The Dawson Forest Site: Atlanta's Intriguing Former Nuclear Aircraft Site Turned Nature Conservancy

A curious map reader may notice an unusually rectangular piece of green land just north of Atlanta and just west of Lake Lanier in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. Aside from Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, rarely do we find conservation or preservation land in the form of nearly perfect geometrical shapes, especially here in the eastern part of the country. This makes that green spot north of Atlanta quite intriguing at first glance. At second glance it becomes even more intriguing. Upon zooming in, it’s revealed that this 10,000 acre piece of land approximately 40 miles north of downtown Atlanta is actually owned by the city of Atlanta.

The Dawson Forest – City of Atlanta Tract was supposed to be the site of the proposed second Atlanta airport. That, of course, never came to fruition, but the city still owns the property nonetheless. Decades ago the site was used as a testing facility by Lockheed Martin as part of the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory and was later purchased by the city in 1971. The site contained a small radiation effects reactor, which has led to some areas of the site being fenced off since previous studies conducted in the 1990’s revealed slightly elevated, though not dangerous, levels of radiation.

The Georgia Forestry Commission currently acts as stewards of the land, helping to minimize detrimental effects on the land caused by human and natural forces. As part of this mission, the land is used to provide timber, clean water to the Etowah River Watershed, wildlife habitat, and numerous recreational and educational opportunities. Under the Dawson Forest Stewardship Management Plan the city pays for the property to be effectively managed; this includes prescribed burns, harvesting timber in a sustainable manner, regulating hunting, and designating certain areas where no human management activities are allowed.

Of course today any government-owned piece of land containing a river doesn’t exist without controversy. Over the past several decades and particularly in the past 5 to 10 years, the state has shown interest in developing a reservoir on the site to bolster Georgia’s drinking water capacity. The ongoing battle between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama over the use of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin – the Tri-State Water Wars – has prompted Georgia to somewhat seriously plan for a world where Lake Lanier isn’t the only major source of water for metro Atlanta. Any plan to build reservoirs, and in turn impede water flow, on rivers that flow into other states has predictably drawn concern and litigation from those other states.

This discussion over the potential reservoir in the Dawson Forest (named the “Shoal Creek Reservoir”) heated up back in 2009 following a federal district court ruling that put severe limitations on the amount of water in Lake Lanier that can be used for drinking purposes. The state was in panic mode following that ruling since there was no back-up plan. Previous attempts to build reservoirs on state waters have been halted by politics within the state and, as mentioned above, the concern and legal rights of downstream users. The 2009 plan called for a largely privately-financed $650 million, 2,000 acre reservoir to be built that would pump nearly 100 million gallons of water a day to Atlanta.

The proposal was met with strong opposition from environmental groups and downstream communities. A reservoir would severely threaten several endangered species for a number of reasons including the likely eradication of any water flow in the Etowah River during low-flow season if 100 million gallons of water are withdrawn each day.

Fortunately for Georgia, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the federal district ruling and allowed the US Army Corps of Engineers to use the water in Lake Lanier for drinking purposes. The ruling, coupled with the threatened litigation by Alabama and environmental groups, have halted discussions over a future Shoal Creek Reservoir. See posts on the Tri-State Water Wars for more on the legal rulings.

On top of the numerous legal challenges that would be and have been mounted by Alabama, environmentalists, and any other downstream users, in relation to the building of a Shoal Creek Reservoir, a particular Georgia law presents a major barrier. Subsection (f) of GA Code 12-5-584 currently prohibits the interbasin transfer of any water into the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District (“District”).

This 2001 law presents a major problem for reservoir backers since it effectively prohibits the point of the reservoir: to transfer water into the District. The Etowah River and Shoal Creek are part of the larger Coosa River Basin that stretches across Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. Interestingly, a bill in this year’s legislative session, HB-4, would have amended this to allow the transfer of water into the District, so long as the average annual flow of the river from which water is to be taken has an annual flow rate of at least 15 billion gallons per day. The sponsors of the bill weren’t thinking about the Shoal Creek or the Etowah River, but the Tennessee River. The change would be needed if Georgia decides to go through with its plan to claim part of the Tennessee River from Tennessee. Alas, the bill failed to move out of committee.

While the city of Atlanta may still want to the use the site for a second airport, the likelihood of this occurring seems ever more remote. A study back in 2011 that analyzed the feasibility of several sites in the area including the Dawson Forest site and the other likely airport site in Paulding Country found no feasible sites. Despite this report, officials still seem to be focused on the Paulding County site, though a plan doesn’t appear to have any traction. The Dawson Forest site on the other hand, appears to have fallen off the radar in terms of airport development at this point.

As the special master appointed to oversee the US Supreme Court case involving the apportionment of water between Georgia and Florida continues to parse through evidence and state officials ponder negotiations and water-sharing plans now is a good time to get out and take advantage of the Dawson Forest site. The area could look a lot different in the coming years if any agreements are reached to build new dams and reservoirs in the area. It’s a short distance from Atlanta and North Georgia communities and provides a good alternative to the Chattahoochee National Forest if time is an issue.

The Dawson Forest Tract is the only Wildlife Management Area in Georgia that does not require a fee to park, camp, or hike its more than 25 miles of interconnected trails. The campsites are adjacent to the old building remains and have access to a dry toilet.

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