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Work on fifth runway results in new wildlife sanctuary

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

As a result of the fifth runway at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which opened in May 2006, 14 acres of natural wetlands surrounding the airport were eradicated.

Due to federal laws requiring the airport to re-establish those wetlands some place else, the Southern Crescent has received a new sanctuary for birds and other wildlife.

The Sams Lake Bird Sanctuary in Fayette County opened to the public on Saturday, Sept. 13. The 56.5-acre property surrounding Sams Lake, off Old Senoia Road, is the first open wetland preserve in Fayette County, and is quickly beginning to teem with wildlife.

Albert Snedeker, a spokesperson for the airport, said the road to opening the sanctuary has been long and difficult, but ultimately, he is pleased with the product.

"[The federal government] requires a 1-to-1 re-establishment when you disturb an area due to construction," said Snedeker. "The Army Corps of Engineers located Sam's Lake as the location and the airport went about restoring it.

"It was almost complete in 2004 when a couple of tropical storms came through and damaged the dam that had been built," Snedeker said. "It pretty much destroyed all of the work that had been done up to that point, to the tune of $3 million."

Despite the damage, Snedeker said the site was able to thrive on it's own, and the airport spent another $2 million to finish the project this year. In that time, the sanctuary has become home to wild turkeys, herons, hawks, egrets, deer, beavers, and muskrats.

"It was kind of a blessing in disguise," said Snedeker. "In the end, it is a real environmental success story, because it is much more natural now, and it is holding more water than expected.

"They found out that mother nature really does know best," said Snedeker.

The centerpiece of the bird sanctuary, Sams Lake, was donated to Southern Conservation Trust, by the family of Ferrol Sams, a famous Georgia author whose family has lived in Fayette County for generations. The airport improved upon the entire wetlands systems surrounding the lake.

Abby Jordan, executive director of Southern Conservation Trust -- which manages green space throughout the Southern Crescent -- said the project worked out in their favor. She said once nature sets in, the sanctuary will be "comparable" to the Newman Wetlands Center in Clayton County.

"It's been a long wait, but it was worth it," said Jordan. "It's a much better design than the original one. It's much more natural and will require less maintenance from us. We are a non-profit, so that's important.

"You can walk out on the dams and really see the wetlands up close," Jordan continued. "It's the only wetland preserve like this in Fayette. Clayton has a couple, but Fayette does not, so we are very happy."

"We're really excited," said Snedeker. "It's a real natural resource down there that they are going to benefit from in the long run."

On Saturday, Oct. 4 at 9 a.m., Southern Conservation Trust will host a bird walk with an expert from the National Audubon Society. For more information, call (770) 486-7774.