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Emory student organizations oppose trail; Ecological Society VP says plan threatens protected plant

DeKalb County Metro ATL Trending

Emory student organizations oppose trail; Ecological Society VP says plan threatens protected plant

A bay starvine. Photo provided by Nick Chang, vice president of the Emory Ecological Society.

Atlanta, GA — A group of Emory University student organizations and individuals, along with faculty and other community members, issued a statement opposing a proposed walking path along the south fork of Peachtree Creek.

The vice president of the Emory Ecological Society, one of the signees, says the plan threatens a protected plant.

Student groups sponsoring the joint statement include Emory Ecological Society, Emory Bike Social, Emory’s chapter of the National Environmental Science Honor Society, Emory’s student chapter of the Wildlife Disease Association, Emory Spokes Council, Outdoor Emory, Plastic Free Emory, Emory Gender Expansive and Women’s Ultimate (EGEWU) and Emory Juice Ultimate. 

The PATH Foundation is currently evaluating the route along a sewer easement at the request of DeKalb County, which paid PATH $280,000 for a scoping project. At a neighborhood meeting on March 8, PATH representatives Eric Ganther and Pete Pellegrino said that the county sees a recent sewer repair and replacement project as an opportunity to put a path there without additional disruption.

The joint statement from Emory student organizations says, in part, that additional disruption, including runoff from pavement and silt from construction, cannot be avoided and that the path will not add a useful commuter route. The signatories to the statement do not believe that potential damage to a designated preservation area with protected species in residence is a worthwhile tradeoff for a recreational path only.

Nick Chang, vice president of the Emory Ecological Society, thinks that Emory University and DeKalb County are looking at the situation from the wrong perspective.

“I think the tactic that Emory is using to justify this proposal, that these areas have already been cleared, makes it sound like they will never be ecologically significant. I think that mischaracterizes the situation,” Chang said. He added that with time and effort they could be brought back, and that DeKalb’s access to the sewer easement could be maintained with selective tree removal.

“I think my organization’s largest concern at this time is the Chattahoochee crayfish and the bay starvine which are protected species,” said Chang. Both the crustacean and the flowering vine are listed as priority species in Georgia’s Wildlife Protection Plan. There’s no legal mechanism to shield them on private land, Chang said, “But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t still be protected.”

Bay starvines are an unusual plant, the only member of the Schisandra genus found in North America. Chang described the Atlanta area as a hotspot for the species. “Emory’s campus is one of the best places to find it, and we just had a big patch of it destroyed this past summer. We can’t afford to lose more of it,” said Chang. 

Emory Bike Social released a statement saying that the path was not accessible from south of campus, where a majority of bicycle commuters originate, based on a survey conducted by the group. For those who do have easy access, there is a faster route from Clairmont Road to campus down Starvine Way.

Alison Thieberg, vice president of Emory Bike Social, says that there are better ways to help bike commuters and that use of the proposed path will be mainly recreational.

“What we have seen from experiences of bikers in the community and especially from the survey is that most commuters prefer roads. It’s going to get them there fastest no matter what you do,” Thieberg said, adding that no amount of paths would be able to supplant the easy access of roads.

Thieberg said that potholes and a lack of bike lanes are the biggest obstacles to biking safety and should be a higher priority if the county wishes to encourage bicycle commuters.

Ganther, with the PATH Foundation, responded to the joint statement by saying that PATH Foundation’s study is in its beginning stages, and will include evaluating alternatives for trail placement.

However, Ganther says that building a trail allows for less interaction with cars and has more potential for intergenerational use than bike lanes.  The proposed trail will be an extension of the frequently used South Peachtree Creek Trail, and offers an alternative route which does not have street crossings. Ganther believes that easy access to the trail will be beneficial to residents of Clairmont Place for Independent Living and patients at the VA Hospital and the rehabilitation facility at Wesley Woods, all of whom may have mobility challenges and limited options for enjoying nature.

With regard to environmental concerns, Ganther said that PATH Foundation has experience building in environmentally sensitive areas such as Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area and Tanyard Creek Park, including ways to reduce disruption and control runoff. Detailed construction proposals will be provided before any action is taken.

“Construction techniques include top-down construction, root bridging, bioswales, permeable pavements, and other strategies. PATH designers are motivated by service to nature,” Ganther said.

Ganther also said that while the area of the proposed trail is cherished, it’s neither old-growth forest nor pristine, despite the language some have used. 

“It was logged for many years, then a plantation worked by enslaved persons, then a hydroelectric plant. Humans have been impacting this area for nearly 200 years. We see our work as a positive impact and a way to help tell the land’s story,” Ganther said. 

Ganther encouraged interested people to carefully walk the north side of Peachtree Creek along the proposed trail route and see it for themselves. He described it as heavily disturbed by DeKalb County Watershed Management sewer repairs.

“This strip will continue to be disturbed for sewer monitoring, maintenance and periodic repairs in perpetuity. This is a unique opportunity to build an ecologically sensitive trail that provides intergenerational access to nature, a truly safe commute alternative, and a mechanism for forest management and education,” Ganther said. 

However, Environmental Sciences faculty member Dr. John Wegner, a signatory of the joint statement, says that established university policy prohibits the route going through Lullwater and the other protected areas owned by the university.  

Wegner was the campus environmental officer when Emory’s land use plan was updated in 2006 and did all the field work for it. He created the maps and descriptions for the land use plan and also was the lead author on the Lullwater Comprehensive Management Plan. 

“The Lullwater management plan would exclude a 10-foot wide trail from being constructed in Lullwater,” Wegner said, adding that in the 2006 land use plan the areas along the south fork of Peachtree Creek were to be protected “in perpetuity.” 

As someone who authored the documents in question, Wegner described attempts to interpret Emory’s environmental land use and management policies in order to assert that they don’t exclude a paved trail through the protected areas as “creative.”

Wegner also said that Emory University already accepted an alternate route that would come onto campus from Clairmont via Starvine Way to Clifton Road, Eagle Row, Peavine Creek and Old Briarcliff.

“It does the same thing [as the proposed route along Peachtree Creek] but actually goes through campus,” Wegner said. “Why wouldn’t they use that?”

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