Ceylon Wildlife Management Area in Camden County. (Courtesy 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 astounding conservation legacy that has been on my mind this spring.

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

Propelled by a love of nature from childhood and a deep concern that the nation’s natural resources were being destroyed by unrestrained timbering, mining, and development, Theodore saved 234 million acres of land during his presidency in the first decade of the 20th century.

Working with scientists, T.R. protected many of the places where we recreate today—more than 100 years after he acted boldly, often in the face of significant opposition. Because of 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 reserves. Many species have not only survived extinction but thrived because T.R. made the conservation of wildlife habitats a priority.

Brinkley has written a similar book about T.R.’s cousin called Rightful Heritage—Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. Franklin’s conservation legacy is also monumental—from founding the Civilian Conservation Corps to building state parks and scenic roads and protecting places like the Great Smokies, Everglades, and Mammoth Cave. I recently visited F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia and sat beside F.D.R.’s (also seated) statue on Dowdell’s Knob with its grand view of the valley below Pine Mountain: a place where Franklin is said to 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 walked its trails.

Many of our family’s best memories have been made outdoors on public lands in Georgia and around the country—accessible thanks to the foresight, investment, and, at times, sacrifice of people 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.

Poor Record

Georgia is amazingly 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 in overall species diversity. Strategies to protect landscapes and habitats with conservation funds and technical assistance are detailed in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP), created by more than 100 conservation partners.

Yet, our state’s record for investing public dollars to protect natural assets is poor, especially as compared to other Southeastern states. As recently as four years ago, the state of Florida budgeted five times more per resident for conservation purposes than Georgia. Rather than relying on the annual budgetary whims of elected officials who come and go, a dedicated source of funding to acquire conservation lands 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 trust fund for conservation lands; it was overwhelmingly approved in a subsequent public referendum. The historic, bipartisan success was led by the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Coalition, composed of the Conservation Fund, Georgia Conservancy, Georgia Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy, Park Pride, and Trust for Public Land.

GOSA stipulates that trust fund dollars are to supplement—not supplant—the existing funding of outdoor recreation capital projects. With projected annual revenues of $20 million per year from the newly dedicated portion of existing state sales tax on outdoor sporting goods, conservationists and legislators looked forward to tackling the land conservation priorities outlined in the SWAP. They understood that some of the “Conserve Georgia” grants could also be used to steward existing state properties and local recreation areas of regional significance.

Bait and Switch?

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

These capital projects are laudable, but they represent routine activities that could easily be funded by local and/or state bonds. Some observers call this outcome a “bait and switch,” noting that state managers appear to have a bias against expanding state ownership of conservation lands. That bias and the need to resolve unanticipated issues with the application process may be reasons why few grant requests have been made, to date, for landscape-scale acquisitions. Deron Davis, director of The Nature Conservancy in Georgia, calls this situation a “missed opportunity.” 

In the decade before the passage of GOSA, the state spent an average of $8.4 million per year on land conservation, according to environmental advocates. Since voters overwhelmingly endorsed the purchase of additional lands, an average of only $5.2 million has been spent for this purpose. Did voters statewide endorse using these funds to build a park in a wealthy suburb? That is exactly what happened when the city of Johns Creek in north Atlanta received a Georgia Conserves grant in the amount of $3 million to build a new local park.

“One-third of the way through GOSA’s ten-year authorization, it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the commitments made to legislators and the people of Georgia,” says Mike Worley, president of Georgia Wildlife Federation. My guess is that Theodore and Franklin would wholeheartedly agree.

Sally Bethea

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 Atlanta Intown.