City's Dawson Forest tract getting hacked

Biological hotspot clear-cut by Forestry Commission

In the early 1970s, the city of Atlanta bought 10,130 acres of forest in Dawson County, about 60 miles north of downtown. The idea was to build a second airport, but that plan was shelved and Hartsfield was expanded instead.

Today, the city's land is called the Dawson Forest, and within its boundaries three pristine waterways intersect.

Shoal Creek joins the Etowah River in the forest's center. Right near this intersection is perhaps the state's most inviting rope, just waiting for someone to grab hold and swing out over the cool, swirling waters of the Etowah.

One mile southwest, the Amicalola Creek, warmed from its pass over the rocks of the popular Amicalola Falls State Park, empties into the Etowah.

But the forest itself is falling to clear-cuts, tree by tree, acre by acre. State officials say the clear-cutting — up to 100 acres a year — benefits the forest and the wildlife in it. Environmentalists disagree, pointing to the endangered species of fish that swim in the forest's rivers. But whatever the merits of clear-cutting, Dawson Forest is changing irrevocably. What once was a mature hardwood forest is now giving way to pine and brush. And the property's owners — the city of Atlanta — seem content to let the forest's gradual degradation continue.

When the city bought the land, it turned over stewardship to the Georgia Forestry Commission, which in turn earmarks an average of 100 acres of the forest every year for timber harvesting. The money generated from the sales goes to offset the expenses for maintaining the land.

Some of the clear-cut plots are replanted with pine for future harvesting, and other sections are replanted with vegetation that attract deer and turkey, which in turn make the area a hunter's haven. Many sections the size of two football fields are bare, creating brown blemishes in otherwise green woods.

Nathan McClure, who manages Dawson Forest for the Forestry Commission, says that two-thirds of the forest was mature when he took over its management 12 years ago. Since then, about 1,200 acres have been cut down.

McClure says the clear-cuts are necessary for the health of the forest, and to make the area attractive to the 10,000 to 15,000 hunters who visit the Dawson Forest each year.

"I know that forest management has been in a negative light lately, and most of it has been from misunderstanding," McClure says. "Tree cutting is not necessarily a bad thing in every instance. We cut trees to improve habitat and to improve conditions of the forest over all. We certainly don't just do it to raise money."

But environmentalists worry that Dawson Forest — and the rivers that run through it — are entirely too sensitive ecologically for any timber harvesting. Besides filling up Lake Allatoona and supplying six counties with drinking water, for example, the Etowah is the home to a dozen aquatic species that are endangered or threatened of becoming extinct. Of those are four species of fish that can't be found anywhere else in the world.

"The Dawson Forest should be protected because it contains the headwaters of the Etowah and Amicalola Creek, and [the Etowah] is one of the biological hotspots in North America and deserves the utmost protection," says Brent Martin, executive director of Georgia Forest Watch. "You'd think the city of Atlanta would want to protect drinking water sources and the forest itself."

But the city is a vacant steward. City officials say currently there are no plans for the Dawson Forest right now, though talk of the city selling the land to developers has trickled out of City Hall for about five years.

It's a tempting proposal, given that the cash-strapped city is sitting on prime real estate in the midst of a development boom. From 1990 to 2000, Dawson County's population soared by 70 percent. And developments are knocking on the forest's back door: Last year, four developments were approved that, when completed, will contain 5,715 new homes. One of the larger of those developments is an 800-acre golf course subdivision. Carving up the forest and selling to developers could net the city millions of dollars.

But McClure and Martin both agree that turning over the Dawson Forest to developers would be a catastrophe.

"If any development occurs, I'd like to see it as outdoor recreation rather that residential sites or commercial sights," says McClure. "We'd really like to see it continue pretty much as it is. But being a forester, we recognize that things cost money, so you have to get some type of value coming from the property."