Trusting the Land

By Hailea Boykin |  Photos provided by Central Savannah River Land Trust

As the warmest months of the year begin to make their appearance, many of us may find ourselves spending more time outdoors, walking, running, biking, hiking or even kayaking. A lot of us step across tree roots, leave our footprints in the mud and gaze across the water without knowing much about the land we stand on.

In the May issue of Augusta Magazine, Jim Garvey wrote about the historic and beautiful location that is the Augusta Canal. Though we all might be a bit more in tune with our Augusta history, it’s often hard to grasp how land stays lush and vibrant year after year. Many people may be surprised to learn that the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area is only one piece of a large puzzle designed to preserve natural and historic land in the Central Savannah River Area.

I was fortunate enough speak with Hazel Cook, executive director for the Central Savannah River Land Trust. She helped me understand how much of the land around us is protected and preserved.

Since 2001 the land trust has protected more than 9,000 acres of public and private land across the CSRA. It recently received its third Land Trust Mark of Accreditation.

Spring and Summer are the busiest seasons for Cook. The task of land preservation is ongoing. It’s a lengthy process that many people often don’t notice, and the pandemic didn’t make the job any easier. A lot of us, myself included, drive past and walk on this protected land each day without knowing the time and dedication that goes into the process of land preservation.

Though the CSRLT protects a lot of public land, it also protects private land for people who want to make it better or keep it at its best. Private landowners often have the CSRLT safeguard and preserve land that will be passed down to future generations or a different owner.

In the public arena, hundreds of acres within what the CSRLT calls the Savannah River Greenway are permanently protected from construction and clearcutting in order to safeguard the areas that keep our natural vibrancy alive. Cook says the CSRLT is well on the way to its ultimate goal of 150 miles of trails and pathways that will connect Aiken, Columbia and Richmond counties. That’s the puzzle.

Although some of the Savannah River Greenway puzzle pieces are in the process of being connected, Cook is making sure that there is still a beautiful, natural area for people to visit while that work is being done. “Most of what we’ve been doing is making sure the land is protected, and then we work on building these little jewels. Even if people can’t go from point A to point B, they can still visit point A and spend time out in nature,” she said.

Currently, Cook is in the process of enhancing the 60-acre Lombard Mill Pond in South Augusta. Park your car and spend some time walking the nearly 2-mile trail around the pond. If you’re looking for relaxing fun with the family, Lombard Mill Pond also has a fishing pavilion. Cast out your line and wait for the fish to bite!

The purchase and growth of land isn’t something that can happen overnight or even within a few weeks, and that’s why we don’t notice it. Cook compares land preservation to the furniture in your house: “You know it’s there, so you don’t really think about it at all. It’s only when it has changed or is gone that you notice it.” Even then, land changes aren’t that easy to notice unless we were to watch a time lapse of growth.

The land trust doesn’t just care about the purchase of land that’s in its prime; it also cares about the land that may need a bit of a push in the right direction. Fostering land growth is a methodical process that the trust does in the most natural way possible.

Currently, the CSRLT does preservation work in Georgia and South Carolina, but it has a contract specifically with Richmond County to continue its green space work. The Georgia Greenspace Program was passed into law under Gov. Roy Barnes in 2000 as a way to encourage and guide fast-growing counties in the area to reserve 20% of their land as official green space.

Green space is considered to be a chunk of land, river, lake, forest, marsh – any natural land – that is directly protected from urbanization. The goal of this program is to not only prevent urbanization, but to also prevent erosion and save ecosystems and habitats, historic landmarks, scenery and resources.

When talking with Cook, she shared a statistic that was shocking, to say the least. “The UNEP – United Nations Environment Programme – did a study of basic ecosystem services and calculated that it would cost us 10 times more to do the things that nature does for us naturally,” she stated. Cook stressed that we are often unaware of nature’s impact until it’s gone.

All of these natural resources and landscapes that are being preserved by the land trust are part of a bigger goal to keep the land in nature’s metaphorical hands. But all of it requires a lot of time and investment. “We are ensuring that things don’t change for the worst. They get better at the speed of nature, not the speed of people,” Cook said.

Though we might not notice nature’s process, it’s always good to take a breath of fresh air and peek behind the green curtains to see what is rooted there.

Appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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