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Staff Editorials

Tourism may help local economy but our plans must be realistic

Tourism in Pickens County has reared its lovely head again, crooning a siren song that this is the key to our economic prosperity. Several events have just arrived together, pushing tourism to forefront attention. Those include the March debut of Gibbs Gardens on Yellow Creek Road (900 visitors in one day its second week); the announcement that BRAG will again bring more than 1,000 bicycling tourists and their families this June; plus a second annual Jasper ArtFest coming this spring.

And we will just have to wait and see what impact the filming of movie scenes at Jasper City Park for a Clint Eastwood film may bring. The director is shooting the movie in bits and pieces all over Georgia.

Based on the writings of local merchant Royce Haley, scribe of “Eclectic Finds” (on page 2A this week and last), even with no organized attraction here, a lot of traveler commerce is landed locally simply by operating an attractive storefront beside Highway 53. As Haley notes, much of his Burnt Mountain Trading Company’s revenue arrives here in the pockets of people just out for a ramble.

There is certainly a lot to be said for tourism as an industry. It is extremely clean. And customers leave at the end of the day, which means they won’t be needing classrooms here for their children or fire protection for their homes.

So we hope tourism does come to play a bigger role in this county’s financial well being. But to create more opportunity here in that line, we still have some work to do. In an emperor-has-no-clothes moment, we point out Pickens still has no bona fide attraction.

There are some nice features here, including the Sharptop Arts Center, the Marble Festival, the Old Jail/Cabin and some fine eateries. But ask yourself, compared with what is out there across the state, how far would you drive for what this county currently offers? Our bet is not that far.

We’re a nice place to live, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to visit as things stand now.

The newly formed Four Corners Consortium aims to link Pickens County and surrounding counties in an effort to create more of an area approach. This is good. For Pickens, being in the middle of some good things, like Gibbs Gardens on one side and the Booth Museum/Indian mounds at Cartersville on the other, should surely increase our tourist traffic.

But for all those tuned up to sing the praises of tourism, here are some questions or points we hope you will consider.

• We are currently a “drive-through” area. People may not come here as a destination, but plenty pass through, even if it is only to reach Blue Ridge. Having attractive roadsides, signage and businesses that might lure someone to stop a while could help us develop those tourist dollars, even if we never add another attraction.

• Sunday is more important for tourist dollars than we previously believed. One thing Mr. Haley’s column reveals is that Sunday is a very strong day for anyone relying on tourist bucks. Event organizers and business owners may want to give more emphasis to Sundays. Throughout spring, Saturdays are booked solid with multiple events going on at the same time on many weekends. How about a few brave souls to try Sunday afternoons this year?

• They may not be tourists in the normal sense, but let’s not forget there are a lot of shoppers and diners out in the Henderson Mountain area and living around Four Mile Church. A tourism plan to target people within 20 miles would find a surprising number who currently venture outside Pickens without giving establishments here a fair chance.

We are optimistic tourism could play a significant role in the future around here, but we’d throw in a dash of realism, saying there are considerable challenges still to overcome with that.


What kudzu should have taught us about tilapia

When folks back in 1883 first introduced kudzu to the southern United States, they had noble intentions. The kudzu vine served a lot of purposes from shading patios to erosion control and as vittles for cows. At the time, bringing it here seemed like a good idea.

But as we all now know, kudzu’s reputation morphed from fame to infamy in less than a century, with the plant that was once recommended by the Soil Erosion Service eventually being relegated to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997.

Now kudzu (a.k.a. the vine that ate the South) covers millions of acres in the southeastern United States, rendering areas impassable for anything but billy goats or bulldozers.

Apparently Georgia lawmakers have not thought about  kudzu lately. They seem to have forgotten that introducing non-native species into ecosystems does not always turn out as expected.

While the kudzu problem is not life threatening, it is ample evidence that legislators should not tinker with nature. If you need more, consider the numerous nature shows about Burmese Pythons––former pet snakes now over-running  Florida.

Ignoring this potential for troublesome results, a  bill is being considered under the Gold Dome that would open our state for tilapia farming. The bill would legalize stocking of the non-native tilapia fish in farm ponds and would classify tilapia as a domestic species. This effort turns a blind eye to history and places our waters and native fish at unnecessary risk while likely gaining but little benefit.

Four state senators introduced the bill. One was John Wilkinson of Toccoa, who told reporters he spearheaded the legislation, because there were constituents interested in raising tilapia in their ponds. Apparently, bass in ponds stocked with tilapia grow larger. Assumedly, they bulk up on small fry tilapia.

We’re sure having a bigger bass to hang over the sofa could reel in some bragging rights for sport fishermen, if everything goes as planned. But what are the chances stocked tilapia will stay inside the ponds? Environmental groups such as the Georgia River Network aren’t buying it. They (and we) think the natural world is too unpredictable to control, and we say don’t take that chance just for bigger trophy fish.  Remember the  movie, Jurassic Park, and Jeff Goldblum’s line just after he realized the dinosaurs were mating and reproducing? He said, “Life will find a way.” Well, we think tilapia will find a way just as other invasive species in the South have, species such as Chinese privet and mimosa trees.

What happens if our waterways flood and tilapia make their way from farm ponds into Georgia’s rivers and streams? Ecologists say tilapia mate in warm waters, and the species is fast growing, that they breed rapidly and can withstand poor water quality. On its website, The Georgia Rivers Coalition cites a study out of the University of Georgia that found tilapia will survive temperatures above mid-50 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning the species can “live in 8 out of 10 south Georgia winters and in any spring-fed portion of a river or warm water discharge.”

Tilapia also like to dig, which could create brackish water and threaten plant and animal species that need more light to thrive. Tilapia are even listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's 100 of the World's Worst Alien Invasive Species list, and some ecologists call them the “kudzu fish.” To us, bringing them here sounds like a pan-fried recipe for disaster.

While the consequences are not certain, introducing tilapia here has the potential to threaten native Georgia river fish like crappie and bream and Redbreast sunfish. The chance of producing bigger bass is just not worth the risk. The bill has already passed the Georgia Senate and needs approval from the House before it becomes law, so encourage your representative to vote no to SB 360.


Walking and thinking

By Damon Howell

Photo Editor

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I woke up Saturday morning with a pain in my back so I decided to walk out the kinks.

I’ve always wondered how long it would take me to walk to town from my house off of  Price Creek Road. I knew it was a little over seven miles.

Down Burnt Mountain Road I strolled with no arrival time in mind. I simply said to myself, “I’ll get there sometime today.”

Beforehand I figured I’d have plenty of time for thinking, but once I got on (Burnt Mountain Road) Hwy. 136, it became very clear that most of that quiet time would be interrupted by passing cars. The majority were courteous enough to slow down as they passed. My nerves appreciate courteous drivers.

Some things I did think about when I wasn’t dodging traffic:

• My pace seemed good until I got about two miles out of town, when I started slowing down, mainly because I’m in terrible shape, I guess. Or it could be that I didn’t have anything to eat before I left.

• It’s easy to fall into a routine life. Getting out and doing something out of the ordinary is healthy.

• It’s a shame Burnt Mountain Road is so littered.

• Looks like we’re going to have a rock slide soon the way those cliffs look along the road. There are huge crevices where it looks like the cliff face is splitting apart and giant overhangs where some rocks have already been dislodged.

• The thunderstorm we had the night before I walked broke that beaver dam at the bottom of the hill going out of town.

• When I got to Mountain View Citgo and saw the price for gas was $3.80,  I thought to myself, “That sure is cheap”  - compared to the time and effort walking to town requires. I later figured I paid myself 23¢ an hour to walk instead of drive, figuring how long it took to walk and how much a gallon of gasoline costs.

• Hitching a ride entered my mind once I got to the entrance of Hunter’s Ridge on my way back home. I decided to stay on course and finish the walk, so I would truly appreciate the luxury of a vehicle when I got behind the wheel again.

• I thought a bicycle sure would’ve been nice on the downhills.

• You know that saying, “It’s about the journey, not the destination?” Well, it is true.

• I could not walk the Appalachian Trail when I’ve heard it takes 17 miles per day to do it in three months.

• I believe those old folks are fibbing when they tell about being kids and walking to school ten miles, uphill both ways, every day.

• Technology has made my day-to-day life so easy I don’t really engage all of my senses. Therefore I haven’t been fully “awake” and alert. The one thing I really enjoyed was seeing all the flowers and trees budding out for spring and hearing the birds (when there wasn’t traffic).

I miss all this stuff when I drive.

Keeping in mind I walked leisurely with no arrival time in mind, it took 2 hours and 45 minutes into town from my home off of Price Creek  Road and 3:20 going back.

Surprisingly I wasn’t sore the next day and probably could have done it again, but I don’t think I will.


In this case contraception is everyone’s responsibility


While we know many of the presidential candidates strongly disagree on the issue of contraception, in the case of spaying and neutering pets, we say it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Marking national SPAY Day (Feb. 28, just before the height of mating season), we remind you to show your pet some love by having them spayed or neutered. This not only saves lives but also improves your pet’s quality of life. We love our pets and know you probably love yours, too.

According to the Humane Society, nearly 4 million cats and dogs are put down in U.S. shelters each year. Here, the Pickens County Animal Shelter has taken in approximately 2,700 unwanted animals since its grand opening in March of last year. Of those animals, the shelter has adopted out 261 and relocated many others to rescue facilities. Unfortunately, just over 1,000 unwanted animals impounded at the shelter have been put down.

According to Pickens Animal Shelter Director Brandi Strawn, thus far in 2012, many of those euthanized animals were either sick, injured or aggressive. But during 2011, many were put down simply because the shelter needed the room.

“We just had so many animals coming in,” Strawn explained. She noted that while the beginning of 2012 has been on the “laid back side,” concerning animal intakes, right now is the slow season. Strawn expects the number of intakes to drastically increase in the spring.

Residents here often have at least a small amount of property or farmland where their dogs and cats can roam around outside. That seems fine as long as the animal is friendly. But having unspayed or un-neutered pets in the open, even if they are in a fenced-in backyard, is an invitation for disaster.

Cats can have, on average, three litters per year, with four to six kittens per litter. Dogs can have anywhere from one to four litters per year. If these offspring are not then spayed or neutered, the unwanted pet population can spiral out of control, leading to millions of unnecessary euthanizations, as we can see from the statistics above.

According to information provided by the Humane Society of the United States, two unaltered cats can lead to 420,000 cats in just seven years, while two unaltered dogs can result in 67,000 in six years.

The Humane Society also reports that six to eight million dogs and cats enter shelters each year. Of those, just three to four million are adopted, and 30 percent of dogs and two to five percent of cats are reclaimed by owners.

We know it is expensive, but beyond saving lives and improving your own pet’s life, we think it is actually easier on pet owners to spend the money and have their animal fixed up front, before the little fuzzballs start arriving.

Having a pet fixed makes life less stressful for the owner, who is otherwise forced to find homes for each new litter (which unfortunately means animals sometimes get dumped on the side of the road). For those owners who keep the additional pets around their home, it seems they would spend as much or more on food for extra kittens/puppies as they would on the spay/neuter cost. Beyond those issues, dealing with a pet in heat can be a stressor in itself.

Fortunately, vets often offer discounted spay/neuter rates at this time of year to help head off the pet overpopulation problem. Recently a few Jasper vets have run Progress ads advertising pet spay or neuter at low cost. So please, this spring, check around at local vets for a good price and have those pets spayed and neutered.

Also, we urge you to save a life by acquiring any new pet from the county shelter or from Pickens Animal Rescue, a no-kill facility that houses and adopts unwanted strays.

The shelter can be reached at 706-253-8988. Reach Animal Rescue at 706-692-2772.

Step lightly when weighing students

A few weeks ago we reported that schools in Georgia will have to change their mantras to “reading, writing, weighing and arithmetic.”

In Georgia, the SHAPE plan requires that PE teachers begin computing a body mass index to determine a student’s fitness. The information will be sent home with health tips in a “fitnessgram.”

This was one of our most discussed articles lately. The majority of the responses were negative, along the line of, “It’s not the state’s business to weigh kids.” But a vocal minority felt something must be done to combat childhood obesity if parents won’t do it themselves.

Both points of view are valid. And we  have arrived at a fence-straddling position honestly. There are many pros and cons with the weight assessments.

Ideally body fat isn’t something to be handled in the schools. In a utopia, parents provide veggies on the dinner table and use sharp sticks if necessary to get kids off the couch. But in reality, this doesn’t happen any more often than parents see to it that their kids reach kindergarten having been read to, enter high school with respect for teachers, or have structured environments to complete homework.

In theory, we agree schools shouldn’t be weighing students. In practice, however, public education may be the best avenue to address childhood obesity.

Assistant Superintendent Tommy Qualls noted in our original article that when he went to school report cards included the height and weight of the student, and it was no big deal.

Times have changed. In the first place, people have grown more sensitive about body issues, and they have reason to be more sensitive. The Institute of Medicine found childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past four decades.

In decades past, kids ate less fast food and got more exercise.  “In 1968, 80 percent of kids were active in sport activities everyday. That number is now 20 percent,” according to Helping Hands Outreach.

Putting height and weight on report cards wasn’t a big deal in our assistant superintendent’s day, as obesity among children wasn’t much of a problem then.

Now the problem is pronounced. Georgia is the second worst state in the nation for childhood obesity with 21 percent of kids here considered obese (Mississippi is number one).

And lest anyone think this is only about kids looking good in skinny jeans, Helping Hands Outreach found, “The calorie-dense, fatty, salt diet eaten by American children, combined with the serious lack of physical activity means that 25 percent of kids under 10 years of age have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or some other contributor of heart disease.  A new report has issued a stark warning that children’s lives will be shorter than their parent’s if this trend continues.”

Clearly this is an acute statewide problem that should be addressed. But, like those opposed to weigh-ins, we question whether commandeering campus time through mandatory requirements is the best approach. As noted by administrators and PE teachers, the tests will give parents a weight number and information. Seeing that healthier regimes are followed ultimately falls on parents who may ignore, get angry about or trash the fitnessgram.

Without getting parents on board, the tests will do nothing but hurt feelings. We also question the unintended consequences of school enforced weigh-ins. Will the results be something parents use to make changes, or will they just become ammunition for bullies? Even if weights are recorded in private, the fact that all students know the weigh-ins dates will lead to anxiety for obese students and the opportunity for insulting questions.

As the Pickens High PE teacher interviewed for the article expressed, we’ll hope that this program produces a community-wide increase in fitness and nutrition. For the kids’ sakes, it’s needed. But if this program isn’t well administered, it has the potential to devastate some students and produce no benefits for those who need it.

Georgia needs to tread lightly on this scale.