A Walk Through the Atlanta Forest

Debunking the Atlanta Police Foundation’s pro-Cop City talking points

Photo credit: Wayne Butler/The Mainline, 2021

This article was contributed by a local author and researcher born and raised in DeKalb County and a graduate from the Odum School of Ecology at University of Georgia. The author is an early career aquatic ecosystems ecologist who has worked in streams and wetlands from Appalachia to Puerto Rico. Their research focuses on aquatic microbial processes and their connections to climate. They are not an environmental lawyer, but emphasizes that they, like many scientists, received hazardous waste safety training for their work.

DEKALB COUNTY — On Sun., Aug. 1, I toured part of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm property with a group of local organizers and residents. Our hike centered on the northwestern corner of the 350-acre property, the core of where the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) wants to bulldoze the forest and build a massive 150-acre police training facility. To justify the facility’s potential damage to local ecosystems and public health, the APF has pushed the talking point that this forest is not fit for conservation and that their plans would cause minimal damage to the Intrenchment Creek watershed. However, based on what we saw on the ground, it appears that the APF is peddling disinformation and outright falsehoods. 

Some of the APF’s claims are so erroneous that they can be debunked by a simple Google search. In public presentations, the APF has stated that the property is plagued by “invasive species such as Loblolly Pine, Boxelder,” and others. However, loblolly pines and boxelder maples — the top two “invasive species” on APF’s list — are in fact native to Georgia and Atlanta. These trees are early to mid-successional species, fast growers which dominate in the early to middle stages of forest recovery. It makes perfect sense that these are the dominant trees on a property which was actively farmed by incarcerated people perhaps as late as the 1990s (to clarify, the date is uncertain due to poor record-keeping). Rather than providing this ecological and historical context, the APF chose to brand the natural succession of native vegetation as an “invasion”.

Indeed, much of our hike was underneath a canopy of loblolly pines and boxelder maples, with some notable oak trees mixed in. These trees provide shade, control erosion, build soil, and provide habitat and food for wildlife. Beavers have been spotted in the forest and they are making use of the trees on the Old Prison Farm side of Intrenchment Creek (see photos below). 

Evidence of beavers on the Old Prison Farm property. Left: A tree chewed on by a beaver. Right: A stump left by beavers, which is now home to wood-eating fungi. Photo credit: Anonymous/The Mainline, 2021.

Despite the presence of some non-native vegetation, the dominant native trees support native wildlife. The forest also helps cool down the surrounding neighborhoods, an increasingly important ecosystem service amid heatwaves and extreme climate. Common invasive plants such as Chinese privet are present, but these could be managed if the City of Atlanta were to follow through with plans to create a South River Forest Park. In 2019, the Atlanta City Council and then-mayor Kasim Reed adopted these plans into the city charter, before the APF published their plans to build Cop City earlier this year. 
If the forest is allowed to continue its recovery, those early successional trees would be slowly replaced by late successional species, long-lived hardwoods such as oak trees. The APF has claimed that the property is “devoid of hardwoods”. This is another false statement. Around the northern pond, we saw numerous hardwoods which were marked with surveyor tape. In other areas, we saw unmarked oak trees, particularly in the riparian zone around the unnamed creek. It is unclear whether the surveyors have marked these trees for removal, or if they have communicated to the APF that hardwoods are in fact present. Among these marked hardwood trees, we found a huge oak tree with a trunk circumference of about 14 feet. Under natural succession, the offspring of these oaks would disperse and ultimately replace the softwood trees.

Left: A large oak tree on the Old Prison Farm property, near the core of where Cop City would go. Right: Another oak beside the pond, marked with surveyor tape. Photo credit: Wayne Butler/The Mainline, 2021.

If the APF is publishing false information about the forest to push for their plans, one wonders what other forms of disinformation or greenwashing they may be spinning. This question brought us to the unnamed stream which runs through the core of Cop City’s planned location. For the purposes of this report, I’ll simply call it the “Prison Farm Creek”, but perhaps in the future the public could weigh in on naming this living, breathing freshwater ecosystem.

The Prison Farm Creek is fed by the two ponds on the northern side of the property. In turn, it feeds Intrenchment Creek, which feeds the South River. As I reported for The Mainline last month, the South River and Intrenchment Creek were found to contain levels of lead and other heavy metals in excess of state water quality standards. That pollution could be due in part to runoff from two APD shooting ranges already positioned beside Intrenchment Creek. However, I could not find any published studies on the nameless Prison Farm Creek. In the absence of information on this water body, the APF has planned to build a new shooting range and explosives range just uphill from the Prison Farm Creek. This would make for a total of three APD shooting ranges in the area, each of which could contaminate the watershed with lead and other hazardous chemicals. 

While The Mainline lacks the resources to perform a comprehensive ecological study of the Prison Farm Creek — something local government should be pursuing through a Brownfields Cleanup Grant or similar program — I wanted to see what I could observe as a trained stream ecologist. I hiked up the stream along a stretch which could become impacted by runoff from Cop City. Beside a fern-covered bank, I found a pool in the stream where I thought I could find some wildlife. Sure enough, the first rock I flipped was sheltering a salamander. Amphibians such as salamanders are extremely sensitive to pollution, so their presence in the Prison Farm Creek serves as a “biological indicator”, a sign of the stream’s health. In this case, the salamander is a biological indicator that this stream is healthy enough to support some sensitive vertebrates. 

A salamander found in the unnamed stream which is downhill from the planned location of the Cop City shooting and explosives ranges. Video credit: Wayne Butler/The Mainline, 2021.

The fact that this stream can support amphibians means that it can also support other native species. Not only could heavy metals from the proposed shooting range threaten these organisms, but the runoff of sediment due to tree removal and bulldozing could also threaten this stream. The beavers, the amphibians, and the hardwood trees all call into question the APF’s position that this land is unfit for conservation”. And that’s just what we could find during a one-hour hike. Our hike did not go near either of the two existing shooting ranges in the area, which may already be releasing lead and other heavy metals into Intrenchment Creek. We also did not examine the APF’s planned farm sites, where APF President and CEO Dave Wilkinson said that At Promise Youth could farm and sell produce. The proximity of those farm sites to the shooting ranges presents a potential risk of lead exposure which has not been addressed by the APF nor the Atlanta City Council.

Considering how incorrect the APF’s statements about the forest are, we have to ask how it became the job of the police to “educate” (or in this case, blatantly misinform) the public about forest ecology. Rather than relying on institutions with obvious conflicts of interest and a lack of expertise, the city should pursue outside investigations into the value of this forest and the potential impacts of building Cop City before signing a deal with APF.

The proposal to authorize a ground lease of the Old Atlanta Prison Farm land to Atlanta Police Foundation will be brought forward to City Council committees for voting this week: the Public Safety and Legal Administration on Aug. 9, the Finance and Executive Committee on Aug. 11, and the Full Council on Aug. 16. The proposal must pass both the PSLA and Finance/Executive committees before it can appear before the full council.

We will continue reporting on this story as it develops.

To learn more about local call campaigns and the public comment line schedule, please visit www.stopcopcity.org.

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