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Retired UGA Professor Wants to Start Global Conservation Plan in Athens

Retired UGA ecology professor John Pickering (right) speaks at a meeting about land conservation in Athens-Clarke County. Credit: Sarah Anne White

The state of the natural world can seem bleak. Glaciers are melting twice as fast as they were 20 years ago. Almost all of the world’s population is at increased risk of disease from the hazardous impacts of air pollution. Every hour, approximately three species become extinct, and 240 acres of habitat are destroyed.

Amid this degradation, one environmentalist has a plan for Athens-Clarke County: 30×30

Athens-Clarke County already has 15,988 acres of protected greenspace, or 20% of the county’s total area, according to the Oconee River Land Trust. John Pickering, a retired University of Georgia professor of ecology, hopes to convert an additional 10% of ACC land into conservation, amounting to a total of 30% of the county. Outlined by the U.S. departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Commerce and the Council on Environmental Quality in the report “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” 30×30 aims to tackle environmental restoration by preserving land using local policy.

“There’s benefits of having more land for the ecosystem functions we need,” Pickering said. “The predators, insects, spiders, the bees and more need a safe place that they can thrive, and in return the ecosystem has these functions like carbon capture, cleansing water, pollination and recreation that we all benefit from.”

Pickering’s efforts began with naturally restoring and maintaining his own land, Shoal Creek Sanctuary, with the help of community partners. The sanctuary is 257 acres of greenspace in rural southeastern Clarke County. Since establishing the sanctuary, Pickering has teamed up with his organizer and outreach coordinator, Clarke Middle School science teacher Audrey Hughes, to begin forging conservation of the 24,000 acres required to implement 30×30 in Athens-Clarke County. 

30×30’s purpose, Pickering said, is not to freeze industrialization. Instead, the project would use privately owned land to connect already conserved spaces, such as Sandy Creek Park and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. 

Land owners would receive financial incentives to put their land into conservation easements run by the Athens Land Trust and Oconee River Land Trust. Land under a conservation easement is not a public park—owners maintain oversight of their property. They are, however, required to maintain it in accordance with values of environmental friendliness to achieve conservation goals.  

On Jan. 12, Pickering hosted an initial discussion of 30×30 at his sanctuary, with three county commissioners, representatives from the land trusts, ACC landowners and other interested parties in attendance. Discussion centered around the basics of 30×30’s core elements—benefits for Athens, how conservation easements work, the importance of 30×30 being a citizen-driven rather than government-directed project and reducing financial burden on taxpayers.

Next steps include creating an ACC board to decide what land to pursue for conservation, making a budget and holding public hearings. Should that all happen, voters would decide 30×30’s fate. 

30×30 would cost an estimated $250 million over 100 years—a price tag that’s a challenge. Should the county commission take 30×30 into consideration, a means to fund the project would have to be found. Pickering pointed to a conservation SPLOST as a potential avenue, with outside investors supplementing the taxpayers’ contribution. However, under state law Athens-Clarke County is capped out at an 8% sales tax, and the next opportunity to vote on SPLOST won’t come for nearly a decade.

“I was on the citizen committee for the SPLOST 2005 program, and we worked hard even getting $1 million” for conservation, Commissioner Carol Myers said at the meeting. “The kind of money that we’re sitting here talking about now—I just looked through our projections of all these things we have to pay for, and if $250 million is going to come out of that budget, it’s going to need to be creatively worked out.”

If all goes according to plan, Pickering is optimistic that 30×30 could be achieved by 2024 or 2025. “There’s no reason we want to wait,” he said. “You can see what’s happening globally. People say, ‘We’ll stop using carbon by 2050,’ or, ‘Maybe next century we won’t do it,’ and in the meantime, it’s just a general slide, and everybody’s promising to do something two or three or four decades down the line. We should do it [30×30] this decade.”

Though climate change, loss of biodiversity and increased pollution are of the utmost concern for environmentalists, simple access to greenspaces is also a major issue. “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” reports that half of the U.S. population is not within walking distance of a park. Under 30×30, private landowners hold discretion over the public’s recreation rights on their land, but Pickering plans to encourage them to allow at least some access. Additionally, conserving tracts all throughout the county is a priority, Pickering said, so “we have inclusion, equality of use and everybody gains the benefits of having conservation land.”

Athens-Clarke County is gaining about 1,500 new residents each year, along with subsequent economic and industrial growth. 30×30 aims to sustain these elements of a healthful community while caring for our Earth—and could extend well beyond Athens-Clarke County.

“People don’t want to say let’s stop jobs and stop building and stop infrastructure development, so the idea is, how do we work with developers in the county, with the school board and everybody else to make sure that we can have our cake and eat it,” Pickering said. “The goal, ultimately, is for Athens-Clarke County to be the start of a movement which will raise $50 trillion to put 30% of the world into conservation.”