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People, Places & Parks Thought Leadership

Georgia Now & Forever: Georgia’s Historic Land Cover and What the Future Holds


By Katherine Moore, Vice President of Programs and Sustainable Growth Program Director, The Georgia Conservancy & Nick Johnson, Senior Planner, The Georgia Conservancy

Depending on how you look at it, Georgia is a study in contrasts.

On one hand, Georgia is experiencing tremendous growth. According to the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budgeting, Georgia is projected to add another 4 million people by 2040. North Georgia is home to the center of the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion, which is on a similar upward trajectory. Furthermore, many Georgia cities outside of that region—Savannah, Columbus, Warner Robins— are growing as well.

On the other hand, Georgia is a vast place, rich in ecological diversity and natural resources. We are the largest state east of the Mississippi River. 25% of our state’s citizens live on 8% of our land. We are home to one-third of the east coast’s remaining salt marshland. Our agricultural and forestry sectors are major drivers of our state’s economy.

But there is a flipside to everything. Despite Georgia being one of the most biologically-diverse states in the nation, approximately 320 of our native species have such low populations that they are state and/or federally protected (Georgia Department of Natural Resources). Historical development patterns—in most places, but especially in the metro Atlanta area—have gobbled up land that could be used for environmentally-productive uses, like agriculture or conservation (American Farmland Trust).

What can be gleaned from these contrasts? Our land supports us in so many ways—economically, culturally, and physically. From food production and heritage to industry and economic livelihood, decisions around how and where to develop our land are among the most fundamental elements of a sustainable Georgia. Decisions around land we conserve, land we commit to production, and land we develop are the most critical decisions that impact resource consumption.

It is no secret that a growing population contributes to development pressures on our farms, forests, greenspaces, watersheds, and wetlands. As conservationists, how do we meet the challenges to ensure there are stable communities as well as functioning ecosystems? In his acceptance letter for the Georgia Conservancy’s 2019 Distinguished Conservationist Award, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote: “We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

In keeping with this vision and our history of leadership on environmental issues in Georgia, the Georgia Conservancy has completed a comprehensive study of decades of land cover and development patterns in Georgia, in partnership with Georgia Tech’s Center for Spatial Planning and Visualization (CSPAV). The study provides crucial insight into the ecological and built environment impacts of our state’s past growth, often supporting and sometimes challenging anecdotal accounts of changes our state has experienced. We believe this unprecedented data analysis will present itself as a valuable resource for Georgia and a necessary contribution to discussions about the impacts of Georgia’s future growth on our land and water.

As we welcome new Georgians to our state, we must look to our past for data that will enable us to better prepare for our future. “While Georgians know significant change to our landscape has occurred since the 1970s and ‘80s, it is a necessity to document that change and know exactly what kind of change has taken place in order to have meaningful conversations about future growth,” says Tony Giarrusso, Associate Director for CSPAV. 

Developed land in Georgia in 1992

Developed land in Georgia in 2006

Using 50 years of satellite imagery, our project analyzed change in Georgia’s land cover through a period of 1974 – 2016. The analysis calculated land cover statistics and change at the state, county, watershed and other physiographic levels. Land cover is the observed physical cover type and material on the land (wetlands, crops, developed lands) whereas land use is a manmade definition about how people use the land (mixed-use, industrial, residential). In other words, land cover tells us what is physically on the land, while land use paints a better picture of how humans use or plan to use developed land.

Georgia Conservancy believes we should have a long-term vision for Georgia’s future resilience, and we plan to use this first-of-its-kind historical land cover analysis to kickstart a collective conversation and examination of our state’s future, knowing that a resilient Georgia is one where both people and the environment can thrive. This data has already confirmed the rapid expansion of sprawl in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which has slowed in recent years but not ceased. Additionally, declines in north Georgia’s forest canopy coincide with an increase in pasture in those areas, possibly indicating a shift from forestry to industrial-scale agriculture. Lastly, the impacts of conservation practices are visible in the preservation and wetlands in recent years. These facts are already informing the efforts of our Advocacy, Land Conservation, Coastal and Sustainable Growth programs.

Knowing how our land has physically changed in the past can help teach us how to steward it more effectively in the future. Intentional and thoughtful decisions about land put our communities in greatest control of their future resilience. Our institutions, citizens and policymakers must conserve our land and its versatile methods of providing ecological services and economic opportunities to ensure the prosperity of Georgia, now and forever.

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