How long-gone homesteads led to the Clean Mountain Streams Campaign

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By: David Govus

Why should an environmentalist care about the condition of a road?  Seeing the Flatlands Road is enough to make one care. This eroding nightmare at one time connected several old homesteads to the community of Suches. The Forest Service now owns this land, and the road serves only as an off-road playground for Jeep convoys out of Atlanta. These Jeeps, spinning their huge rough-tread tires, have created trenches 10-feet deep where the road now runs. All of the missing soil has washed down into Flowers Branch, Suches Creek and ultimately into the Toccoa River. 

Georgia ForestWatch has been working for years to close this environmental nightmare.  Georgia ForestWatch recently led a hike through the area to raise awareness. Recent discussions with the Forest Service indicated they are laying the groundwork to close this blight upon the landscape.

How did roads get this bad though?  During the 1930’s and continuing into the 1970’s, when the Forest Service acquired the 867,000 acres in Georgia that now comprise the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest, they inherited an array of old woods or timber roads, as well as public roads. Woods roads were constructed for the most part by the large corporations that cut and removed the virgin forest and were built for one time use with no attention paid to sustainability. “Public” roads were crude roads built by early settlers to reach remote homesteads. As the old homesteads were abandoned and acquired by the Forest Service these roads acquired a near mythical status. They were open to all, maintained by no one, unnecessary with the homesteads gone, and environmentally damaging as they devolved into unofficial off-road courses.

Georgia ForestWatch Outreach Coordinator Andrew Linker provides some perspective about the depth and breadth of Flatlands Road’s erosion issues. Photo by Janet Westervelt

Over time, with prodding by Georgia ForestWatch, most of the old woods roads were closed, but several damaging old “public” roads remained open. The Burnett Branch “public” road in Cashes Valley was closed at the urging of Georgia ForestWatch during the forest planning process in 2000. The Rich Mountain “public” road was closed, rebuilt and gated with restricted access as a result of a lawsuit by Georgia ForestWatch in 2004. The Anderson Creek “public” road was closed and obliterated as a result of the threat of a lawsuit by Georgia ForestWatch in 2006.

Since its inception 35 years ago, Georgia ForestWatch has also led the fight to end illegal motorized activity on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. Initially one of the biggest problems faced was all terrain vehicles or ATVs. Mountain counties were illegally selling license plates to ATVs which meant ATVs could be ridden legally on open Forest Service (FS) roads. Once on roads, ATVs created a web of eroding off-road trails, allowing sediment to pour into streams. In 2000, Georgia ForestWatch pointed out to state officials that under Georgia code, ATVs were not legally entitled to license plates.  After some back and forth, and threats of a lawsuit, the state ordered the counties to halt the practice. Now 20 years later, illegal ATV activity is a fraction of what it once was. 

Now in 2021 Georgia ForestWatch has initiated the Clean Mountain Streams Campaign to deal with the biggest chronic threats to our streams, including a handful of roads causing the worst sedimentation.  Our goal is to get these roads closed and/or rehabilitated. Learn how you can become involved.  Our voices are stronger together.