Our campers have left the mountains and are moving into the Piedmont. Sky, Brook, Forrest, and Sunny have set up camp next to a lake and, after sitting quietly a while, begin to see animals appear for their evening feeding. . . .

Where are we?

The Piedmont Region lies in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and hosts a variety of ecosystems. It extends all the way from New York to Alabama and covers much of Georgia.

The Piedmont is known for its weathered, nutrient-poor soils. Before the early 1800s, the region was covered in hardwood forests and a thick, nutrient-rich topsoil. The Creek Indians utilized a relatively sustainable
system of farming, creating significant impacts on forests and landscapes but also keeping their population within limits. With the arrival of European settlers, agriculture expanded quickly, with forests being cleared and cotton being grown in almost any place that was flat enough to plow. This exposed the land to erosion and leaching of nutrients, causing the valuable topsoil to wash away. By the 1930s the soil was tired and spent. Small farms went out of business and cotton fields were abandoned.

Pine trees are the first to come back when a field is abandoned, because they are tolerant of sunlight and dry conditions. Forestry became the main form of agriculture instead of cotton farming, and so the forests of the Piedmont were replaced by a forest dramatically simplified from those that existed a hundred years earlier.

Urban growth between 1930 and 1960 also brought changes to the Piedmont. When cities get bigger and little thought is given to environmental effects, the land is paved with impermeable surfaces and drainage patterns are changed. Habitats become isolated and fragmented, which has negative effects on genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.

So what's up with waste?

The Georgia Piedmont is an ecological system, which means it has parts that all need to work together. If one part of the system becomes unbalanced it can cause trouble for the rest. Where does waste fit in? We all know littering is bad, but there are other kinds of waste that can effect an ecosystem. The two main types of waste are biodegradable and non- biodegradable. Biodegradable waste, like food remains, can be broken down through natural processes and used by other organisms. Non- biodegradable waste, like most household detergents and industry effluents, can't be easily assimilated by the environment and become toxic to many organisms, making long-term trouble.

Sometimes waste that you think is good can be bad. For example, dairy farms create a lot of manure, which is very rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen is good for soil, but when there's too much in one place, it can get washed into lakes and rivers and exceed the assimilative capacity of the water body. There it can cause an algae bloom which takes oxygen from the water and kills fish and other aquatic life. See? One part of the system becomes unbalanced and it causes trouble in another part.

Sunny: Shhh! Look over there on the shore of the lake. Some animals are jumping in and out of the water, like they're playing. What are they?

Sky: Hey, I think those are river otters! I was reading about them . . . they have dense fur that makes them almost waterproof, and they spend a lot of time catching fish but they also like to play. I think these are just playing around. Wow. . . .

Sunny: Well, they'd better find their dinner soon, the sun's starting to set. Look at the sky, it's so red. Hey, Sky, you've got the right name, do you know why it turns red when the sun sets?

Sky: Sure, it's the atmosphere. There's always a little dust in the sky, but when the sun is setting, its light has to travel through a lot more of the atmosphere. The dust colors it red.

Brook: Yeah, but why aren't sunsets redder in Georgia? We've got all this red dirt, seems like the dust in the air would be redder too. When I get back to my computer I'm gonna Google that one.

Forrest: Okay, I see some animals I recognize. Over there, lizards and I think a turtle, catching the last of the sun.

Sunny: Well, that makes sense. They're both reptiles, so they're cold-blooded.

Forrest: Their blood is cold?

Sunny: When it's cold out, yes, but when it's warm their blood is warm. Humans and other mammals are warm-blooded, which means we can change our temperature. When we get in our sleeping bags tonight, after a while we'll feel warm, cause our bodies can make heat. Reptiles have to depend on other sources like sunlight to get warm. That's why snakes lie on warm rocks after the sun goes down. Snakes are reptiles just like lizards and turtles.

Brook: Hey, there's a raccoon! Mammal, right?

Sunny: Yep, just like us.

Forrest: What's a raccoon doing way out here? I see them in our backyard sometimes, figured they only lived in town.

Sunny: In town?! No, most raccoons live in the woods, but they've done a good job adapting to living near humans.

Sky: What do you mean?

Sunny: I mean, there's been a lot of changes in Georgia in the last 100 years or so. A lot more people, more houses, more cities. Different kinds of animals live in different habitats. When people move in, habitats become smaller or disappear, and the animals have to adapt or move somewhere else. This raccoon eats things like fruit, acorns and insects, but his cousin in the city might eat vegetables from your garbage can or thrown out dog food. They've learned to adapt their behavior.

Brook: Why is it always up to the animals to adapt? Why don't we humans adapt sometimes, learn to get along better with nature?

Forrest: You mean, why don't we try to fit into the ecosystem better? Wow, that's a good one. Maybe it's just easier to live wherever we want and let nature worry about itself. Who's in charge of that anyway?

Sunny: I don't know, I guess there're laws and stuff about where people can build, and more laws to protect the land and wildlife. At least I hope there are. . . .

Forrest: When we get home I'm going to find out. Maybe I'll write a letter to my congressperson.

Sky: You? You're a kid! Who's going to listen to you?

Forrest: I'll bet they'll listen! I may be a kid but I'm learning about the environment and I have opinions. Anyway, it doesn't hurt to try. Maybe we can all write a letter together.

Sunny: Okay, but all this serious talk is making me hungry and tired. What'ya say we eat some dinner and hit the sack?

After a good night's sleep, our campers are leaving the Georgia Piedmont and now it's on to the Coastal Plain. You come too!