Keepers of the River—Land&People

On a muddy path toward the Chattahoochee River, L. W. "Tuck" Tucker is dodging puddles .

"Isn't this fabulous," shouts the fifty-two-year-old airline pilot, as the sound of passing cars fades behind a baffle of green. "You just can't believe we're in the middle of this enormous city." Most weekends for two decades, Tucker and his family have wandered down the neatly landscaped streets of their upscale suburb, Roswell, located fifteen miles north of Atlanta. Their walk takes them across Riverside Road and through this forest to get to the Chattahoochee. Today Tucker is particularly enthusiastic. He is showing me why, late in life, he has become a conservationist, the organizer of a local suburbanites' group that may have stumbled across an elusive formula for protecting watersheds in rapidly developing metropolitan areas.

If any place provides a laboratory for developing that formula, it is the Chattahoochee. Georgia's longest river runs four hundred miles, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. The Chattahoochee is a river facing big demands. It is regularly named one of the nation's "most endangered" rivers by American Rivers, a Washington, D.C., environmental group. Atlanta is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and it depends on the Chattahoochee for both drinking water and sewage disposal. Its upper stretch is one of the South's most popular trout streams and its lower stretch is a navigational waterway. The river ends below the Florida panhandle at Apalachicola Bay, one of the world's richest sources of oysters.

But the biggest challenge facing the river may be real estate development, especially the forced march of suburban subdivisions and shopping centers that is working its way up a forty-eight-mile stretch of the river from Atlanta to Lake Lanier. Metro Atlanta's sprawl has become a major issue in a region once known for its rolling green countryside. Atlantans now drive more miles per person per day–thirty-four–than residents of any other U.S. metropolitan area. Real estate consultant Chris Leinberger of Charles Lesser & Company says that no settlement in human history has gobbled land more quickly than has the Atlanta region in the 1990s. By all accounts, the pace of the destruction of green space is stunning: American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, estimates that 60 percent of natural areas in a metro region once known for its forests has disappeared over the last twenty-five years and that thirty acres of woods are obliterated every day.

The result: an increasingly severe complex of water-pollution problems related to development. Silt leaches into the river and its tributaries from the clay soils laid bare by bulldozers, smothering fish and mussels in the process. Grit and oil from roads and parking lots, along with fertilizer and pesticides from suburban lawns, create toxic runoff. And wooded streamside buffers that once filtered pollution and moderated flooding are being replaced by shadeless expanses of concrete and buildings.

Starving for Green Space

"People are starving for their green space," says Sally Bethea, executive director of an environmental group called the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. "They want the green space because everything around them is turning into concrete. It's just been in the last five to seven years that the farms and wooded areas have turned into parking lots. Now people are getting flooded out, and they're looking upstream and seeing it's development that's doing it."


One of the people starving for green space is Tuck Tucker. As we trek toward his favorite spot on the river, Tucker and I pass a family of mallards paddling in a kidney-shaped pond nestled behind the river's natural levee. We scurry by towering pines and a tangled grove of young tulip poplars, oaks, maples, and hickories that are vying to repopulate this once logged-over forest. We hop over poison ivy, duck under briars, and emerge in a clearing on a bank overlooking the big muddy stream. Look upstream from this spot, and you see only bunches of green teetering over the banks. Listen when the wind is blowing in the right direction, and you don't even hear the hum of cars from a freeway bridge a couple of bends upriver.

Until the spring of 1997, Tucker had assumed the strip of woods was some sort of public park. Then he noticed a "For Sale" sign on his beloved tract. The owners, he soon discovered, figured they could squeeze thirty-eight prized lots for riverfront town homes onto the land that had been Tuck's little slice of nature. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "This was our greenbelt. It was the best thing about this area."

Tuck and his wife, Pat, began working the phone lines. They soon learned that the Trust for Public Land was planning a campaign to protect lands along the Chattahoochee. Within twenty-four hours, they were standing near Riverside Road with Rand Wentworth, director of TPL's Atlanta Field Office; Roswell city officials; and dozens of neighbors who were as alarmed as the Tuckers were about the threat of losing their riverbank treasure.

"People responded to this thing like nothing I've seen for years," says Sally White, a city council member who doubles as Roswell's parks and recreation commissioner. "It used to be that you'd go for miles around here, and you'd see pastures and farmland. Now all we see is parking lots and shopping centers. I think that's why we all feel like the river is something we need to protect."

That evening on Riverside Road was a rite of passage of sorts for a nascent effort to protect the Chattahoochee once and for all. Those involved included local leaders and federal agencies, private businesses and environmental activists, TPL, and a collection of homegrown neighborhood groups.

A River Besieged

For a decade, controversies have gripped the Chattahoochee. In 1990 Alabama sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a Corps plan to allow metropolitan Atlanta to suck more water out of the river. Alabama and Florida officials feared that too little of the river would be left for people, farming, and wildlife. Last year Congress approved legislation setting up an interstate compact to govern water-sharing on the Chattahoochee and five other rivers.

Another lawsuit was filed by the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper against the city of Atlanta for allowing sewer overflows to pollute the river downstream from the city. And environmentalists have been engaged in a long-running battle with developers and regulators about weak enforcement of construction guidelines intended to reduce the amount of silt going into the river.

Meanwhile, the largest park in metro Atlanta–the immensely popular Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area — has never lived up to its initial promise. In 1978 Congress authorized a 6,800-acre recreation area, incorporating large tracts between Lake Lanier and Atlanta. The park, its supporters reasoned, not only would provide green space for an increasingly urbanized area, it would help establish a natural buffer along the river to filter stormwater and regulate flooding. Twenty years later, only 4,500 acres of the park have been purchased in thirteen disconnected units. Much of the remaining land has already been converted to subdivisions and office parks, and the rest is far more expensive than it would have been two decades ago.

To Bethea, the tardy purchase of land for the recreation area provides a lesson that shouldn't be forgotten on other stretches of the Chattahoochee. "It's on the edge of being too late to protect the river corridor in Atlanta's northern suburbs," Bethea says. "But the timing is exactly right for downstream. If we can grab the opportunity we have today to protect the lower stretch, it'll be a lot easier."

Bethea's organization, modeled on similar Riverkeeper groups along other rivers, takes an activist approach to monitoring and protecting the river. This spring, the Riverkeeper's federal lawsuit over sewage overflows from the city of Atlanta produced a landmark settlement in which the city committed itself to cleaning up its overflows and to creating a $25 million fund to acquire buffers along the Chattahoochee and its tributaries.

One Enormous Greenway

While the Riverkeeper serves as the Chattahoochee's legal watchdog, TPL is leading a campaign to acquire natural lands along the river from its headwaters in the Appalachian Mountains to Columbus, Georgia. The vision is ambitious–a nearly unbroken 500-foot-wide greenway along both sides of the river for 160 miles. The initiative will help protect drinking water and create a regional park enhancing the quality of life in communities up and down the river. "We're not going to be able to protect every property along the river," says TPL's Wentworth, "but we are going to create one enormous greenway park."

While most of the land is being donated by civic-minded landowners, some lands will have to be purchased. Color-coded maps in a conference room in TPL's Atlanta office lend a war-room atmosphere to the efforts of Wentworth and his staff. "This is one of the hottest real estate markets in the country," Wentworth, himself a former developer, says of Atlanta's northern suburbs. "We are working now with developers who have their bulldozers revving, they've got their financing, they've got their permits, and they're ready to build. There is nobody more focused than a developer who has his permits."

To meet the challenge, TPL is raising public and private funds to acquire threatened lands. Roy Richards, an Atlanta businessman and former chair of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, is heading a capital campaign to raise more than $100 million, including $40 million from private donors.

Governor Zell Miller's River Care 2000 program will provide $15 million this year toward setting aside slices of land along the Chattahoochee. Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, through whose district the river flows, has sponsored legislation that would expand the authorized boundaries of the recreation area from 6,800 to 10,000 acres, connecting the existing parklands with a continuous corridor of green. Congress is considering a request by the Speaker and other members of the Georgia delegation for a $25 million appropriation this fall.

TPL already has acquired fifteen properties along the Chattahoochee and has more than fifty under negotiation. Each acquisition seems to require its own brand of creativity. In one 1996 deal, the National Park Service swapped twenty-four acres with no river frontage for a twenty-seven-acre strip of riverfront property owned by a developer. The riverfront land is now part of the recreation area. In another arrangement negotiated by TPL, the heirs of a former Georgia governor are donating to the state his 170-acre mountain farm, which includes a Victorian-style house built in the 1870s, an Indian mound, and almost a mile of the Chattahoochee River.

But the campaign led by Tuck and others in Roswell may be the most ambitious and promising of all. Tuck, who has never been deeply involved in any other political effort, founded a local group called RAPIDS–Roswell Area People Interested in Developing a river park System–that is now working with Roswell's city government and TPL to buy not only the tract zoned for town homes but five more miles of riverfront property that are ripe for development.

"TPL gives us credibility, because we can show people that we're tied with a national group that's done this sort of thing before," Tucker says, as he surveys the river.

But the key to RAPIDS's appeal is the love a small group of people has for a small slice of nature. "It's kind of an amazing thing to me to think that we're just these average citizens–and believe me, that's who we are–and we can all of a sudden get involved in this thing and really save a piece of Georgia."

Land & People, Fall, 1998
Ken Edelstein is managing editor of Creative Loafing, a weekly alternative newspaper in Atlanta.