Ocmulgee Mounds expansion proposal close to completion

hduncan@macon.comDecember 21, 2012 

The Ocmulgee National Monument, which drew its 7 millionth visitor Friday, is close to finishing a boundary study that could result in significant expansion of the Macon park.

The monument, where ancient mounds mark one of the earliest areas of human settlement in North America, was created in 1934 and has been authorized to more than double its current size of 702 acres. The National Park Service hired a contractor, the Louis Berger Group, to study which surrounding property remains historically and culturally significant enough to include in the park and to investigate which of those landowners might be willing to donate or sell their land for that purpose, said Jim David, the park’s superintendent.

He said it looks like the park could include as much as 2,600 acres.

The contractor is expected to have a draft boundary study complete early next year, and a series of public meetings to receive feedback about it will probably be held starting in February. The study must be completed by March.

The study must answer a series of questions: Does the additional property contain resources that fit the reason the park was established? (“That’s an easy yes for us,” David said.) Is it economically feasibly for the park service to maintain? Are there other feasible methods for preservation?

The best news, David said, is that those who own the most significant properties in the “core area” for the expanded park are all willing to participate.

“That was very important,” he said. “I was very happy.”

The park service does not intend to use eminent domain to take property; it will only work with willing sellers, David said.

The Archeological Conservancy had already been holding more than 300 acres for years until the park service would accept the donation. But the service would not consider park expansion while there was still a possibility that the proposed Fall Line Freeway could divide the park, as proposed during the 1990s. During the past decade, that route fell into disfavor, and the entire Eisenhower Extension project has been eliminated from road plans.

Currently the main portion of the park is separated by private property from another small parcel that belongs to the park, the site of the only spiral mound in North America. David said the expanded boundary being considered would include only contiguous properties so the park forms a single chunk.

Once the public has commented on the draft, a final version will be submitted to regional park service managers for approval, and then to park service headquarters in Washington. David said he expects that approval process to be complete by summer. After that, expansion will require an act of Congress, and Georgia legislators would have to write and propose such a bill.

The park service already held one public comment period about expanding the boundary, receiving about 80 comments, all but one in support of expansion, David said.

Even if Congress approves expanding the park, that doesn’t mean it will provide funding. The boundary study does not include estimates of the cost for acquiring the additional property, David said. When the park was first established, Congress stipulated that no federal funds could be used to buy the land. Local supporters raised the money for the first land purchases.

“That could be the case again,” he said.

Enlarging the park could open the door to designating it as a national park rather than a monument. Even at 2,600 acres, it would probably be the smallest national park.

He said being a national park would increase visitation at the mounds, if only because people understand the nature and significance of a national park.

In comments to the park service, Walter Miller wrote on behalf of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce that “the entire Middle Georgia area stand(s) to benefit greatly from the higher visibility potential of an expanded park as well as from the potential of being named a national park. ... Our local tourism would receive quite a boost.”

Ocmulgee National Monument supporters already have tried to get the park’s name changed to “Ocmulgee Mounds National Monument,” because most Macon residents refer to the area as “the Indian mounds.”

“We have visitors who come here and say they had a problem finding us because when they asked for directions at a hotel or a gas station, nobody knew what the Ocmulgee National Monument was,” David said.

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall wrote a bill to rename it, which passed the House but not the Senate.

David asked the Macon-Bibb County Convention and Visitors Bureau to talk to the legislative delegation about reintroducing the idea. Valerie Bradley, communications manager for the bureau, said when bureau officials met with legislators last month, legislators agreed to support the effort, although no one committed to writing a bill.

There are 11 National Park Service-operated sites in Georgia, including several forts and battlefields, but no national parks.

“It would be great to have a national park in Macon and to have it connected to the riverwalk, to be able to run all the way from Amerson Park to the Ocmulgee National Monument,” said Chris Floore, director of public affairs for Macon. “Talk about a jewel of Macon and Bibb County.”

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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