Above the Waterline: Signs of hope in new forest preserve, tree protection efforts

Rosy-gill Fairy Helmets at Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve.

“This is a real forest!” exclaimed Atlanta naturalist Kathryn Kolb as we walked through the woods in the city’s recently-acquired Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve on a glorious day in November. We had just admired tall shagbark hickories, massive white oaks, sassafras, persimmons and a huge beech tree: at least 175 years old based on its circumference.

Our tour leader for this special visit to the newest and one of the largest public parks in the city of Atlanta (at 216 acres) was Stacy Funderburke, regional counsel with The Conservation Fund (TCF), a national nonprofit organization. He was instrumental in striking the deal to permanently protect this natural treasure located in southeast Atlanta—working with landowner Waste Management, the city, residents, tree advocates and others. If the parties had not moved quickly, a proposal to clear-cut the forest and grade the land to develop another industrial park would already be underway.

Once a small lakefront retreat in the middle of the last century, the property and deteriorating homes were sold to a developer in the 1980s and Lake Charlotte—created by damming a tributary to the South River—was drained. Several years later, Waste Management purchased the property that is next to its Live Oak Landfill: the largest landfill in metro Atlanta, which closed in 2004. Local residents have long worried that the Lake Charlotte property would become another landfill or industrial site.

Instead, the forest has continued to grow untouched for decades—as vines, trees and other vegetation took over old street signs, light poles, porches and collapsing roofs. After a study identified the Lake Charlotte forest as the most critical property in Atlanta to protect, TCF negotiated the deal with Waste Management for $4.7 million; this past August, the nonprofit sold the land to the city for the same price. After tires and other debris are removed from the site and parking accommodations are made, the city plans to open the preserve to the public in about a year.

Stacy told WABE reporter Molly Samuel: “I believe it’ll be a crown jewel in the city and even in the region. A forest that people will come from all over the city to visit and spend time in because it is such a unique place.” The potential for the preserve to become an outdoor learning laboratory about nature and the people who once lived here is enormous. Several acres of the tract are part of Soapstone Ridge, which contains archaeological sites dating back several thousand years.

To purchase the property, the city of Atlanta used money from its tree recompense fund: fees collected from developers when they cut down trees for new construction, as required by an amendment to the city’s tree ordinance adopted five years ago. This is first time that the fund has been used to protect existing trees, instead of planting new ones—demonstrating the importance of the fund for preserving intact forests before they are destroyed. Thanks to a recent audit of fund expenditures, necessary controls will soon be in place to ensure that recompense funds are used solely as intended, instead of being siphoned off to support department expenses, as has happened to some of the money in recent years.

Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve (Photo by Stacy Funderburke)

As I noted here in an earlier article, since its passage twenty years ago, Atlanta’s tree ordinance has been beat on, beat up, revised and shrugged off by most affected parties: developers, city planners, elected officials, residents, and tree protection and clean water advocates. Virtually everyone agrees that the ordinance has never worked to protect existing trees—high quality trees—during development and redevelopment. It has also permitted larger volumes of storm runoff from expanding impervious surfaces, allowing ambient temperatures to increase, while the shade canopy of mature trees has been reduced.

The city hired consultants to advise them on an ordinance revision and, in 2019, began to engage stakeholders. This time last year, these discussions had devolved into finger-pointing, as the city appeared to be ignoring the significant input of residents and tree advocates. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the negotiations this year, but also provided time for a small group of stakeholders to work through the ordinance, line by line; they are making progress.

City Councilman Matt Westmoreland—chair of the Community Development and Human Services Committee, which oversees the work of the planning department—has led the effort to bring the parties together to revise the tree ordinance. He told me recently that he is “very grateful that the city, tree advocates, and members of the development community continue to share their various perspectives in ongoing discussions to get us to a solid end point.” He expects that the Council will receive a draft ordinance from the planning department soon and will work toward adoption in the first quarter of 2021.

At the end of this difficult and tragic year, I find signs of hope in many places: one of them is in the steadfast commitment of the people who are working hard to find agreement on ways to protect our city in the forest. They realize the immense value of Atlanta’s tree canopy to the health and sense of well-being of all who live, work and play in the city.

If I never have the opportunity to walk the peaceful, deep woods of the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve again, I am content in the knowledge that this special place cannot be harmed—that it will be loved by tens of thousands of people over the years—and that the large beech, whose trunk I hugged when I couldn’t hug my friends for fear of the pandemic, may now be able to reach its full maturity and live several hundred more years.

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in INtown.