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30 Stories for 30 Years: Sustaining Georgia's Rural Beauty

Dr. John Willis joined the ORLT board in 2003. As a retired UGA biology professor, John brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the organization. We are so thankful for John’s generosity and thoughtfulness, and his many contributions over the years, ranging from his dedicated help in the field to the office. Below, John shares the origins of his environmental ethic and how he came to ORLT.

Growing up in southern California, I watched pastures and orange groves disappear under homes and businesses while new developments marched up the ever-steeper slide- and fire-prone slopes of the nearby mountains. As a student in the San Francisco Bay Area, I explored the regional parks that crown the encircling hills, preserved by common community consent across several counties and cities. As a research fellow in England, I encountered the even wider, national example of rural land preservation called the Green Belt Policy. Then, after settling in east central Illinois amidst endless horizons of corn and soybean production, I was again and chronically depressed at how little natural land had been preserved in favor of maximizing yield and - over the years - how even that famously rich black soil was disappearing under the margins of ever-expanding towns and villages.

So, with these experiences and images deeply ingrained, I moved to Georgia to find the conflict between development and preservation fully engaged; north Georgia felt like 1940-50s southern California again, but there was also strong citizen interest in sustaining Georgia’s rural beauty. And for 10 years Judy and I simply enjoyed that beauty – the mountains and valleys, coast and wetlands. We participated in Audubon, Broad River Watershed Association and UGA Environmental Ethicists and ultimately became members of ORLT. After a few years I was allowed to help Walter Cook with land work, mainly stumbling in his wake while carrying clipboards and occasionally 10-foot-long measuring poles. Recognizing my commitment rather than my field ability, he nominated me for board membership, where for the intervening 20 years I have found deep fulfillment in helping it achieve its goals.

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