Proposal Aims to Restore Salt Marsh but Raises Concerns
Conservation groups are raising their voices against a bill that could potentially jeopardize thousands of acres of salt marsh currently considered public land. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, and several coastal lawmakers, aims to encourage the restoration of salt marsh that has been drained or damaged by farming and other activities.
Restoring Mother Nature
Rep. Matt Reeves, the Judiciary Committee’s vice chair, believes that Georgia’s marshlands need human intervention to repair the damage caused by centuries of rice farming and other alterations. “For 200 years, these rice farms and other manmade alterations in Georgia’s marshlands have not repaired themselves,” Reeves explained. “Mother nature needs help to restore those marshlands. And this is the vehicle to do it.”
The Ownership Debate
The majority of Georgia’s 400,000 acres of coastal marshland is owned by the state and protected from development. However, there are approximately 36,000 acres that are privately owned through titles granted by England’s king or Georgia’s post-American Revolution governors during the 1700s and early 1800s. Critics argue that the current legal process for tracing ownership to these “crown grants” is cumbersome and time-consuming, often taking a decade or longer. The state attorney general’s office handles these cases, requiring continuous ownership evidence from the original grant to the present.
A Streamlined Alternative
The bill currently before House lawmakers proposes a streamlined alternative for landowners seeking to establish their ownership claims. If granted their claim, these landowners must agree to preserve the marshland. Furthermore, they would be allowed to sell mitigation credits to private developers looking to offset damage to wetlands elsewhere.
Opponents of the bill, such as Megan Desrosiers, president and CEO of the coastal Georgia conservation group One Hundred Miles, argue that the proposed changes shift the responsibility of protecting the marshland from the state to private hands. Desrosiers expresses concern about the state handing over something it has protected for centuries to individuals who will profit from its preservation.
Unfair Burden on the State
Critics of the bill also highlight the unfair burden it would place on the state to disprove claims of private marsh ownership. Under the proposed legislation, cases would be handled by the State Properties Commission instead of the attorney general’s office. The commission would have a deadline of nine months to resolve each case. If the deadline is exceeded, ownership of the marshland would automatically transfer to the claimant.
A Battle of Claims
Opponents of the bill argue that it would result in individuals obtaining ownership of saltmarshes without a valid claim. Kevin Lang, an Athens attorney who opposes the legislation, argues that the state has an obligation to protect the marshland and prevent such unjust outcomes. Jerry Williams, whose family was granted marshland along the Ogeechee River in Savannah in the 1800s, supports this argument, claiming that state officials have abused the existing process for proving ownership.
In a bid to defend their titles, Williams states that state officials often use delaying tactics and make it financially burdensome for private landowners. The proposed changes, according to Williams, would only exacerbate this issue.
As the bill continues to be debated, the opposition from conservation groups remains steadfast. The fate of Georgia’s salt marsh hangs in the balance, as lawmakers and stakeholders weigh the benefits of restoration against the potential risks to public land.