Protection Crucial for Narrow Gate Property

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During a very difficult time of fiscal decision by the new Pickens County team of County Commissioners, it’s understandable why a nature park might not gain much attention. But how important is our water supply?

Mountain Conservation Trust appealed to the County Commissioners at their February work session to consider acquisition strategies for an important tract of land that protects our water supply. The 280 acre Narrow Gate property is immediately adjacent to Pickens County’s Burnt Mountain Preserve, a passive recreation area that is under permanent stewardship by the Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia (MCT) and part of the scenic view from the lower Highway 136 overlook.

The County has indicated for quite some time, that the Narrow Gate property is a priority tract of interest for eventual County acquisition. Mountain Conservation Trust has also had an ongoing interest in conserving the property, since the tract meets very high conservation and public benefit criteria, and falls within MCT’s priority forest protection areas. Mountain Conservation Trust has been communicating with the owner’s representatives for quite some time, exploring conservation options including possible acquisition by Pickens County.

Recently this property has gained public attention because of visible timber management on the property and concern for the potential threat to water quality. The owners have agreed to consider an acquisition proposal by the County for a very short time prior to resuming these activities.

The most threatened resource in our region is water. Quite simply, source water protection is all about forest protection – particularly hardwood forests with deep root systems and abundant understory. Water that originates in hardwood forests is cleaner. Watersheds with more forest cover have higher groundwater recharge, lower stormwater runoff, and lower levels of nutrients and sediment in streams.

By protecting our beautiful mountain forests that protect source water, communities can save millions of dollars on water treatment and storage costs.  Many forward-thinking local governments nationwide are taking advantage of available source water protection grants, and making acquisition investments for the community in natural “green infrastructure”.

The U. S. Forest Service has identified our region’s forest as one of the most important in protecting community water supplies as part of their Forests-to-Faucets initiative. One of Mountain Conservation Trust’s primary conservation objectives, along with our collaborative partners, is the protection of mature southern Blue Ridge hardwood forests that are in good condition and under imminent threat of conversion to other land uses.

The Narrow Gate property is a very high priority area for “green infrastructure” conservation because its forest cover protects an important stream catchment area tied directly to the water supply.  A catchment is an area of land where surface water runoff of a larger area and higher elevations converges to a single point – the last and most important area for water filtration before it flows into a water body.

The topography of the Narrow Gate site resembles a giant basin with slopes approaching 50% on the outer portions. This basin serves as the final drainage area, filtering the surrounding area’s surface water runoff before it flows into Champion Creek.  Champion Creek flows directly into Grandview Lake which overflows into Long Swamp Creek, a major intake for local water supply, and a tributary of the Etowah River. Land disturbance near a stream catchment area, even that associated with the most responsible forest management practices could be extremely detrimental to water quality during periods of heavy rain – especially where steep slopes exist.

Though water quality and quantity are the primary resources to protect, there are many other good side effects of protecting the Narrow Gate tract, which meets virtually every natural resource conservation and public benefit criteria. The tract is located within an area identified as a “conservation opportunity” by the State Wildlife Action Plan for its massive un-fragmented forest.

Several threatened and endangered aquatic species would be impacted by a land disturbance on this site. Aquatic biodiversity, which to some may not seem all that important, is the primary indicator of healthy streams and rivers.  So in protecting endangered species, we are really protecting our own water supply.

Further, by conserving this tract we are enhancing the existing Preserve’s future protection on a larger and more important scale by maintaining a connected landscape with deeper interior forest habitat.  This large swath of conserved forest will better withstand future adjacent impacts, provide wilderness corridors for larger and more diverse species of wildlife and also preserve the scenic viewshed from the Highway 136 East overlook.

The obvious intrinsic value in connecting our citizens with the outdoors and building the next generation of environmental stewards cannot be overstated. From a long-range standpoint, the acquisition could eventually facilitate greater public access to the Preserve by enabling limited construction of ancillary facilities and enhanced recreational and educational features.

Greater public access and diverse uses enable the county to promote recreation events, programs, and facilities that attract day travelers & overnight visitation.  Such a public amenity equates to new business, industry, and new homes/residents, reduced health and public infrastructure costs, enhanced property values and higher County tax base, job creation, and generation of local spending.

Far beyond the amenity value of this tract is the asset value to the community.  It’s hard to quantify such value of our water supply in future terms, or the cost to the community in not placing this tract under conservation, but worthy of careful consideration before this opportunity is no longer available to consider. Theodore Roosevelt said it best back in 1901 when he felt it important enough to address forests in his state of the union address “The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity… The great part played by them in the creation and maintenance of the national wealth is now more fully realized than ever before.”

Mountain Conservation Trust is working with the Narrow Gate owner’s representative in hopes of protecting this tract now, while its natural forest cover is most useful for water quality protection.  We believe the county has the wisdom and vision to understand the importance of acquiring this tract based on previous indications of such interest, however, we also know the option to purchase could not come at a worse time in terms of County finances. The Commissioners have their plate full with other priorities so Mountain Conservation Trust is doing all we can on behalf of the community, to enable the County to receive this valuable property through little or no financial outlay.

MCT is working on a conceptual funding scenario where the County could receive the tract by way of various state and federal grants.  Any funding gaps could be raised through private foundation grants, private donors, and members of the community. These deals are complicated, take time and careful orchestration and sequencing, and there are no guarantees, but 1000’s of acres have been protected this way – ironically the original Burnt Mountain Preserve trac is one example.

Mountain Conservation Trust of Georgia has formed over 20 years ago through the grassroots effort to convince Georgia Pacific not to exercise their timber rights – protecting the watershed and the scenic view from Highway136. Working with Mountain Conservation Trust, the County was able to acquire the property through Transportation Enhancement grants and The Trust for Public Land provided negotiations and interim purchase until the county received the state funding.  This landmark will forever be a symbol of the great difference citizens and leaders with vision can make for their community.

With that same level of spirit and optimism, Mountain Conservation Trust has applied considerable time and energy on behalf of the community toward the conservation of the Narrow Gate property. Almost like history repeating itself, time is of the essence to keep the forest intact. Based on the important public benefits afforded by this site, and the urgency of the situation, the Trust for Public Land has indicated a strong interest in providing their assets and resources as an interim purchaser for a 3-5 year term while other funding sources are obtained by the County for acquisition.  Additional or alternative low-interest financing options through Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority (GEFA) have been proposed also.

Because the conservation values of this property and the public benefits are so high, this project would rank high even in stiff competition for a whole suite of funding mechanisms. The property meets the criteria for a Community Forest Grant through the U. S. Forest Service, Land and Water Conservation programs, Forest Legacy, and other grant possibilities.

The pursuit of these financing/funding mechanisms or eligibility cannot be fully explored unless the County expresses a decisive intent to pursue acquisition through these means. We’ve been presenting proposals to the owners and the County, and are confident that the parties will come together to explore options and facilitate the conservation of this important tract. We’ve also engaged Mayor Weaver to consider a collaboration of financial and other resources.

MCT does not have available funds at this time for acquisitions or related costs or to devote a considerable amount of capacity to further facilitate this process without community support. Since the landowners will understandably do what makes financial sense for them within their private property rights, an immediate and decisive show of intent by the County will be necessary to change the course of history.  In the meantime, the landowners are in the process of obtaining a qualified appraisal as a starting point for negotiations.

It’s really up to the community and the County Commissioners.  It’s going to require a show of support from the citizens and a shared vision and leadership from the County and perhaps the City of Jasper for this acquisition to take place. Members of the community, who feel this is important, might let these leaders know and encourage their pursuit of negotiations and funding sources.

I encourage our members and citizens who understand the future implications to the community of letting this opportunity go unaddressed to share those thoughts. We further invite our members and the community to support and join our efforts on this and other local and regional initiatives that benefit our local communities.  We need broad support for adequate capacity to preserve our rich natural resources and biodiversity, beautiful mountain views, and rural character – and to ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.

Coosa River Expert Discusses Water Issues With Members of Mountain Conservation Trust

As printed in the Pickens County Progress, 4 March 2010

Joe Cook with the Coosa River Basin Initiative presented last Thursday evening at the Mountain Conservation Trust speaker’s meeting in Jasper. Cook explained that a recent federal court ruling declaring Atlanta has no rights to drinking water from Lake Lanier has prompted lawmakers and environmental groups to create new water policies. The state has until 2012 to halt withdrawals or resolve its long-running water dispute with Alabama and Florida.

One proposed law would regulate inter-basin water transfers. As Cook described, some water basins have more than enough water for their community, others, such as the Atlanta metropolitan area, do not have enough water to meet the needs of their population. Some lawmakers believe that transferring water from water-rich communities to water-poor communities is a solution to the problem.

However, Cook says we do not always consider our neighbors downstream or the ecosystem affected when making these decisions. Interbasin transfers can threaten the prosperity of downstream communities, threaten the health of our rivers, fisheries, and wildlife, create political conflicts within our state and with neighboring states, and promote the inefficient use of water and energy, states Cook.

Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division (EPD) is charged with issuing water withdrawal permits from our state’s rivers, lakes, and streams. Essentially, the only additional regulations for interbasin transfer withdrawals are for the EPD Director, who issues all water withdrawal permits, to submit a press release seven days before issuance of the permit to newspapers in the areas that might be affected by the transfer.

For such a politically contentious issue and one that has such great potential to impact our rivers and our communities, this minimal oversight provides little assurance according to Cook. Georgia has no laws prohibiting interbasin transfers.

One project close to home is the proposal to build a reservoir on Shoal Creek in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. This project includes plans to pipe 100 million gallons a day from the Etowah River Basin to Metro Atlanta and could mean as much as 10 percent of the river’s flow at Dawsonville will be lost.

For downstream communities like Canton, Marietta, Cartersville, Rome, and neighboring Alabama, the loss of 100 million gallons per day from the Etowah is significant. Such a transfer is seven percent of the river’s average annual daily flows.

Cook also stated that a reservoir on Shoal Creek would wipe out some of the last remaining pristine habitat for the federally threatened Cherokee darter and the federally endangered Etowah darter. Shoal Creek is considered a Priority 1 habitat for the darters under the Etowah Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). These fish species are endemic to the Etowah River Basin and are found nowhere else in the world. Aside from sediment from stormwater runoff, the biggest threat to these species is reservoir construction. They cannot survive in lake habitats.

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