ATLANTA— Standing in solidarity with local organizations, communities and forest defenders who have been safeguarding the South River Forest for years, the Center for Biological Diversity is calling for the permanent protection of Atlanta’s biologically diverse forest and an independent investigation into the killing of a 26-year-old activist fighting to protect it.
The Center condemns Georgia law enforcement’s killing of Manuel Estaban Paez Terán, known as Tortuguita, and demands an independent and transparent investigation. Tortuguita died fighting to save one of the last and largest forests in metropolitan Atlanta from a harmful police facility development.
“We support the courageous defenders who are sounding the alarm against the destruction of Atlanta’s last forest,” said Will Harlan, a scientist at the Center. “As we seek justice for Tortuguita, we have to continue his mission to save this precious forest habitat and prevent a destructive development from further polluting a watershed that serves so many people.”
The police department is building the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, known as Cop City, on 85 acres of the South River Forest. Stormwater discharge from the construction of the police training facility would further degrade the nearby watershed, destroy wildlife habitat and harm public health.
The 3,500-acre forest protects the headwaters of Georgia’s largest and most biologically diverse watershed, which supplies drinking water to millions of people downstream. It is also home to more than 175 species of wildlife, including the Michaux’s sumac, a federally endangered plant, and the Altamaha shiner, a state threatened fish.
The city has called South River Forest “one of Atlanta’s lungs,” providing clean air and a contiguous canopy of shaded, protected lands within the heavily developed beltway. As the world’s fourth-largest urban area, Atlanta loses more than 50 acres of tree cover per day because of development.
Permanent protection of South River Forest as a public park would unite the network of natural, historic and cultural features in the area. Such protections already have widespread public and local government support. In its 2017 city charter, the city called for the permanent protection of the forest.
Frontline communities of Southeast Atlanta are leading the charge to protect the South River Forest. Residents of the South River watershed have suffered through decades of massive sewage spills and industrial waste dumping. A permanently protected forest would address long-standing social and environmental justice concerns and dramatically improve community health.
The Muscogee people are the original inhabitants of the area and call the South River Forest Weelaunee, meaning “green.” Members of the Muscogee Creek Nation should be consulted in determining the forest’s future.