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Oconee Forks

One of the largest tracts of natural land in Clarke County will be saved from development after Athens-Clarke County and several environmental groups closed on a deal earlier this month to preserve it.

A two-year effort by state and local conservationists culminated in an agreement to buy 310 acres of mature oak, hickory and birch trees, cane brakes and wetlands along a 1.2-mile stretch of the Middle Oconee River from Taylor Glover of Atlanta. The tract is located off Tallassee Road, near Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School and the Kenney Ridge subdivision.

A timber road running through a 310-acre tract along the Middle Oconee River in northwest Athens that’s now protected by a conservation easement.

“It’s a great location,” says Stacy Funderburke, Southeast real estate associate for The Conservation Fund. “In addition to being right across from the school, it’s a really critical part of the river.”

The now publicly owned forest is just north of 232 acres Glover recently sold to the environmental group Earth Saver that are protected by an Athens Land Trust conservation easement, creating a 542-acre stretch of greenspace in one of Georgia’s most heavily developed counties. “There aren’t that many contiguous tracts of undeveloped land anywhere nearby,” Funderburke said.

The tract is upstream from an ACC Public Utilities Department intake, so preserving it will help protect the city’s drinking water supply as well as wildlife habitats.

“The amount of butterflies you see out there is phenomenal,” says Mel Cochran, greenway coordinator for the Athens-Clarke Leisure Services Department. “It’s a real cool piece of property.”

The land, known as the Oconee Forks, was also sacred to the Creek Indians who lived there until white settlers pushed them out in 1794, according to local historian Steven Scurry.

Athens-Clarke County spent $525,000 from its SPLOST greenspace acquisition program to buy 210 of the acres but didn’t have enough set aside for the entire tract. The Athens Land Trust turned to The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based nonprofit which obtained a grant from the Riverview Foundation to cover the rest. The purchase price was about $2,500 an acre, Funderburke said.

“There were a lot of partners, a lot of people involved in making it happen,” says Steffney Thompson, executive director of the Oconee River Land Trust.

The Athens-based Oconee River Land Trust holds a conservation easement on the property—one of 33 parcels totaling 3,900 acres it’s protecting in nine Northeast Georgia counties—and Athens-Clarke County will manage it. The easement will permanently protect the property from most types of development, Thompson says.

“The uses are quite limited in what you can disturb,” she says. “At the same time, you can access it, and we’re preserving this really great property.”

Leisure Services staff is developing a comprehensive ecological management plan to guide land-use decisions and a site plan for recreation and education opportunities. Future plans include hiking trails and scenic vistas highlighting some of the site’s most beautiful features, according to The Conservation Fund, which has a dual mission of environmental stewardship and economic development.

“It’ll really be a passive type park used for greenspace, hiking, that type of thing,” SPLOST program manager Derek Doster says.

Leisure Services is working with community volunteers on the land-use plan and programming for the property. It is likely to include trails, as well as a parking lot and visitors center on the less ecologically sensitive portion of the land, Cochran says. Although plans for a greenway along the Middle Oconee River are currently unfunded, that greenway could also eventually run through the property, she says.

While the land will be open for recreation and scientific observation, the first priority is preserving it, Cochran says. “It’s really about protecting what is really a special and unique piece of property,” she says.

But don’t head out there just yet. For now, the parcel remains closed to hikers and nature-lovers. “It’s not ready for the public, that’s for sure,” Thompson says.