By Andrew White, Director of Park Visioning – Park Pride

It has been well established that the tree canopy in Atlanta needs to be protected, and there is a lot of public dialogue and discourse in protecting our City in the Forest.  That being said, my recent travels to other parts of the state make me think our commitment to our forest needs to be measured in metrics that go beyond the trees themselves.

I had a chance to witness the benefits of purposeful and comprehensive forest management in southwest Georgia through my participation in the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership (IGEL). IGEL is an annual program that brings together leaders from across the state of Georgia on a series of five experiential learning excursions in different parts of the state. Each year’s class grows the network of leaders who share the experiences, knowledge, and skills to confront Georgia’s many environmental challenges. In July, we spent a hot and humid week at The Jones Center at Ichauway, an actively managed 30,000-acre longleaf pine forest preserve that is home to several keystone species, such as the gopher tortoise and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. 

The author holds a gopher tortoise while keeping the gnats at bay at The Jones Center at Ichauway

Parks play a critical role in preserving and protecting urban forests in places like Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, Lionel Hampton Park, and Cascade Springs Nature Preserve to name a few. These forests act as important reservoirs of biodiversity, clean our air and water naturally, cool temperatures, store carbon, and strengthen our resilience against climate change. They also improve the mental and physical health of our residents who use them for exercise and as a place of quiet reflection and solace. According to a Georgia Tech study, public parks contained five percent of Atlanta’s canopy in 2018. The study excludes other publicly owned forests such as those owned by Atlanta Public Schools, MARTA, and other City of Atlanta departments, and since 2018 the city’s inventory of forested land has grown significantly.

A “fern gully” of almost entirely native plants graces the landscape of Lionel Hampton Park. Photo credit: Eli Dickerson

Part of the reason for this increase is that city officials are prioritizing funds for acquisition and protection of more forested land using creative funding tools such as the Tree Trust Fund (money collected by the City to protect Atlanta’s tree canopy by collecting fees and fines from trees that are cut down). According to the City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), acquisition of additional park land rose sharply in 2019 and continues to remain high year over year. Much of this newly acquired land is mature forest. As more forested tracts enter inventory, however, there is a growing need for a cohesive strategy to manage Atlanta’s public forests for biodiversity while also providing public access and enjoyment.

The decision to actively manage something as complex as a forest is a profound one that requires a deep understanding of the ecosystem being managed, careful goal setting, and constant evaluation to determine whether those tactics are successful. Many of Park Pride’s sister organizations are deeply involved in this effort, and their good work could be just the start of a larger city-led effort to be more intentional in the management of these natural resources.

Of course, there is not just one kind of forest and there are countless ways to manage forests for different purposes. Depending on where you live, the forest ecosystem will be different from place to place with different species of trees, understory plants, fungi, and animals that interact with each other to create an ecosystem. Forests are managed differently based on the requirements of the specific ecosystem and the stated goals of the managing entity.

The quality of our forests also varies widely. Atlanta is home to many intact forests with impressive examples of rare species like bay starvine at Cascade Springs Nature Preserve, shagbark hickories at Lake Charlotte, or diverse salamanders at Constitution Lakes Park. However, for every example of healthy forest, there sadly exist examples of forests that have been overrun with invasive species like English ivy, wisteria, privet, Japanese chaff flower, and the dreaded kudzu. How can we keep our healthy forests healthy, and also push our impacted forests toward a state that better supports native wildlife?

Not all Atlanta’s forests are equal in quality. This Atlanta forest has been overrun with non-native invasive species. Photo credit: Eli Dickerson

At The Jones Center, the landscape is managed with clearly stated goals in mind, namely, to support the longleaf pine forest ecosystem, including game species like quail and deer, as well as specialist non-game species. The forest is also managed to support education and research that builds on our knowledge of the longleaf pine ecosystem and informs future management decisions. 

Atlanta’s public forests could draw inspiration from this proactive management ethic. The requirements of our oak/hickory hardwood forest ecosystems are very different from, and less intensive (and possibly less expensive?) than the longleaf pine forests of southwest Georgia. Setting goals to actively track and manage species diversity, forest regeneration, and invasive species would increase the quality of our forests and advance the city’s tree canopy protection goals.

Community-based Friends of Park groups and Conservancies throughout Atlanta and DeKalb are already doing their part to manage local forests. At Knight Park in Historic Howell Station, the community has taken an active role in regenerating their bit of forest by selecting, planting, and maintaining the next generation of canopy trees. At Riverwalk Atlanta, Morningside Nature Preserve, Zonolite Park, and many others, regularly scheduled community volunteer days have cleared acres of invasive species from our public forests, making room for native seed banks to take root and grow in the new clearings. Atlanta’s park conservancies bring additional resources to ecosystem management by partnering with environmental consultants and institutions to better steward their resources. A recent partnership between Blue Heron Nature Preserve, City of Atlanta, and Georgia Tech used drone and imaging technology to benchmark the health of their urban forest. Illegal dumps have also been removed through community action at Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve and Fork Creek Mountain Park. 

A tree frog rests at the edge of a wooded wetland at Falling Water Park. Photo credit: Teri Nye

Beyond managing the ecosystem to maintain forest health, public access into these forests should also be a key goal. At Falling Water Park in Southwest Neighborhood, a newly founded Friends group has been advocating for access to a 26-acre public forest and has recently completed a Park Pride vision plan that prioritizes public access. Similarly, the Cascade Springs Nature Conservancy recently partnered with City Councilmember Marci Overstreet’s office, the City of Atlanta, and Park Pride to provide wheelchair access into the nature preserve for the first time. 

A new entrance at Cascade Springs Nature Preserve provides access to the forest for those with mobility challenges. Photo credit: Bruce Morton

No doubt this community-led approach to managing local forests is working well in many places, but this is not a replacement for a comprehensive, city-led forest management strategy, especially as we continue to acquire more forests for protection and public access. Of course, funding will need to be set aside for an effort like this, and opportunities for federal funding have recently become available through the Inflation Reduction Act. Additionally, using money from the Tree Trust Fund to support forest management and restoration efforts, while controversial, could also help support the long-term health of these forests and help provide public access to the same through the development of trails. 

My week in southwest Georgia through IGEL gave me insight into the valuable role active forest management can play in the health of the ecosystem. As our parks system continues to grow, including the addition of more forested land, more proactive management and community involvement will be needed so future generations will be able to enjoy the canopy for years to come. 

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