Forest or dump? Trees, pollution coexist on training center site

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Matthew Largess, a man known as both “Twig” and “the voice of the forest,” recently spent a few days wandering through the southern DeKalb County woods.

He surveyed the entire 300-plus-acre expanse targeted for the city of Atlanta’s new police and fire training center and found a forest filled with wildlife. Not old-growth by any means, but one that was well-established and “surprisingly native.”

“It was shocking how beautiful. I was totally amazed to be honest with you,” Largess later told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What a place to save if they could.”

Largess, a logger turned roving environmentalist from New England, was drawn to this particular piece of this particular forest because of the proposal that would use 85 acres — and $90 million — to build the sprawling training facility.

The Cox Foundation, the charitable arm of Cox Enterprises which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has contributed to the training center fundraising campaign. It is among several Atlanta-based foundations that have contributed.

Both near and far, the plan has sown seeds of intrigue, violence and plenty more emotions.

In the year or so since the proposal passed City Council, despite hours of mostly negative public feedback, “forest defenders” have taken up residence in the woods. They’ve vowed to protect it from destruction by any measure they deem necessary — tactics that have taken the form of vandalism, sabotage and hurling Molotov cocktails.

But simply calling the huge expanse of trees and wildlife a “forest’ paints a picture of pristine and undisturbed land. Truth is, the forest is part nature preserve and part dump, exposed over decades to more than its share of industrial pollution.

Explore'Forest defenders' use extreme tactics in fight to 'stop cop city'

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

So Largess had to see it himself.

He left impressed enough by the deer and dragonflies and tulip poplars and loblolly pines that he plans to return over Thanksgiving and embark on a more thorough documentation of the forest’s offerings. There’s still plenty to learn.

For Twig and, perhaps, everyone else.

This property was Native American land, a plantation, a prison farm. It’s been a firing range and, for decades, an illicit dumping ground.

Thousands of tires, abandoned there by businesses and residents alike, were recently removed from the site. The creeks that run through the property are tributaries of the South River, which has often been mentioned among the nation’s most polluted waterways.

The forest is a complicated, sometimes contradictory place.

“I promise you, when they start digging around at the current site plan, they’re gonna find things,” DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry said. “It’s hard to believe that there’s not more to the story.”

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

‘Trees not cops’

A recent rally in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood drew at least 100 people. They marched down Euclid Avenue chanting “trees not cops.”

“It would have compounding environmental impacts on the local community,” Atlantan Mark Hall said of the proposed training facility. “And I think it’s a continuation of this unjust tradition of powerful people deciding the destiny of everyone else.”

Hall and other activists have warned that tearing down trees and adding concrete to the area could, among other things, fuel erosion and stormwater issues and make Atlanta even more of an urban heat island.

The forest at play is, today, flanked on its eastern and northern fronts by predominantly Black middle-class neighborhoods. More industrial uses, and the Metro Regional Youth Detention Center, lie to the south.

Before all that sprouted up, it was Muscogee Creek land (activists have re-dubbed the property Weelaunee, using that people’s name for the forest). It was later a plantation run by George Key, who owned at least 19 slaves and is still the namesake of a nearby road.

The exact details get a little murky from there.

But by 1920, Atlanta’s City Council — perhaps inspired by a larger federal operation in the same area — voted to move certain local prisoners to the existing city dairy, forcing them to create produce that both fed them and was sold to the public. The prison farm operated until at least 1989 and has been largely abandoned since.

There are no official trails on the property, which was pitched as a public park as recently as 2017, but curious locals have explored the property for years, either with unofficial guided tours or on their own. The dilapidated, graffiti-covered buildings of the old prison farm have also drawn interest from amateur photographers and the film industry.

So have the discarded stone remnants of Atlanta’s Carnegie Library, which still lie abandoned in the forest.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

In late 2021, Terracon, an engineering and science consulting firm hired by the Atlanta Police Foundation, acquired and analyzed 30 soil samples and three groundwater samples from the portion of the site pitched for development. Documents show the testing sites were predominantly along the power company easement on the eastern end of the property and around dilapidated buildings to the north.

They found no potential contamination that exceeded standards set by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and did not recommend further environmental testing.

At the same time, the firm wrote in its report that “the scope of services was not intended to identify every chemical possibly associated with the site.”

More than anything, activists are opposed to the training center in general, which they see as Atlanta doubling down on police militarization and tactics that disproportionately affect people of color.

But the testing has also been targeted by some activists and advocates, who say there’s no way a property that likely saw decades of industrial-grade pesticides and potentially holds human remains (not to mention the long-held rumors of dead Zoo Atlanta animals buried there) is suitable for development.

“APD and the city of Atlanta deliberately chose to place this facility on polluted land, in (a) jurisdiction where local laws allow a government to come in and build anything they want,” the Atlanta Community Press Collective tweeted earlier this month.

The property is in DeKalb County but owned by the city, meaning the normal zoning procedures aren’t required. While the county administration must approve the permits necessary for construction, DeKalb commissioners don’t have any formal say in approving or rejecting the proposed development.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A woman named Lily Ponitz was ousted from the project’s community stakeholder advisory committee earlier this year after giving interviews to the media — and publishing her own opinion piece — questioning the thoroughness of the evaluation.

Terry, the DeKalb commissioner who appointed Ponitz to the committee, has also pushed for the county to request more in-depth environmental assessments on the property.

He recently withdrew that proposal, citing a lack of consensus on the issue. But Terry says he hopes to find support for a similar initiative targeting the portion of the training center property that will remain undeveloped.

“I think that it’s important to remember that there are other parts of that forest that are not going to be affected by” the development, said Michael O’Reilly, the director of policy and climate strategy at the Nature Conservancy of Georgia.

“For us, it’s thinking about how do we move that forward, how do we actually start to make that into a reality.”

In addition to building facilities for public use, police foundation leaders have suggested trails and other amenities will be added to portions of the undeveloped greenspace.

Credit: SCREENSHOT

Credit: SCREENSHOT

‘Good neighbors’

The city and the police foundation, meanwhile, recently removed an estimated 75 tons of illegally dumped tires from throughout the property.

Marshall Freeman, APF’s chief operating officer, said during a recent meeting of the stakeholder committee that it was “very expensive,” but part of their effort to “be good neighbors.”

They hope to do a different kind of cleanup soon.

Dozens of activists have been arrested in recent months and Atlanta police have confirmed a “multi-jurisdictional investigation” into alleged crimes at the training center site and beyond. Assistant APD Chief Carven Tyus said during the recent stakeholder meeting that the department believed “the courts are gonna assist us in the near future in eliminating the criminal element that’s out there.”

That would make Jacqueline Echols happy. At least in a way.

The director of the environmental advocacy group South River Watershed Alliance said last month that more extreme activists’ “meaningless confrontations” distract from the mission.

“As the environment goes, so goes the community,” she said. “If we don’t support the environment in that area, the community will never thrive.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com