Saving ‘Georgia’s Amazon’ River

By Maria Saporta
Friday, December 17, 2010

Georgia’s Altamaha River in the southeast part of the state could be called Georgia’s Amazon River. It is one of the most pristine and undisturbed river systems in the state.

And thanks to two decades of persistent focus and commitment by The Nature Conservancy of Georgia, it will be protected in perpetuity.

The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation has awarded the Conservancy a $4.7 million grant to help it acquire 14,000 acres — including the highly sought-after Bug Island — from the timber company Rayonier Forest Services.

In addition to the Woodruff grant, the state and federal governments contributed to the total purchase price of $24 million for the property. The land has been turned over to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to be part of the Townsend Wildlife Management Area, which is open to the public for hunting, hiking and birding.

“When we acquire one more piece this spring, we will connect 41 contiguous river miles and 100,000 acres along the Altamaha River,” said Shelly Lakly, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Georgia. “If we were deciding today to go buy a river, it wouldn’t seem feasible in today’s economy. But in 20 years, we’ve done it.”

Russ Hardin, president of the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, said the Nature Conservancy decided 20 years ago that the Altamaha was a critically important eco-river system and that it needed to be protected.

“The Nature Conservancy helped us appreciate the significance of the Altamaha River,” Hardin said. “The Altamaha River is under-appreciated in Georgia.”

Over the years, the Woodruff Foundation has contributed more than $12 million toward the protection of the lower Altamaha River corridor, beginning with a planning grant in 1991.

Hardin said that the Nature Conservancy, Woodruff, and the state and federal governments soon can declare victory in their quest to keep the Altamaha River intact. It is a particularly sensitive river system because it drains into Georgia’s coast along the state’s barrier islands.

“The Altamaha River, being so remote, is essential to our coast remaining healthy,” Lakly said. “There’s no development. It’s a beautiful, living, breathing place. Some of the cypress trees along the river are believed to be 1,200 years old.”

Lakly added that the Conservancy expects to acquire one more small parcel in the spring, which will fill the last remaining gap between the already protected pieces of land.

“We are uniquely positioned at the Nature Conservancy because as parcels become available, we are able to move quickly,” she said. The Conservancy has a line of credit with a lending institution so it can buy the property, and then it works with private donors as well as the federal and state governments on getting the funding and then transferring the land to public hands.

The Nature Conservancy of Georgia actually is in the midst of a $25 million capital campaign — Georgia for Generations — that began a year ago and has already raised $11.9 million. The campaign is expected to be completed within the next two years, and it will help the conservancy with its efforts all over Georgia.

“We always look for opportunities,” Lakly said. “Every one of the projects that we do is a culmination of years and years of us building relationships.”

Acquiring this critical 14,000-acre tract along the Altamaha is just the latest example of how, piece by piece, the Nature Conservancy has helped save one of Georgia’s most important rivers.

“We had been coveting this property for so long,” said Lakly, adding that her job is so satisfying because of its lasting impact. “The Altamaha River will be as it is now — forever.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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