Environmental challenges around metro Atlanta began with early settlers: State report

By David Pendered

Georgia’s population boom of the past 35 years is just the latest contributor to environmental challenges facing metro Atlanta and much of the state’s Piedmont region. Past activities to cultivate trees, crops and animals set the stage for today’s conditions, according to a state report.

Arabia Mountain

Arabia Mountain is home to diamorpha, which is found mainly in shallow basins on rocky outcrops in Georgia and which Georgia wants to protect. Species have been found in five other southern states. The Tennesseee Department of Environment and Conservation has listed diamorpha as an endangered species. Credit: arabiaalliance.org

The draft “2015 State Wildlife Action Plan” portrays Georgia’s Piedmont eco-region as a place settlers altered in order to develop the land for agricultural uses – farms for crops, livestock and trees.

A public comment period on the draft plan ended last week. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources intends to continue developing the plan.

Farmers changed the very nature of the forest to provide timber and other products that were commercially valuable. For example, the report observes:

  • “Former conversion of forest and woodland habitats to agricultural uses resulted in the loss of most of the original upland forest (generally described as oak-hickory-pine forest, but containing a wide variety of subtypes) in this region. …
  • “Conversion of remaining upland hardwood and pine-hardwood forests to pine plantations also presents problems for wildlife. Specific problems associated with this forest conversion include loss of vegetative structural diversity and nesting sites, decline in hard and soft mast production, loss of understory and groundcover species diversity, and physical disturbance of habitat for organisms found in leaf litter or soil.”

On the heels of this development came the population boom that dates to the 1970s. Statewide population almost doubled from 1980 to the 2014 estimate: 5.5 million in 1980, to 10.1 million in the 2014 estimate from the Census.

A great proportion of the newcomers landed in metro Atlanta, and the report observes other Piedmont cities with significant growth include Augusta, Gainesville, Columbus, and Athens.

Georgia's Piedmont eco-region spans more than 11 square acres. Credit: Draft 2015 SWAP, GDNR

Georgia’s Piedmont eco-region spans more than 11 million acres. Credit: Draft 2015 SWAP, GDNR

To accommodate this population growth, agricultural land and forests in the Piedmont region gave way to residential and commercial developments, the report notes.

Here’s a snapshot of land use change from 2006 to 2011:

  • 2 percent increase in developed land;
  • 4 percent decrease in forest cover;
  • 2 percent increase in wetland land cover;
  • 27 percent increase in early successional vegetation, an indication of timber cutting.

This snapshot covers only a five-year period. In addition, the report shows the dramatic changes in prior years – the period from 1974 to 1998:

  • “A decrease in row crop/pasture (from 19.47 percent of total land cover to 15.51 percent);
  • “An increase in high-intensity and low-intensity urban (from 4.86 percent of total land cover to 9.57 percent);
  • “An increase in clearcut/sparse vegetation (from 3.82 percent of total land cover to 7.38 percent);
  • “A decrease in deciduous/mixed forest (from 38.23 percent of total land cover to 33.98 percent);

    Georgia's population has almost doubled since 1980. Credit: Draft 2015 SWAP, GDNR

    Georgia’s population has almost doubled since 1980. Credit: Draft 2015 SWAP, GDNR

  • “A slight decrease in evergreen forest (from 28.86 percent of total land cover to 28.17 percent).

Projections show the population growth will continue. This ongoing growth is part of the reason Georgia is updating its wildlife management plan.

Georgia’s population growth rate is forecast at 46 percent by 2030, taking the state’s population to 14.7 million, according to a projection made in 2010 by Georgia’s Office of Planning and Budget. OPB helps the governor draft a budget.

Metro Atlanta is to remain the highest population density in the state, with substantial growth forecast in the northern and coastal counties, the report states.

The urban and suburban development creates a number of environmental challenges, according to the report:

  • “Habitat loss and modification attributed to increases in urban and suburban areas represent the primary threats to wildlife diversity in Georgia. These impacts include stream habitat losses due to construction of water supply reservoirs, habitat fragmentation from construction of roads and utility corridors, and conversion of natural habitats to developed areas.”



David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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