Opinion Columns & Blogs

Something very special and overdue is about to happen to Macon’s Ocmulgee park

Hundreds of people on Aug. 8, 2017, took advantage of the Ocmulgee National Monument view to watch the solar eclipse.
Hundreds of people on Aug. 8, 2017, took advantage of the Ocmulgee National Monument view to watch the solar eclipse. bcabell@macon.com

If you only read the headlines out of Washington, it would be easy to think not much is getting done that affects local communities. But something remarkable is happening in Macon. Due to the energy and commitment of a broad community coalition, over the last 21 months a bill to strengthen and expand the Ocmulgee National Monument into a National Historical Park has been slowly but steadily making its way through Congress.

In 1934, Congress recognized the rich historical and archaeological importance of Macon’s Indian Mounds by creating the Ocmulgee National Monument. Contemporary Muscogee (Creek) people trace their ancestry to the ancient Mississippian civilization that farmed the Ocmulgee River’s floodplain terraces and built large earthen mounds between 900 and 1650. The area also played a significant role in the nation’s early frontier history and today is noteworthy for its rich wildlife resources. More than 200 species of birds, 80 species of reptiles and amphibians, 100 species of fish and 50 species of mammals (including Middle Georgia’s unique black bear population) call the forests along the Ocmulgee River home.

Expanding Ocmulgee into a National Historical Park would honor the story of the native peoples of the Southeast, protect more of Middle Georgia’s unique history and natural features and enhance the region’s cultural and heritage tourism assets. Tourism to the Ocmulgee National Monument offers significant economic benefits – in 2017, 157,000 park visitors spent an estimated $9 million in the surrounding gateway communities – and that economic impact would increase with the expansion.

As recently pointed out by the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce, the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park Boundary Revision Act (HR 538/S 135) is part of an emerging regional vision for Middle Georgia that seeks to integrate timely preservation of the best historical and natural features with the active promotion of a growing travel and tourism economy.

The exceptional history of the Ocmulgee region has brought together diverse leaders in conservation, tourism and the business community to ensure that this special place is enhanced, protected, and showcased for the entire nation. The Ocmulgee expansion is an effort that transcends politics, as exemplified by the outstanding work of Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) and Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) to secure passage of the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2017.

In May 2018, the bill was approved by the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, but has since been held up by unrelated disputes in Congress. We now stand near the finish line with just a few weeks to go to get this important legislation enacted before the end of the current Congress.

The Ocmulgee coalition has done an exceptional job of bringing together diverse grassroots voices to speak up on behalf of this unique national treasure. Now we need Georgia’s Senators to make the Ocmulgee expansion a top priority in the final weeks of the 115th Congress and ensure that this bill is enacted into law.

Gary Wheat is president and CEO of Visit Macon. Kyle Lee is the director of Tourism and Recreation for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.