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 fish 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, but tropical storms washed out a berm in 2004. Airport engineers then changed plans to make the habitat naturally sustainable long term.
"The whole concept of wetland mitigation has changed. We went from a very man-controlled environment to the design you see today, which is much more working with nature, much less maintenance for the conservancy," Masters said. "It will just work with the natural ebb and flow of the seasons."
Airport workers will return to the sanctuary this winter when water levels lower to plant trees than can live in wetlands, such as willows. The airport also has also committed to monitor the sanctuary for five years to ensure wildlife and the new trees flourish, Masters said.
Southern Conservation Trust, a community land trust, owns and maintains the property donated by the Ferrol Sams family of Fayetteville 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."
Army Corps of Engineers programs manager Arch Middleton said thousands of corporations, including airports, have taken on similar wetland restoration projects nationwide in accordance with federal law.