In February, Congress passed legislation to expand the boundary of the Ocmulgee National Monument and turn it into Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, as part of a larger public lands bill affecting over two million acres of our public lands nationwide. This important bill is the biggest piece of conservation legislation passed in years and has now been signed by President Donald Trump. In Middle Georgia, this achievement caps almost five years of concerted effort, over four separate Congresses, to enact the Ocmulgee part of the legislation into law. This legislative odyssey brought together many constituencies in both Georgia and Oklahoma, including the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and several other tribal governments. It also inspired bipartisan cooperation by local, state and national elected officials.
The Ocmulgee River is a special place, unique in the Southeast. It was once home to the ancient Mississippian civilization and its descendants, the historical Creek people. This area is recognized as one of America’s most important archaeological landscapes. The Ocmulgee was also an important way point in the expansion of the eastern frontier, marked by all of the tragedy and triumph of that early period in America’s history. Today, it is a critical migratory flyway and wildlife habitat, home to Middle Georgia’s black bear population and the largest block of forested habitat remaining in the upper coastal plain.
A great debt of gratitude is owed to Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, as well as Rep. Sanford Bishop and Rep. Austin Scott, for their leadership and perseverance in building the necessary consensus to advance this bill through Congress.
The new law does three things. First, the boundary of the park will be adjusted to include additional Native American cultural sites not protected at the park’s creation in the 1930s.
In 2017, a report titled “Diamond in the Rough” (www.npca.org/resources/3189-diamond-in-the-rough) was released by the National Parks Conservation Association, with generous support from the Knight Foundation, demonstrating that existing public lands along the river have a much greater potential value to the recreation and tourism economy than is currently being achieved. The Ocmulgee National Monument is already the region’s largest visitor attraction, with room for growth, soon to be realized by passage of this bill. Add to that the visitation potential of the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the state’s Wildlife Management Areas and the cumulative effect could be magnified even further.
And there is yet another opportunity that awaits to be harnessed. In December 2017, the Department of Defense designated a large swath of Georgia, from Fort Benning in the west to Fort Stewart in the east, including a total of nine military installations, as part of the nation’s Sentinel Landscape program (www.sentinellandscapes.org/about). This initiative is a collaboration with the departments of Interior and Agriculture to sustain military readiness and protect working lands and important wildlife habitats near military bases from fragmentation, development encroachment, and land use changes that are incompatible with military preparedness and mission capabilities.
It could also integrate and align with the Ocmulgee legislation’s authorized study of the river corridor, as well as existing state priorities from Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan, Forest Action Plan, Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, and revised Black Bear Management Plan, thereby strengthening many important regional assets at once.
Realizing the benefits of these interconnected opportunities will ultimately depend on the vision and initiative of local communities and their leaders.
Brian Adams is president of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative. Charles McMillan is the director of land conservation for the Georgia Conservancy. Chris Watson is senior program manager for the southeast region of the National Parks Conservation Association.