georgia for generations.”
In areas urban, suburban and rural, from the mountain through the coastal plain, millions of Georgians would reap the positive benefits of longterm, dedicated conservation funding for years to come. The precious places of tomorrow are being saved today.
To learn more about the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act and how you can become an advocate for long-term, dedicated conservation funding, please visit: www.georgiaoutdoorstewardship.org
Banner photo of Okefenokee wiregrass forest by Joey Gaston