The discovery of the Georgia Aster, a state-protected and federal candidate species, earlier this year is not the only finding that could cause the Georgia Department of Transportation to seek another route for the highway. According to wildlife surveys, bald eagles have been seen up to 35 times a year on the Cartersville Ranch and conservation easement property as well as 89 different types of birds, including neo-tropical migratory birds such as the Cerulean Warbler, one of the rarest bird species that is not on the endangered species list.
"We had experts go out and do field surveys and inventories on the 107-acre conservation easement to identify birds that were there that are there, plants and mammal life," Henry Parkman, an attorney for Cartersville Ranch LLC, said. "We haven't done an insect or reptile survey, but we have done surveys for mammal wildlife, native plant wildlife and bird wildlife."
In those surveys, 25 Cherokee darters, a fish on the endangered species list, was discovered in one of the two streams flowing on the property in an area considered a critical habitat to the aquatic animal. The Cherokee darter, according to the Etowah Aquatic Habitat Conservation Plan, is only found in the Etowah River basin and no where else in the world.
The wildlife diversity study, conducted by Quality Timber and Wildlife Management, found several white-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, gray foxes, wild turkeys and bobcats as well as the more rare species of the animal kingdom. In the study, which included setting up infrared motion detection cameras, Parkman said that a travel corridor for the animals was found between the western ridge along Dobbins Mountain. Interstate 75 lies to the east of the area.
While relaying the discovery to the Euharlee City Council, Parkman shared a part of the report created by Matt Haun, president of the company performing the study, that said, "The conservation easement represents an important refuge for wildlife. Not only does it provide habitat for a great range of mammal diversity, it protects over 100 acres of contiguous, diverse hardwood cover [including both overstory and understory habitat types,] plants and smaller animals that provide food for the wildlife."
The city of Euharlee purchased the 100.5 acre conservation easement in 2010 for $10 and, according to City Manager Trish Sullivan, the reason the city of Euharlee purchased the easement is because the city "has a long standing history in protecting natural habitat and green space and [their] intent in purchasing the conservation easement was to keep that conservation easement area as a natural wildlife and preservation habitat."
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a property holder and the conservancy to limit development on property while allowing the holder to retain ownership.
Addressing the importance of the recent discoveries, Parkman said the new finds will only serve to increase the significance of the area.
"What this does is it proves it's a very valuable property where all of these different species thrive and you have all of these diverse native plants, a couple of state-protected plants," Parkman said.
"With the growth and development of metro Atlanta, and other urban centers, these migratory birds that come through need to have a place to land and to eat and feed and also to nest. From the standpoint of neotropical migratory birds, this is like an island -- it's a haven, a refuge for them and they need that because if they're flying for hundreds of miles they need a place they can have their food and rest before they either go on or they may use the woods there as a place to breed. So, all of this is important because the city's designation of the conservation easement as a wildlife refuge means that it's entitled to federal protection and that federal funds cannot be used to build a road through it."
Considering the entitlement to federal protection, Parkman said the GDOT is required to perform their own surveys "to make sure that they're not having an undue impact on those protected plants," and according to Parkman, GDOT has not conducted those studies, which coincide with an agreement between GDOT and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Federal Highway Administration.
In an effort to protect wildlife refuge areas, the U.S. Congress passed Section 4F.
"What that means is [the law] recognizes that certain pieces of property that are administered or owned by governmental entities are protected," Parkman said. "This includes parks and recreation areas and wildlife refuges. Congress decided that with significant wildlife refuges, among other kind of properties, there's a priority on protecting them. So, there's a prohibition against running transportation projects through them to destroy them, if there's a prudent and feasible alternative."
During an open house meeting in summer 2011, GDOT representative Mohamed Arafa said that, "At this time there has been no right-of-way acquisition and we are waiting on the federal reviews on historical studies, the Euharlee easement and testing at Dobbins Mine for the acid run-off. We are working closely with the Federal Highway Safety Administration on this project and waiting for their reviews."