The year is 1967. The Beatles invite you to Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, while Aretha Franklin demands “Respect.” Thousands of young people flock to California for revolutionary rock music and the Summer of Love. Lyndon Johnson addresses the difficulties of the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty. Americans continue to wrestle with racial tensions as the Women’s Movement builds momentum. The first Super Bowl and the world’s first heart transplant capture attention in a year when the Dow peaks at 943. Lester Maddox moves into the new governor’s mansion in Atlanta, and Jimmy Carter has just completed his two state senate terms. Georgia’s population has just surpassed 4 million. Southerners indulge in Chick-fil-A’s first original chicken sandwiches and a group of Georgians create a truly statewide environmental organization dedicated to preserving Georgia’s environment for generations to come: The Georgia Conservancy.
Responding to the changing cultural times, groups for every cause under the sun organize, campaign and protest. Riding the wave of positive federal environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, environmentalism finds its rightful place among the multitude of the decade’s issues. With the effect of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the deterioration of precious land across the country and growing public awareness of pollution’s impact on human health, environmentalists begin to gain ground.
The rush to accommodate a booming population and an influx of business in the South raises Georgia’s environmental risks. Home to one of the world’s most diverse range of ecosystems from mountains to marshlands, Georgians realize the time to act to protect the Peach State from unchecked degradation has arrived. In January 1967, James Mackay, a former U.S. congressman, and his son’s high school biology teacher co-host 66 friends of conservation at the Fernbank Science Center in Atlanta to discuss the state of conservation efforts and activities in Georgia. The national executive vice president of the Nature Conservancy attends the event, challenging the assembly to form a new organization for the consideration of Georgia’s total environment. The initial gathering leads to a second on a nine-degree morning at Sweetwater Creek on February 25, the fourth Saturday of the month and the beginning of the organization’s longstanding field trip tradition. On May 8, the Secretary of State’s office issues the group of committed citizens a charter for the Georgia Conservancy, a new nonprofit organization devoted to protecting and preserving Georgia’s natural resources.
Armed with a holistic approach to conservation and unbridled enthusiasm, the fledgling organization’s first project in 1967 epitomizes conservation in its purest form—simply to preserve Panola Mountain for generations of Georgians to enjoy. This early interest in special natural places and waterways becomes increasingly evident as the Conservancy seeks full wilderness protection for the Okefenokee Swamp that same year. Finally coming to fruition in 1974, the organization’s work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service successfully protects 344,000 acres of swampland.
Collaboration with both government agencies and private entities bodes well for the Conservancy from the beginning. Shortly after its inception, the Conservancy pursues its interest in the coast, voicing its opposition to phosphate mining in Chatham County, mobilizing a boisterous letter writing campaign and later forming a coastal action coalition to examine the best use of Georgia’s barrier islands. The Conservancy decides Cumberland Island should not become a resort, and with the help of activists and other environmental groups, sends investors back to the mainland empty-handed in 1970. Preservation on the forefront of the organization’s agenda, its instrumental role in the Georgia Heritage Trust ultimately helps the state acquire more than 21,000 acres of natural and historic sites in the 1970s, building a foundation that will lead to many future victories for land conservation in Georgia.
The organization teaches its members that taking positive small individual steps toward a better environment are supremely important. A flowery combination in 1973, the Conservancy partners with the Garden Club of Georgia to co-sponsor the state’s largest litter cleanup drive to date with more than 10,000 people in 125 counties pitching in.
Crucial to its initial success, Conservancy members play a vital role in the work of the organization. In order to cultivate knowledgeable environmental advocates, the organization focuses on educating the membership, giving each member the opportunity to go, see and learn so that he or she may represent the Conservancy more effectively. The organization hosts its first annual “Conservation Congress,” themed “Conservation is Common Sense,” in 1968, setting a precedent for conferences to come that would attract national and international speakers.
Sponsoring both lectures at colleges and universities throughout the state and also creating children’s education programs, the Conservancy works to make environmental literacy a lifelong process. With help from the Callaway Foundation in 1972, the Conservancy publishes its first children’s environmental literature, “Let’s S.E.E.,” a bi-monthly newsletter filled with information and activities focused on teaching children how they can make a difference for their planet. Education programs flourish through the organization’s first decade, incorporating creative events such as a nature daycamp and the EarthLab education program for adults.
Capitalizing on the power of the press, the Conservancy produces numerous educational resources for students and adults, including member newsletters, Waterline, a watchdog collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focusing on Georgia’s water, and videos such as award winner “Stream of Conscience — Natural Solutions for Clean Water.” Understanding the impact teachers have on students’ lives, the Conservancy now focuses on teaching Georgia’s educators and on hands-on environmental education. Through Georgia’s Native Seasons and Georgia’s Native Waters curricula, as well as the Youth Environmental Symposium, the organization’s goal is for classroom teachers to incorporate a hands-on environmental perspective into everyday instruction, encouraging Georgia’s next generation of decision makers to create a sustainable future.
With the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius,” environmental progress should be as simple as holding hands, collaborating with neighbors and teaching your children well. Realistically, working for positive change—especially when it comes to the environment—requires much more. The Conservancy finds that sound environmental research, good environmental policies and collaboration are essential components of success. Legal action would be used only as a last resort. In 1976, Congress allows nonprofits to embrace the legislative scene and begin to use lobbying power to accomplish advocacy goals. The Conservancy celebrates an important victory that year in the landmark “beach case,” Georgia v. Ashmore, granting the state the authority to protect Georgia’s marshes and tidal rivers and guaranteeing public access to Georgia’s beaches for all people.
With renewed spirits and a stronger political muscle, the Conservancy participates in an emerging national energy conservation. With foundation support, the Conservancy sponsors a 1976 mountain retreat for ten leading environmental thinkers, including Amory Lovins and Eugene Odum, to lay down the facts and fortify a position on emerging technologies and energy alternatives. Concluding that fossil fuels are capital-intensive and nuclear energy production is dangerous for human and environmental health, the panel presents a paper titled, “The Wolfcreek Statement: Toward a Sustainable Energy Society,” encouraging the consideration of energy conservation and safe alternatives. Newly elected President Jimmy Carter must have taken the statement to heart; many suggestions from the Wolfcreek Statement appear in his 1977 national energy policy.
Continuing its charge to protect Georgia’s most precious land and species, the Conservancy takes a stand on countless issues in the ensuing decades. It supports Governor Joe Frank Harris’ initiative to offer a nongame tax return checkoff so any Georgia taxpayer s can participate in protecting wildlife just as hunters and fishers do by buying licenses. The Georgia Conservancy also plays a key role with Governor Harris’s Growth Strategies Commission, the state’s new effort to plan proactively for Georgia’s population growth.
In 1985, scientists identify Georgia’s coast as the center of the only known calving ground for the western Atlantic stock of endangered northern right whales. The Conservancy takes action immediately, recommending that boating interests and the U.S. Navy take special precautions to avoid collisions with the whales.
With two decades of work behind it, the seasoned Georgia Conservancy finds that tackling important but complex issues becomes second nature and the organization’s reputation and authority grow. It also finds that is important to help incubate two new environmental organizations that flourish today: the Georgia Solar Coalition, now Southface, and the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. A second generation of active members forms in 1992 for education, fun and service, known today as Generation Green, now the young professionals board of the Conservancy.
It is not surprising that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) calls on the Georgia Conservancy in the early 1990s. Recognizing international pressure to produce a “greener” 1996 Olympics, ACOG had its work cut out to make positive earth-friendly changes for such a grand scale event. Extensive planning and collaboration won Atlanta great praise for “greening up” the Olympics’ act.
As the world’s Olympic spotlight beams on Atlanta, the city begins to explore options setting it on par with other progressive cities of the world. A 1995 cover article in Panorama highlights the advantages of the New Urbanism movement and the possibilities it could create for Atlanta. From an environmental perspective, this new urban planning made sense to the Georgia Conservancy’s leaders, who later that year launched the overwhelmingly successful Blueprints for Successful Communities program. With land use a top Conservation priority, the initiative incorporates environmental preservation while also considering economic interests.
Transportation always on the agenda when growth is the topic, the organization works tirelessly to encourage legislators to understand the impacts that transportation choices have on water, air, land and Georgia’s economy. In January 1999, the Conservancy co-files a lawsuit to defend Georgia’s air quality and curb suburban sprawl, a rare legal action that would lead to demise of Northern Arc.
Still, Atlantans wake up each morning to discouraging air quality reports on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s front page. The more roads built and fewer transportation alternatives considered, the city cannot expect much progress. Fortunately, the Conservancy has children on the radar, having formed a coalition of Mothers and Others for Clean Air, founded by Laura Turner Seydel and Stephanie Blank. Now a program of the American Lung Association, Mothers and Others for Clean Air works daily to accomplish such specific goals as retrofitting school buses to reduce diesel emissions and help children breathe easier. Unhealthy air does not discriminate.
Good growth management is not just for cities. The Conservancy learns that the Gulf Coastal Plain, which encompasses 18 counties in southwest Georgia, is the nation’s second-most distinctive region for biodiversity and endangered species. The Conservancy is honored that the Doris Duke Foundation selects the Conservancy to help this vital part of the state understand its assets and plan for the future.
Hand in hand with burgeoning growth and air issues, water efficiency is a natural task for the Conservancy to tackle. Creating the Community-Based Watershed Action Program in 1995, the Conservancy also helps initiate an 18-county metro-Atlanta water district to promote smart water management in the city in 2001. The source of life, water remains a top concern for the organization, having helped establish the Georgia Water Coalition in 2002 along with three other partners. Today, the coalition is primed to provide guidance on a comprehensive statewide water plan to manage state waters for the maximum benefit of citizens and local economies, a plan that respects natural river basin and aquifer boundaries. This plan will go to the 2008 Georgia General Assembly for consideration.
Knowing the Georgia Conservancy has participated in nearly every environmental issue affecting the state of Georgia since 1967, one would assume the group must have only enough time in the day for work. The truth is, since the first field trip held in 1967, the group has made plenty of time to enjoy the natural beauty they work so vigorously to preserve, faithfully fulfilling an important part of the founder's’ charter: “To promote fellowship and good fun among its members.” Our member field trips have evolved into a robust Stewardship Trips Program which now leads more than three thousand people a year into some of Georgia's great natural wonders - from Cloudland Canyon to Cumberland Island. With nearly 40 annual trips, which include service weekends, overnight paddling expeditions and metro Atlanta day hikes, the Georgia Conservancy is turning adventurers into advocates.
The Georgia Conservancy deeply appreciates the thousands of members, supporters, friends and environmental peers who have made the first 50 years so successful. By working together, all of these people have improved the life of every Georgian. No one can accurately forecast what the next 50 years will bring. Just as Georgia Conservancy members accepted the challenge in 1967, this tenacious organization pledges to honor its remarkable legacy and work for its vision to make Georgia a premier environmental state by promising to educate, advocate and collaborate, just as it always does.