10 years after Bill Jones started gathering land for parks, he sees the effort’s still growing

We'd like to do what plants do for energy, but we'll need the right materials to make photosynthesis viable on a large scale.

It’s a pleasant mid-September Saturday morning and for Bill Jones, something good is happening.

The founder and executive director of the Southeastern Trust for Parks and Land is sitting on a park bench amid the Campbellton Creek Nature Park, an 80-acre oasis of towering hardwoods, riotous greenery and garden plants. Laced with nature trails, it’s in a hyper-developed area of the city of South Fulton that’s full of warehouses and apartment complexes.

Jones is working with students from a Kennesaw State University interdisciplinary science class focused specifically on the park. They’re taking photos of a demonstration garden while checking out mushrooms and various tree varieties. They’re also digging up soil samples to be tested back on campus.

A group of cyclists pulls up, the back of their car carrying a clutch of sturdy trail bikes. Joggers and walkers cruise by. A new nearby bouldering course is drawing attention.

And Jones is basking in it all.

“We’re talking about the intersection of conservation, recreation and community,” he said of his morning chat with the college students and their professors. That “something good is happening,” is Jones’ mantra. You’ll hear it a fair number of times when you’re in his orbit.’

Talk with him about what the trust is doing, and you quickly realize that in the span of a decade, he’s become an expert in all three of the disciplines he mentions. The Southeastern Trust itself has reached the same milestone, 10 years of age, which offers the chance for the group to take a bow for its work balancing conservation and recreation, while retaining ownership of the tracts it acquires.

Back in 2012, Jones, a small business owner who grew up in metro Atlanta, was attempting to chart a course bringing balance in the rest of his life.

“I went through a period of introspection, and I decided to do something to create parks,” he said. “I didn’t know how it was going to manifest itself.”

He was inspired by his frequent rambles with his dogs through the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area and the realization that since boyhood, he’d always been close to walkable trails in nature. And he believes to his core that being outdoors enhances physical, mental and what he calls “relationship” health.

As he began to plan, an associate steered him toward banks that had been saddled with foreclosed-on tracts of land courtesy of Great Recession and the real estate bust. Jones found some banks receptive to his pitch to take those vacant tracts off their hands.

“We were solving their problems for them,” is how he puts it, saying he learned to ask the bankers to throw in extra cash for such things as property taxes and environmental studies.

For several years, the trust and Jones, its only employee, focused chiefly on land acquisition. Then, with dozens of volunteer helpers Jones had recruited, the emphasis changed to creating parks where they were suitable. The first big push was to build the 210-acre Talking Rock Nature Park in Pickens County, first ensuring it was off-limits to development forever, then sketching out a network of hiking and mountain biking trails.

That’s when Ken Nix connected with Jones.

“Bill had a community meeting in Jasper about the park,” Nix recalls. “I introduced myself to him,” telling them he could build mountain biking trails for less than half of what the other group was charging.

“We’ve been friends ever since,” Nix said. “He trusts what I say, and I trust what he says.”

That ability to size people up has stood Jones in good stead, said Jessica Rossi, the acting president of the Friends of Fightingtown Creek Nature Park, a 190-acre mountainous tract near Blue Ridge the group acquired in 2016 and which is now being developed.

“I have found Bill to be very supportive and a connector,” said Rossi, a communications executive. “I have seen when he meets someone, he looks for their strengths to figure out how they can best work together to accomplish goals.” That, she said, has progressed into successful partnerships Jones has formed with volunteers, contractors, government officials and the community at large.

She and others laud Jones’ passion and his enthusiasm, which seems unquenchable. His words bubble up and cascade like the waters in a nearby brook.

His debuting of a new nature park counts among the best of times, but there’s also the not-so-good stuff: a landowner who recently cut down an acre of trees on one of the trust’s properties; those who periodically dump a load of garbage on the group’s land, then speed off.

The job is complex and challenging, the environmentalist says, ranging from fundraising to wooing donors to managing volunteers, three to five stalwarts per park who do the usual heavy lifting of trail maintenance and mitigating erosion.

Nix has worked to build mountain biking trials for the trust and says he doesn’t build walking corridors “that go straight up a mountain,” but instead aims at creating gentler contours that seniors and people who are out-of-shape can handle.

As director of the trust, Jones oversees nine active parks and 36 pieces of land the trust owns across Georgia, in Tennessee and in North Carolina. Some, like coast wetlands or a rocky, bear-infested region adjacent to Dollywood in Tennessee will probably never be parks. Others are getting planning and some preparatory work.

The trust’s donor base has changed over the last few years he said, with banks no longer needing to unload foreclosed properties. Individual donors have stepped in with batches of land smaller than those that emerged from the financial wreckage.

“People are approaching an age, and they think ‘I am at an age where I’m thinking about my legacy, and [land donations] is a good way to do [something good],” he said.

As it reaches the end of its first decade, he said, the trust is seeing some notable forward momentum. Paid staff has increased from one to three. Fundraising is getting up a head of steam. An endowment fund is growing.

And he’s seen other signs things are changing, too. Early on, some city and county officials were skeptical when Jones talked up plans for land donations, evidently hesitant about kids hanging out on the property, the cost of developing it, and whether they had the resources to maintain it.

“Now, cities and counties are coming to us,” he says. “And nowadays, when we get pieces of land, every one of them is from people who have seen what they’ve accomplished and tell us to do our thing on their land.”

The trust has created outdoor classrooms, birdwatching, and geo-caching areas. They’re planting 150,000 longleaf pine seedlings in two regions of the state. In conserving Georgia’s dwindling available land, they work on erosion and stormwater control.

Jones credits his wife of 26 years, Evelyn, for keeping him moving, helping him celebrate victories, and cheerleading him through tough times. He also draws strength and stimulation from disc golf and singing and playing his guitar. But conserving Georgia’s dwindling native habitat remains the overarching goal of his life.

And he maintains an unshakeable belief in the healing power of nature.

“I got a letter from a woman in Jasper a couple of years ago,” says Jones. She picked up her sulking high-school-age daughter one day and thought perhaps a Talking Rock nature walk-she’d never been there- might produce a brighter mood.

Mom and daughter started down the trail. The daughter became intrigued by a generous array of mushrooms. She took pictures and took them to her science teacher the next day, sparking a lively classroom discussion.

“The (much happier) daughter gets picked up the next day at school and asks her mother if they can go back to the park. The mom’s like, ‘heck yeah,” Jones said.

Two months later, their mother-and-daughter walks have improved their relationship. Both have toned up and shed weight.

“And the daughter was saying she wanted to major in botany,” he said.

Although for Jones, when he was younger, the prospect of studying the physiology, genetics and structures of plants didn’t quite measure up the simple joys of the great outdoors. “When I was in college at UGA, I got a D in botany because I kept cutting class to go canoeing. True story,” he said.

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