Originally created 03/17/04

Study says 36 percent of Georgia is natural



ATHENS, Ga. - Judging from downtown Atlanta or the shopping mall parking lots, it may seem hard to believe that more than one-third of Georgia is in some type of natural state supporting wildlife and plant life.

The actual share is 36 percent, according to a five-year study by the University of Georgia - the most extensive look on record of the state's vegetation and animal species.

"We always want more, but that's good," said Liz Kramer, the director of the university's Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Laboratory, which coordinated the study.

The images and data of the study, which was funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, were collected to help city and county planners, state agencies, developers, power companies and others with an interest in the development or preservation of Georgia's natural areas.

Some of the most important findings relate to Georgia's coast and military bases, Ms. Kramer said. For example, bottomland hardwood forests in coastal Georgia are critical for protection, and Fort Stewart is a key area for protecting biodiversity, she said.

"It needs fire to maintain its level of biodiversity. (They're) really good at burning things on that base," Ms. Kramer said. "Sometimes bombing and burning isn't a negative impact on the environment."

Maps, aerial photos and database information depict the distribution of roads, streams, more than 400 vertebrates and more than 40 classes of plant communities, from live oak forests and open fields to shrub wetlands, researchers said.

Ms. Kramer said developers can use the data when preparing environmental assessments for government agencies. She said the information is crucial as areas across the state deal with urban sprawl.

"This should at least help us identify where maybe it makes sense not to be growing into," she said.

The data also can be useful for community planners wishing to establish biodiverse public green spaces and for people involved in natural resource protection who want to know if a habitat is right for an endangered species, researchers said.

"We're very, very happy to have data," said Christy Johnson, an environmental planner for Georgia Transmission Corp., which constructs power lines for electric membership corporations throughout the state.

The information helps such companies know where to avoid when routing lines.