Sandy Springs naturalist Alan Toney admits to a fondness for box turtles.
“They’re just pretty cool little animals,” he said. “They just don’t handle cars or lawn mowers very well.”
His affection for the reptiles started when he was about 12. This was back during the 1950s, in the days Lake Lanier was just filling up. His dad liked to take the family boating there. As the younger Toney watched Lanier’s water rise over time, he was startled by what he saw.
“I realized things were drowning,” he said. “Things like box turtles. We rescued 169 box turtles, my dad and brother and I. I ended up keeping about 20 of them.… When I got to 14 or 15 and discovered girls, I let my turtles go.”
Toney grew up in Buckhead’s Garden Hills. He spent hours playing in the lake now known as the Duck Pond. He found turtles there, too. “I lived in the Duck Pond. I was there about every day,” Toney recalls.
At age 72, Toney now has a pair of dogs as pets. But he hasn’t given up on seeing the natural world up close and doing what he can to try to save it from disappearing beneath floods of people and the cars and lawn mowers they bring with them when they move into newly developed areas.
“I love nature. I think nature sort of makes us who we are,” he said one recent morning during a stroll through Lost Corner Preserve, a 24-acre woodland park near Toney’s present home in Sandy Springs. “If you live in an isolated world of buildings and air-conditioning, you just miss a lot. I think you’re unhappy, too. We need to make sure [nature’s] protected. Right now, it’s under siege …what you can do locally is really important.”
Locally, Toney does a lot. He chairs the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, which is charged with protecting soil and water resources; has been trained as a naturalist and lectures at Lost Corner on Sandy Springs’ natural history; serves as treasurer of the Friends of Lost Corner, which supports the preserve; and collects water samples each week for testing by the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.
“He’s been of our most active volunteers with Chattahoochee River over the past eight years,” said Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth, who’s also a member of the board of the soil and water conservation district and says he’s known Toney for about 15 years. “The amount of work Alan contributes has been invaluable for us in terms of getting data.”
Ulseth said that since 2012 Toney has collected more water samples – something like 1,400 of them – than any of the Riverkeeper’s other 100-or-so volunteers. “It’s vital work for us,” he said. “Without people like Alan, we wouldn’t half of what we know about these waterways.”
Toney, who’s retired from a career in corporate finance, stays in close contact with nature in other ways, too. For five or six recent winters, he’s headed west to Yellowstone National Park to watch the ecosystem there after the re-introduction of wolves in the park. He enjoys studying ecosystems, he said, and learning how the animals interact. At Yellowstone, he said, he’s sighted wolves, eagles, bears, beavers, otters and bighorn sheep.
In Sandy Springs, his lectures about the local eco-system often start with a reference to Appalachiosaurus, a dinosaur that may have roamed the area millennia ago. But, he said, discussion often turns quickly to more familiar scary creatures, copperheads and coyotes.
Figure you have both in your neighborhood, he said. His advice: for the most part, leave them alone. They’re part of the system. They eat rats and other rodents. Besides, he said, most people bitten by a venomous snake were trying to kill the snake at the time. And coyotes? “If they’re not causing trouble, leave them alone,” he said. “If they’re not eating your cats or harassing your dogs, they’ll keep other coyotes away.”
One recent Thursday, Toney carried a plastic bag down the hill to the creek that runs through Lost Corner. He wore a fisherman’s getup: Georgia Naturalist cap, shorts and a yellow rain jacket. The early spring sun shone brightly and birds carried on conversations in the trees. Toney said he was near a place he’d seen a turtle laying its eggs.
Falling Branches Creek was to be his first stop of the day. He planned to collect water samples from a half-dozen creeks and the Chattahoochee by day’s end. He takes the little bags of water to the Riverkeeper’s office for testing. It’s something he does every week.
It’s paid off. Samples he’s collected from local waterways have helped identify and locate four or five sewage spills that were damaging the creeks, he said. “Why do it?” he asked. “I don’t understand why people wouldn’t be concerned about water quality. Unless somebody’s doing it, water quality will suffer.”
And he wants these creeks to stay healthy. “My goal,” he said, “is to keep these creeks so my grandson can come play in them the same way I did.”
Joe Earle is editor-at-large at Reporter Newspapers and has lived in metro Atlanta for over 30 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org