Push is on to make Ocmulgee National Monument a national park

Special to the TelegraphDecember 2, 2013 

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Visitors tour the Ocmulgee National Monument in September.

JASON VORHEES — jvorhees@macon.com Buy Photo

Conservationists have been talking about expanding Macon’s Ocmulgee National Monument into a national park for years. But during the past two years, Middle Georgia leaders started talking about it too.

Then they quit talking and started doing something about it.

So far, the recent purchase of 679 acres of pristine, riverfront land near Bond Swamp was the most high-profile step in the effort. But it’s not the first step, and more are in the works.

The nonprofit Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, which has led the charge, was founded about 18 months ago under the leadership of Macon attorney Brian Adams. Mercer University law school students, taught by longtime conservation advocate Jack Sammons, helped set it up.

The nonprofit has teamed with the National Parks Conservation Association and economic development leaders on expanding the monument from its current 702 acres in Bibb County to potentially thousands of acres between Macon and Hawkinsville.

“We’re sitting on what could be an economic development gold mine,” said Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb Urban Development Authority and a member of the Park and Preserve board. “The significance of having a national park cannot be overstated.”

Local economic development groups have ponied up money toward a study of the park’s boundary, the first step in expanding it, as well as for buying property on the Coliseum Drive side of the monument to create a more visible entrance to the park. One of the next steps will be to study the economic impact a national park could have on the region.

The shape of preservation

Already the Ocmulgee corridor from Macon to Hawkinsville includes thousands of acres of preserved land owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Brown’s Mount), Bibb County, the state of Georgia (multiple properties, including the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area), and Robins Air Force Base.

These lands are home to one of just three black bear populations in Georgia, as well as bald eagles and rare plant communities. They also feature many historic Creek and prehistoric archaeological sites. The ancient mounds at the national monument are only the largest and best known of the mounds in the area, one of the earliest human settlements in North America.

The various agencies that manage these lands met for the first time in June to discuss closer coordination, and a second meeting is planned for January, said Chris Watson with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Andrew Hammond, who is manager of the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge as well as Bond Swamp and Brown’s Mount, said the June meeting was helpful. But he doesn’t have specific goals for future collaboration.

“I don’t know about one overarching agency to be in charge” of all that land, he said, but a single agency promoting all the public lands along the river probably would help.

“It would be good if we could have a common group to represent these different entities, if you want to buy land or approach national groups for funding.”

Adams and others say they are open to creating some other approach to preserving the corridor under a single management structure, but the park and preserve idea seems the most promising.

A decade ago, soon after a timber company sold off key properties along the river to developers, a Middle Georgia river partnership group formed to protect this river corridor. But the effort fizzled.

That was partly because of disagreements between national park advocates and hunters who love the same land, Watson said. But he and Morrison emphasized that the “park and preserve” approach, which has been used extensively in Alaska and elsewhere, eliminates those conflicts by designating some areas for hunting.

“The ‘and preserve’ is a huge distinction, and one that bolsters the effort and gives more economic opportunities for businesses that serve hunters,” Morrison said.

Robins Air Force Base could end up being a key player, too. To protect the base’s ability to take on new missions, Bibb County is buying nearby residential property. Adams said it’s possible some of that land could become part of the park and preserve project.

“This is one of the best things we can do to support the (Base Realignment and Closure) process,” under which the Air Force periodically decides which bases to close, Adams said.

Raising the profile

Adams, who previously owned Macon’s first canoe rental company, said the early focus for park boosters has been building support for the existing national monument.

Partly to raise the park’s profile, local park officials have long discussed adding an entrance on the Coliseum Drive side of the park. But the National Park Service has not budgeted the funds.

The Urban Development Authority isn’t waiting.

Morrison said the authority already has bought three properties off Clinton Street and is negotiating to buy more, with the intent to create a highly visible, attractive entrance to the existing monument.

“That would allow more direct, fluid access that is closer to the convention center and the interstate,” he said. “We are also exploring the option to have an unofficial visitors center to let the tourists know what’s there.”

Local foundations have donated to the effort: The Peyton Anderson Foundation put up the $815,000 needed to preserve key land next to Bond Swamp when it was auctioned last month, and the Knight Foundation and Community Foundation have donated about $22,000 together to the park and preserve initiative, Adams said.

The Knight Foundation also has expressed interest in helping with an economic impact study. That study, planned for early next year, would evaluate the current economic impact of the public lands in the Ocmulgee corridor and predict the impact of a combined national park in the same area, Watson said.

“An economic development study will be key to going to politicians and leaders and saying, ‘Hey, this (park) is a no-brainer,’” Adams said.

Boundary survey

Morrison and Adams say momentum to expand the park is greater now than in the past, partly because the boundary survey may demonstrate more emphasis on Ocmulgee at the federal level.

The Archaeological Conservancy has been holding 300 preserved acres to donate to the monument for about 20 years, but for various reasons the park service would not consider expanding the park.

But with the help of $50,000 contributed by the Development Authority of Bibb County and $25,000 from the Community Foundation, the park service is now conducting a boundary study that should be finished soon. (The park service supplied the remaining $85,000 needed for the study.)

However, that study still envisions the park’s boundaries as notably smaller than what local leaders are contemplating.

For the most part, land not included in the study can’t be added unless a new boundary survey replaces this one, said Jim David, superintendent of the national monument.

The results of the current study probably won’t be made public for several more months, almost a year later than originally anticipated.

However, David said the boundary includes “the vast majority” of the Muscogee Indians’ Traditional Cultural Property east of the Ocmulgee River. The only federally recognized Traditional Cultural Property east of the Mississippi, the area is considered the cradle of Creek Indian civilization.

The survey includes only Bibb County properties whose owners expressed a willingness to sell.

Half to 60 percent of the land within the boundary study is privately owned, David said. Eminent domain will not be used to expand the park.

Unlike the Park and Preserve Initiative, the boundary study doesn’t contemplate combining federally owned lands such as Bond Swamp and the monument.

“There was no sense for us to include (Bond Swamp) in this study since it’s already publicly protected,” David said.

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