Protecting the Chattahoochee

Protecting the Chattahoochee
A man fly-fishes in the lower pool west of the Chattahoochee River, at Lake Lanier, near Cumming, Ga., on Dec. 28, 2023. (Mike Stewart/AP Photo)
Newt Gingrich

My daughter Jackie Cushman recently updated me on a remarkable project happening in Georgia to protect and preserve the Chattahoochee River. I want to share it, because it is a model for how citizens can work together on conservation to accomplish important things that benefit everyone.

Jackie is the former chair of Trust for Public Land Advisory Board for Georgia. TPL has done an amazing job—along with the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and a host of local, state, and federal agencies—cleaning up the Chattahoochee and reintegrating it into people’s lives in and around Atlanta.

The Chattahoochee flows out of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Northeast Georgia and across the state toward the Alabama border. Importantly, it runs right through the heart of metro Atlanta and feeds the Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Many millions of people ultimately rely on the Chattahoochee for drinking water, hydroelectric power, fishing, recreation, and other activities. Further, rivers serve as the lifeblood of entire ecosystems. Without a healthy Chattahoochee River, much of the state of Georgia would likely be a wasteland.

And the Chattahoochee River was once in dire straits.

In the 1970s, I was an environmental studies professor at what was then West Georgia College. I studied the river and got involved in its protection. Once I was elected to Congress in 1978, I helped to create the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. It helped create a foothold of conservation on the river, but it was only a first step. The problem was that Atlanta had developed quickly since the 1950s. Industrial waste had been diverted to the river for decades. Also, anytime it rained, trash and chemicals from the roadways and city would wash into the river.

So early efforts to protect the river simply couldn’t keep up with development. By the 1990s, the Chattahoochee was badly polluted. and American Rivers had declared it the most endangered river in the nation. This is when TPL, the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and other public and private organizations banded together to clean things up. Working with federal, state, and local officials of all stripes (including me when I was in Congress), they began forcing local governments and companies to clean up their acts.

For the 30 years that followed, they did remarkable things. As of now, TPL has helped preserve thousands of acres and 81 miles of riverfront along the Chattahoochee. The river is the cleanest it has been in modern history.

Now TPL is working to connect people to the river that it helped restore. TPL’s Chattahoochee RiverLands initiative is an effort to build 100 miles of trails, parks, and recreation areas along the river as it flows through metro Atlanta. The plan will ultimately run through 19 cities in seven counties. It will add 42 access points and eight campsites for Georgians to enjoy. By 2030, the project plans to create a defining outdoor space in Atlanta—a 19-mile, 6,000-acre greenspace stretching from Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek to Douglas County’s Boundary Waters Park.

None of this would have been possible without the work that TPL and the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper have done to bring together public and private organizations—and politicians from both parties—to protect this vital river. And the work is never finished. No matter what challenges the Chattahoochee faces, it is in good hands.

The Chattahoochee RiverLands project is a model for the kind of citizenship we need to foster across America.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Newt Gingrich is an author, commentator, and former Georgia congressman who was the 50th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. He ran as a presidential Republican candidate in 2012.