This week’s Courier Herald Column:
This week, America will celebrate its birthday. Most will do so outdoors. But outdoors is becoming more and more of a rarity for too many of us these days.
Children who are plugged in to a variety of electronic devices at all times look downright confused these days when told to go play outside. It’s how most of us older people grew up. Yet for today’s kids, the opportunity isn’t as available as it once was.
We are a nation and a state that is on a march to urbanization. The rural part of our world holds less and less of the population as time marches on. With that fact is the loss of a connection with kids – tomorrow’s adults – and nature. With these trends comes an increasing need for public parks.
Parks are an often overlooked but necessary function of government. Whether protected by the national park service or state and local governments, parks provide public space that is increasingly important to a population that now thinks a third of an acre is a large lot.
Protecting and preserving park land not only provides land for recreational purposes, but at its heart promotes a basis for understanding and protecting the environment. As politicians grapple with changing demographics, one area that remains consistent with younger voters (and appears to be holding as they age) is their concern over environmental issues.
Republicans continue to miss easy opportunities here because they too often miss opportunities, and defend partisan pushes in such a way that appears to be losing the next generation of voters before they ever give the Republicans a chance. Reestablishing a commitment to state and national parks would be an easy way to begin to earn trust with these voters.
Georgia, unfortunately, doesn’t quite appear ready to make this commitment. Instead, a recent opinion from the Attorney General appears to indicate otherwise.
Jekyll Island has long been the place reserved for everyday Georgians to see the beach and its natural environment. By law, the island must keep 65% of its land undeveloped. The Jekyll Island Authority has been working on a new master plan to redevelop the island – a move already drawing concern that the price point of newer redeveloped hotels will put the price point of a Jekyll vacation out of reach for many. But there is a more disturbing possibility that the amount of Jekyll that will be developed will also increase.
The key is that the opinion of the Attorney General is that marsh land should be considered “land” for purposes of what can and can’t be developed. Counting marsh land as part of the island’s size increases the land mass of Jekyll by over 1,700 acres, allowing for 605 acres of new development.
The amount of development that would be allowed under this ruling would change the character of Jekyll forever. As marsh land remains federally protected, it would essentially allow most of the current high ground to become a large state gift to whichever developer can win the prize. And in Georgia, too often, the well-connected know how to work this part of the system all too well.
On the other side of the state and political spectrum, the City of Atlanta is moving forward with its creation of The Beltline. Often looked at as a future transit ring around the inner city, the perhaps the Beltline’s greatest achievement will be to provide over 800 acres of new parkland to area residents. The largest park northwest of downtown will be on the site of a former rock quarry, and at 351 acres will be roughly twice the size of the city’s downtown oasis, Piedmont Park.
Georgia has vast natural resources and the means to protect them. These parks, large and small, are of irreplaceable value to current and future Georgians.
As we celebrate the birth of a nation this week, we need to take a good look around while we’re all outside. We have great gifts that need to be preserved. Great states and great countries do these things. We need not let the opportunity to do so pass us by.