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An Earth Day reflection: America’s National Park System

Chattahoopchee, geese flying over I-75 bridge

A flock of geese fly in their typical formation above the Chattahoochee River near the I-75 bridge. Credit: Tom Wilson

By Guest Columnist SALLY BETHEA, board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy

“Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.” – Terry Tempest Williams

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea

On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations to demand environmental reform. Responding to burning rivers, oil-soaked oceans and choking air pollution, they rallied and held teach-ins at universities. The goal, according to Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI.), the event founder, was to “shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and finally force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

As we celebrate Earth Day on April 22, 2018 – nearly 50 years after the inaugural event – we could focus, and rightfully so, on the serious damage that is being done in Washington to roll back the progress made, since that first Earth Day, to protect our water supplies, the air we breathe and special natural places.

Instead, I’m opting outdoors and hope you are too. On Sunday, April 22, I’ll be in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiking from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion and stalking spring wildflowers in the park’s valleys and ravines. I’ve always loved our national park system: Nearly 90 million acres of land and 85,000 miles of rivers and streams designated by Congress to be protected and enjoyed by current and future generations.

Indeed, since some of our national parks and other public lands are under attack, we must fight tooth and nail to oppose any reductions in their protection. In that same effort, we must also enjoy and explore the public lands that belong to each of us: These places of beauty, history and inspiration whose origins lie nearly 150 years ago in visionary individuals and institutions.

chattahoochee, fishermen

Fly fishermen wade in the Chattahoochee River in hopes of catching a trout. (Photo by Tom Wilson)

In 1979, as a graduate student at Georgia Tech, I worked on the first general management plan for the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA); it was the year after President Jimmy Carter signed the bill to create the national park, long advocated by a savvy and persistent group of local “river rats.” This year, the CRNRA – encompassing nearly 7,000 acres of land in fifteen units along a 48-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee, also part of the park – is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

One of three units of the national park system in metro Atlanta, the CRNRA can boast some impressive statistics, as it:

  • Ranks as one of the top 35 most-visited national parks in America with nearly 3 million visitors annually;
  • Provides one of every five acres of public green space in the 10-county Atlanta region; and
  • Delivers an annual impact to the local economy of $166.7 million, exceeding the reported annual economic impact of the Atlanta Braves (Saporta, 2013).
chattahoochee, hiker

A trail beneath the tree canopy next to the Chattahoochee River provides a tranquil place for a stoll. (Photo by Monica Sheppard)

The news, however, isn’t all rosy. Our national park is being loved to death and the limited budget and staffing of the National Park Service for this urban park makes it difficult to keep up with the demands of park visitors.

After working for more than two decades as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and now in retirement, I am proudly serving as board president of the park’s friends group: Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy. One of 275 national park friends groups around the country, CPC is working to inspire people to support projects and programs that protect the CRNRA’s natural and cultural resources. Specifically, we help raise funds for priority initiatives that the National Park Service is unable to cover.

In addition to the park service, CPC works with many other partners who are essential to the protection, management and restoration of the CRNRA; we are also supporting the bold vision of a 100-mile long linear river park that links federal, state and local parkland, an effort being led by Trust for Public Land.

Chattahoopchee, geese flying over I-75 bridge

A flock of geese fly in their typical formation above the Chattahoochee River near the I-75 bridge. (Photo by Tom Wilson)

As we celebrate Earth Day and the 40th anniversary of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, I hope that you will make a commitment: Find a way to support our national park system to continue and ensure its 100-year legacy of making each one of us “land-rich.”

Locally, you can contribute your time and money to support our national river park through Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy; more than 85 percent of the funds raised by CPC have gone directly to enhance and restore park trails, improve facilities, support volunteers and conduct educational programs in the park. Help protect your “other backyard” – the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area! To plan your park visit, please open this website. To support the park, please visit this website.

Note to readers: In addition to serving as board president of Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy, Sally Bethea is the retired founding director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. She is currently a lecturer in Georgia Tech’s School of City and Regional Planning. Sally has served on the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, EarthShare of Georgia and the national boards of Waterkeeper Alliance and River Network.


chattahoochee, shoals

A set of the Chattahoochee River’s signature shoals appear in times of lower water lets. (Photo by Tom Wilson)


chattahoochee, bridge

A walker stands next to a rustic bridge that spans the Chattahoochee River. (Photo by Tom Wilson)


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