The Chattahoochee National Forest just got a little bigger, and maybe a little better.
The U.S. Forest Service recently acquired 108 acres of undeveloped land in the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, four miles north of Helen.
The property, known as the Beutell tract, was purchased two years ago by the Trust for Public Land, which held it until the Forest Service was able to come up with the money to buy the property.
"All conservation deals these days are requiring multiple funding sources, and it usually takes several years to complete them," said Chris Deming, senior project manager for the Trust for Public Land in Georgia.
The Forest Service, like most federal agencies, is strapped for cash. If there weren’t conservation organizations like the trust that can buy land and essentially put it in "layaway" for the government, a lot of critical habitat could be lost to development.
"They can do things that the government is not able to do," said Mitch Cohen, spokesman for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Gainesville.
"Our funding is always dependent on allocations from Congress," Cohen added.
The trust has already protected more than 200 acres along the upper Chattahoochee River, including the historic Hardman Farm south of Helen, which is now owned by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
With the Beutell tract, it was clear that the land should become part of the 750,500-acre Chattahoochee National Forest.
"It’s surrounded on three sides by Forest Service land, so they were the logical stewards for this property," Deming said.
Conservation agencies had been eager to obtain the Beutell tract, which was the uppermost privately held parcel in the Chattahoochee headwaters.
"It contains both sides of the headwaters as well as two pristine tributaries, Blue Knob and Double Gap, so it’s very important from a resource perspective," said Deming. "With (Georgia’s) water crisis, acquiring land in the headwaters can help by preventing siltation."
Cohen said protecting the water source will be the highest priority for the land.
"I doubt there will be any type of development," he said. "It will be available for dispersed recreation such as fishing and wildlife watching. But because it does straddle the Chattahoochee River, it’s going to get very careful management in terms of water quality."
Deming said the property is mostly in a wilderness state.
"This land is completely undeveloped," he said. "It’s got huge white pines that are maybe 80 to 100 years old. There’s a mixed hardwood forest, running pools and shoals. It’s beautiful."
The Trust of Public Land paid $2.4 million for the land, which is now appraised at about $3 million. The Forest Service paid $1.3 million, allocated from the federal Land & Water Conservation Fund. The trust made up the difference with money from a wetlands mitigation grant and the Chattahoochee River Land Campaign.
"The acquisition of that land by the Forest Service was really the result of a partnership," Cohen said.
Since the Beutell land will not have any developed amenities such as campgrounds, the average Georgian probably won’t visit the area. But Cohen said everyone will benefit from its preservation, whether they use the national forest or not.
"It’s hard to look at where that is and say, ‘No, I think everybody would be better off if we built a condo there,’" he said.