Atlanta airport opens wetlands, bird sanctuary

The world's busiest airport has taken time to transform a dried lake bed into a serene 56.5-acre sanctuary nestled 15 miles south of the bustle.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport quietly opened the Sams Lake Bird Sanctuary park in Fayette County in September with the help of the Southern Conservation Trust.

“The idea of man creating wetlands is a very new and modern idea,” said Kathryn Masters, the airport's lead engineer on the $5 million restoration project. “It is going to be fun to watch it grow over the next 20 years.”

Federal law required the airport to complete the wetlands restoration project after constructing its fifth runway, which paved through 14 acres in the Flint Basin. The Clean Water Act mandates the restoration of every acre of wetlands disturbed by infrastructure development. The Army Corps of Engineers gave the airport a permit to restore Sams Lake.

The project features a reconstructed stream, wooden bat houses, three observation decks, a half-mile mulch walking trail and a gravel parking lot. Three dams made of car-size rocks and packed with dirt have created three ponds where bass and nesting birds now live.

Since construction ended, wildlife has quickly filled in the land. Southern Conservation Trust director Abby Jordan said she has seen deer, turkeys, hawks, blue herons, crows, bats, egrets, snakes and toads.

The restoration began five years ago, Masters said.

Airport workers will return to the sanctuary this winter when water levels lower to plant trees that can live in wetlands, such as willows. Southern Conservation Trust, a community land trust, owns and maintains the property donated by the Ferrol Sams family of Fayetteville, Ga., where the airport is located, in 1997.

Jordan said the sanctuary certified by the National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society is open to the public at no charge from dawn to dusk daily.

“This reflects the airport's commitment to environmental management,” said airport spokesman Albert Snedeker. “It is constructed in such a way that it complements Mother Nature.”