The Natural Georgia Series: Atlanta's Urban Wildlife

Design by Lenz Design, Decatur, Georgia.

Georgia Wildlife Federation's Urban Wildlife Programs

By Sheila J. Lenz

Through a variety of grass roots and educational programs, GWF has become a leader in promoting the protection and development of wildlife habitat in urban areas.

Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat

As a nationally recognized pioneer of the Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat program, GWF has helped develop more than 400 educational wildlife habitats at schools throughout the state, 102 of which are in and around Atlanta. Many of these habitats are certified by the National Wildlife Federation, indicating that they meet strict requirements for the four elements—water, cover, places to raise young, food—necessary to attract and sustain wildlife. This is especially important as urban development continues to shrink the habitat of native wildlife.

These schoolyard habitats are unique educational resources used by teachers for real-world lessons about science, math, and language, with applications for all grade levels.

A residual benefit of these living classrooms is that they teach the entire school community about the impact that a preserved habitat can have on our environment. As a result, the wildlife habitats offer lessons the students and their families can use at home in developing backyard wildlife habitats, and teach them to act in a protective manner toward the environment.

Alcovy Education Center

While it would be difficult to describe the Alcovy Education Center site, which is about 35 miles from downtown Atlanta, as "urban," it will be the base of operation for a variety of educational seminars, demonstrations and meetings for GWF members and affiliates. Located near Covington in Newton County, the center will also serve as the headquarters for an important conservation program that protects the Alcovy River corridor not only in metro Atlanta but also throughout Georgia.

GWF's capital campaign is in full swing to raise funds for construction of the Alcovy Environmental Education Center that will become the GWF headquarters, as well as a state-of-the-art learning/conservation hub. Using the Alcovy River Swamp as an interpretive backdrop, the center will provide a program of broad environmental education to the public and specific instruction to groups of students, educators, public officials, professional planners, and others. It will offer training for environmental educators and the public in the design, installation, and maintenance of urban (backyard and schoolyard) wildlife habitats.

The education center's 115 acres are at the northern end of the Alcovy River Greenway that protects many miles of riverbank and adjacent property along the Alcovy River through Piedmont Georgia from encroaching development. The greenway is a combination of gifts of land, easements, landowner cooperation, and land acquisition, forming a protective corridor for the wildlife that depends on it for food and shelter.

Legislative Programs

A person seeking evidence of the legislative clout of GWF need only look to the gold dome in Atlanta in January to see how state laws affecting the environment fare. Each year GWF leads the way as protective legislation is signed into law and, more importantly, funded by state leaders.

There is perhaps no better example of GWF's influence than two state programs to identify and set aside important land for protection. With GWF's resounding support, Governor Zell Miller introduced in 1993 Preservation 2000, a landmark program that set aside 100,000 acres of Georgia land for conservation and public recreational use. When its mission was completed in 1995, Miller launched River Care 2000 to purchase and protect state waterways.

Member/Volunteer Activities

One of the strengths of GWF is the hands-on participation of its members in matching their commitment to the environment with action. From Gopher Tortoise inventories to seasonal bird counting at the Alcovy center to Adopt-a-Stream monitoring of Cornish Creek near the Alcovy River, GWFers are hands-on curators of our precious resources.

Among the most popular GWF activities is the annual River Cleanup Day, during which hundreds of volunteers and affiliate groups walk along the banks of the Alcovy River (and other sites around the state) clearing away old tires, garbage, and assorted trash. Also, every year volunteers share the joy of the outdoors through the Handicapped Sportsman's Day during which physically disabled hunters are assisted in a day in the woods, and GWF has sponsored NatureLink, a weekend of outdoor activities for inner-city children and their parents.

Education Programs

Recognizing that education is one of the most important factors in protecting and preserving the environment, GWF directs a majority of its resources toward its educational mission.

In its first year of existence, the GWF Web Site established itself as an educational resource for Internet visitors from throughout Georgia. Teachers seeking information about establishing a wildlife habitat can download the Schoolyard Wildlife Habitat Planning Guide, or conservationists can respond to a call to action regarding pending legislation.

Not all GWF programs are electronic, though. Schoolchildren can turn to Georgia Wildlife for research on native plants and animals, or for stories on issues affecting Georgia. Also, GWF's Habitat newsletter and annual National Wildlife Week educator packets provide teachers timely, practical information for incorporating conservation education into all areas of their curriculum. A host of GWF volunteers are available to assist interested schools in designing and building outdoor classrooms, which can be funded with grants that GWF helps the schools apply for.

Native Plant Sale

As a matter of practicality, developers start their work by bulldozing a plot—and its native plants—then finish the job by landscaping, often with non-native shrubs, trees, and lawns. The result is that the displaced wildlife loses not only its home to urban development but also food provided by the plants in its previous habitat.

Now, GWF is assisting gardeners and outdoors enthusiasts who seek native plants to return some of the predevelopment habitat to their yards. The virtual doors opened in winter 1998 to the Internet store, Wingsong, that sells native shrubs, vines, and perennials through the GWF Web Site. As native plants, these are adapted to the soil and climate conditions of Georgia and can provide the natural habitat that wildlife require for survival. Proceeds from the ale will be used to fund GWF's other habitat-related programs.

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