Forum on Ocmulgee National Monument expansion draws crowd

pramati@macon.comMarch 6, 2014 

Officials with the Ocmulgee National Monument took the next step Thursday in a process that could lead to expansion of the park.

In a public meeting to release results of a study about expanding the monument, park Superintendent Jim David explained the results of the two-year study that could -- if ultimately approved by Congress -- add as much as 2,100 acres to the monument’s existing 702 acres. Such an expansion would connect the main part of the monument to the Lamar Mounds.

“Back in 1934, (the federal government) talked about this being a 2,000-acre property,” David said. “But money was tight, and it was not able to come to fruition.”

The public has until March 21 to comment on the plan, which has been boiled down to choices: Either do nothing and leave the monument as it is, or acquire the land and expand the monument’s boundaries.

David and other officials told a standing-room-only audience packed into a large tent that some of the land in question already is being held for the monument by the Archaeology Conservancy, while other pieces of land are currently owned by Macon-Bibb County or the state’s Department of Transportation.

David said private properties within the boundaries who are willing to sell their property would be offered fair market value for the land but that landowners unwilling to sell wouldn’t be subjected to eminent domain or condemnation claims.

David said expanding the monument would provide protection against encroachment and preserve the property’s cultural heritage. According to the law, the land must be suitable for inclusion in the monument, be feasible to administer and be another alternative when management and resource protections aren’t adequate, David said.

While there is a local effort to expand the monument even further and turn it into a national park, David said the boundary study is a separate issue.

However, those who support the idea of turning the monument into a national park said they think expanding the monument is the proper first step that will only help their efforts.

“It helps. It would be a big first step,” said Steve Johnson, 50, a Mercer University law professor who serves on the board of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preservation Initiative. “The land (expansion) ideally would be bigger, but this is a feasible first step without having to go through the bigger legislative process. I’m happy with the turnout tonight.”

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Robert Reichert and NewTown Macon President and CEO Mike Ford both support the initiative to expand the monument.

“I’m behind it 100 percent,” Reichert said. “It would bring in an enormous amount of greenspace inside the city.”

Reichert said there’s also a tourism, economic and preservation benefits.

Ford said the NewTown board will meet Wednesday to discuss the plan to expand the monument, but he said he’s confident the board would be supportive.

“It helps retain the culture history of the Indians and Native Americans in this area,” he said.

David told those in attendance Thursday that he has been talking regularly with the 12 Indian tribes with cultural ties to the monument, and so far they are in favor of expanding the monument.

Many of those in attendance Thursday were Macon residents hoping to learn details about a possible expansion.

“I live across the street and I need to know what’s going on,” said James Patterson, 70, who is retired from Norfolk-Southern Railroad. “I’m not familiar at all with this plan.”

“I think this is a great project,” said Ellen Begley, 23, a Mercer law student who added that the monument is one of the things she loves most about Macon. “I want to learn more about it.”

Members of the public who wish to comment may download the document from the National Park Service’s Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at www.parkplanning.nps.gov. Copies also are available for review at the monument.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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