On a beautiful morning Tuesday, John Trussell climbed 14 flights of questionable wooden stairs to what may the best view in Middle Georgia.
It was the top of the old fire tower at Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in Houston County. Just more than a decade ago Trussell led a successful effort to save Oaky Woods from development, and now he wants to save the fire tower, which was built in the 1950s.
It represents another era of wildfire prevention, when forest rangers stood watch for fires in the top of the tower. Around 1980 that duty started to be taken over by watchers in aircraft, and most of the towers have sat empty. Many have been torn down. The only other one Trussell knows of in the area is in Crawford County.
The iron base of an old chair where the lookout would have sat is still in the Oaky Woods tower, along with an old fire extinguisher. The windows of the 7-foot-square watch platform were broken out years ago by vandals.
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Trussell is trying to get the state, county or private donors to put up about $5,000 it would take to fix up the tower. That would include replacing the windows, rebuilding the watch platform and replacing the wooden stairs. Although the tower would never be open for the general public to climb at will, Trussell said it could be open for supervised visits. Only a few people at a time could go up there, but it would be a worthwhile climb.
“You get a great view up here,” Trussell said after pointing out various landmarks in the vast panorama. “This is a great spot. ... It’s a very special place in Oaky Woods.”
The towers of Plant Scherer in Monroe County, about 60 miles away, are visible from the tower. The tower itself is 110-feet tall, for a total elevation above sea level of about 690 feet. The elevation of Warner Robins, by comparison, is 360 feet.
Last year Trussell successfully got the tower listed as a “historical fire tower” by the Forest Fire Lookout Association.
Oaky Woods still a hidden gem to many
The state has operated Oaky Woods as a wildlife management area since 1966, but for many years it was privately owned and leased to the state. In 2007 the state had a chance to buy it at auction, but then Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Houston County native, passed on the chance citing budget constraints. It then fell into the hands of developers who wanted to put up to 30,000 homes there.
But Trussell formed Save Oaky Woods, and the grass roots efforts took off. In 2010 the state finally agreed to purchase 10,015 acres of Oaky Woods for $28.5 million. That was about half of the land owned by the developers.
Trussell recently published a book about the effort, called “Saving Oaky Woods.” It is available on Amazon and can also be purchased at the website, saveoakywoods.com.
“A private citizen can get a lot done if they are dedicated and work hard,” he wrote in the book. “I believe everyone should work for the things they believe in as our present civilization is built upon the work and sacrifices of the preceding generations.”
His challenge at the time was that Oaky Woods was known mostly only to hunters. It is available for hiking and camping, but few people outside of hunters went there. As people learned about the natural history of the area, which was the bottom of the ocean in prehistoric times, public support grew for saving it.
In the midst of the effort to save Oaky Woods, a scout leader on a tour found a whale bone. It was such a substantial find -- and argument for protecting the land -- that in his book, Trussell called the discovery “a miracle.”
The area, however, might be best known as the primary home of Middle Georgia’s black bear population, estimated to be about 300.
In the years since the state bought it, Trussell has continued to promote awareness of Oaky Woods. He guides a tour each year, and one is coming up Feb. 16. Anyone interested in going can call him at 478-953-9320.
He is also working to raise funds to put a portable toilet in the primitive camping area, to hopefully draw more people to camp there. Camping is free with a hunting or fishing license.
“We are very blessed to have Oaky Woods,” Trussell said. “It’s the closest thing we will have to a national park in Houston County. We are in a good place and it has a very bright future.”
Bobby Tuggle, 84, hunted in Oaky Woods starting in the 1960s and was closely involved in the effort to save it. He has read Trussell’s book, and said Trussell did a good job capturing the history and importance of the property. Tuggle hopes the state will add to it with the purchase of additional land in the future.
“It’s one of the unique large parts of Houston County that’s still wilderness,” Tuggle said. “Being able to preserve and keep it for people to see and enjoy is great, and the history is very, very fascinating. He has brought that out in his book.”
Frank Sorrells, chief of the forest protection for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said there are a few fire towers still in operation across the state. He has served as a lookout.
“You are pretty isolated,” he said. “You have to be in constant observation. A lot of people think you could just go up there and read books all day but that is not the case.”