Over the past 18 months, Wharton and members of the ACC Sustainability Office have worked on the Legacy Forest Project, an effort to track the loss of the county’s Legacy Forests, by examining aerial photographs dating back to 1938.
“[A legacy forest] is the probability of a forested area to have remained in its natural state for at least 80-100 years,” Wharton said. “If you’re looking at those trees [in a legacy forest], they were probably there when your grandparents were there.”
The sustainability office acquired multiple aerial photographs of Athens from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that were taken in 1938, 1951, 1967, 1980, 1998, 2008 and 2017.
“You’d be amazed if you looked at 1938 and realized how much of Athens-Clarke County was agricultural,” said Mike Wharton, the natural resource administrator for ACC.
The team divided the project into seven phases, with the first phase defining the initial amount of legacy forest in 1938. From there, the following phases examined the loss of legacy forest from the phases previous to it. For example, phase two examined how much legacy forest disappeared from 1938p-1951. They are currently on phase six.
“I don’t know if anyone else has done this project on this scale where they are looking specifically at their entire county and trying to review what has happened to that county in that time,” Wharton said.
The team used a geographic information system, a type of computer program, to track the loss of the county’s legacy forest.
“We are doing the work ourselves. GIS refers to any software that helps to map the physical environment ... it’s just a tool we are using,” said Andrew Saunders, sustainability officer and the project manager for the Legacy Forest Project.
Saunders, who was brought in to lead the sustainability office last July, was instrumental in obtaining the funding for this project, which cost roughly $30,000-$40,000.
The Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission provided most of the original funding for the project, Saunders said, which helped to do the most labor intensive part of the project, which was to get the oldest photos representative of their tree space from the ground and then mapping what forest was visible on them.
Karen Porter, a retired professor of ecology from the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, serves as one of the commissioners for the Oconee Rivers Greenway and spoke on why the commission chose to fund the Legacy Forest Project.
“[The project] was aligned with the goals of what is called the ‘greenway network plan,’ which was updated in 2016, and in that plan we proposed an inventory of natural resources in the county,” Porter said.
Furthermore, Porter holds the project team in high regards and expressed her confidence in the project and its team members.
“I think Andrew and his staff are highly qualified technically to do the project. Andrew is sophisticated in its analysis and certainly will be able to present it in a way that it will inform future land use both by the county and by private individuals,” Porter said.
The team is expected to finish the project by the latter half of November and will present their findings to Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission during the December meeting. However, some of the project information can be found online.
According to the Manager’s Snapshot, an informative document from the ACC government that was published Aug. 17, the total amount of mature forest declined by 20 percent, as 4,008 acres of forest was converted to other land uses, primarily agricultural fields.
“Our project will be able to give you a sense of what land has made it to this point that was probably at least 100 years old,” Wharton said. “That is really important because if I’m going to put a building somewhere, I don’t want to put it on a piece of forest that has been there for at least 100 years and possibly longer.”