Aerial views reveal land use, conservation and more

Landscapes on high reveal best in land conservation, remaining threat of fragmented development

By Marc Hudson

 Alabama and Georgia Land Trust

Director of Land Protection, Southwest Georgia

From the seat of a little Cessna 172 flying from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above Alabama and Georgia, one gains a unique perspective on land protection and the conservation easements we monitor.

Over the past year the land trust has instituted a change in the way it’s doing its annual monitoring. Every year in the past, the land trust staff members drove out to each and every easement and every piece of land it protects to assure that no irreparable harm has been done to those things the land trust and the landowner sought to protect. As the land trusts have garnered more easements, annual monitoring has become a greater and greater expenditure of energy as a staff member has driven out to and checked on each individual property.

Now that the land trusts have well over 400 easements and a coverage area spanning 110,000 square miles, the concept of driving the whole of that area became, well, a bit overwhelming. (Furthermore, the gasoline consumption from 10 staff people being constantly on the road is enough to make a man shed a tear). So this year, we’re trying something different.

The land trust has been doing low aerial flights over each property as monitoring this year, saving ground visits for small urban easements or those with sensitive requirements deserving a closer look. Each member of our staff has logged dozens of hours in light planes to get annual monitoring accomplished.

Flying in a recent monitoring run, I thought about the different perspective we have of land from above. Looking down from 1,000 to 3,000 feet high, the view is much wider and fuller than it is standing on the ground, but without the lack of intimacy one gets from looking down at land from a 747 jet. Also, flying in between easement properties allows time to reflect on the patterns of land use visible below you. There are a few surprises.

What might surprise many is the remarkable diversity across this Southern landscape. For the most part, the landscapes of Alabama and Georgia portray people engaged with their land. Most places exhibit a verdant blend of agriculture, forestry and wildlife management. From up on high, you can spy on different people’s management philosophies – width of their riparian buffers, numbers of food plots to the acre, when they are doing their thinning or even what crops they’ve decided to sow this year.

Millions of acres of land have been managed into their own productive environments, whether producing food and timber or habitat. That effort takes the dedication of thousands of landowners who have taken the time to get to know their land and discover the best tools are for their land and their goals for it.

 Similarly, you can get a sense for how many wild places still exist in our part of the world.

It’s comforting to see, while flying, large unbroken tracts of forests, managed or not, and wide swampy, corridors along our rivers. Not only are those areas providing a positive natural resource but they are a library of ecological systems guaranteeing the preservation of nature for generations to come.

However, you also get a sense that threats remain from unwise fragmented development. As suburbanization and sprawl moves out across our landscapes, it degrades quality habitat and destroys corridors between important wildlife areas. This is been seen clearly from above, too.

The best of land conservation and the spread of urban and development threats can all be observed from on high. And, it’s good to know that the Alabama and Georgia Land Trusts and other interested conservation organizations are working to help landowners protect their land, limit development and guide needed development into smarter avenues.

The Coosa River near Gadsden, Ala.