Sunday, December 16, 2007

12/06 - Millions pledged for green space

By Stacy Shelton
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 12/06/07

The state of Georgia on Wednesday committed $34.7 million toward the purchase of green space, the biggest pot of money for land conservation since Gov. Sonny Perdue took office nearly five years ago.

Nearly half the money will help pay for a 6,873-acre forest in fast-growing Paulding County, a hilly oasis sliced by the popular Silver Comet biking trail.

Perdue, standing beside a woodland pond in the heart of Paulding Forest, said "We can give views like this one behind me of the rolling hills of timber for many generations to come."

Two other large land deals announced by the governor Wednesday are the purchase of an 8,430-acre timber research property near Lake Seminole in southwest Georgia, which will be handled in phases, and the acquisition of a 4,162-acre tract on the Georgia coast near a bombing range used for practice by military aircraft.

The proposed purchases total 19,465 acres.

The Paulding deal, however, most perfectly epitomizes the way Perdue wants to conserve green space in Georgia. The purchase, which has not yet been finalized, has brought together multiple partners, all doing what Perdue refers to as "putting skin in the game," otherwise known as coughing up the dough so state taxpayers aren't left holding the entire check.

The forest's total price tag is $45.9 million, or about $6,673 an acre. Of that, the state and Paulding County both are chipping in one-third for a total of more than $30 million.

The rest is from: Atlanta-based Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which committed $7.5 million; federal grants totaling $4.2 million; and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, based in New York, which donated $1 million through the Conservation Fund, a national land conservation group.

That leaves about a $3 million gap, which the state says will come from proposed federal grants.

Perdue mentioned Paulding Forest in last year's State of the State address, when he announced his budget proposal would include money to preserve some of Georgia's disappearing landscapes.

This year's final budget for land conservation, after cuts from the General Assembly, was about $43 million.

T. Ruben Jones, whose father began acquiring the Paulding land in the 1920s as part of his sawmill and timber business, said he preferred to sell his family land to the state rather than slicing it up for more tract houses.

"We like it being preserved and used as a park so everyone could use it," said Jones, who now lives in Blue Ridge in North Georgia.

The Jones family has been leasing the property to the state for public hunting, fishing and hiking for more than 10 years. State officials intend to continue providing access to the public for those purposes.

Before the governor's news conference in Paulding, the Board of Natural Resources and Georgia Land Conservation Council approved spending the state funds for the land purchases.

At the land council meeting, several members criticized the rushed announcement, hard on the heels of a vote whose outcome was still uncertain.

Wade Shealy, a coastal developer who is suing a state authority over losing a bid to redevelop Jekyll Island, said the vote felt like a rubber stamp.

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