The Story of Blue Ridge, The First WMA
It took vision, persistence and cooperation, and then this mountain land became a model for wildlife management.
The story about how Georgia’s first WMA was created is a rich blend of history, perseverance and vision. Being the first of its kind in the nation in which a partnership was formed between a state agency and the federal government, its creation in 1936 was a historic event and one of the Peach State’s most enduring conservation achievements.
By the late 1800s, the nation’s abundant natural resources had been exploited to shameful levels. Buffalo, once numbering in the tens of millions on the western plains, had been shot to the brink of extinction. Mining and timber interests had devastated many portions of the West. In the Southeast, heavy timbering of the virgin mountain forests began in the late 1800s after rail lines were brought into many inaccessible areas of the southern Appalachians. Erosion and silt debris threatened many of the rivers and streams.
Fortunately, a concerned handful of dedicated conservationists led by President Theodore Roosevelt began taking action to try to correct some of the sins of the past 100 years. In 1911, the Weeks Act was passed by Congress, providing federal funds to purchase and reclaim cutover lands east of the Mississippi. That same year, the newly organized U.S. Forest Service made its first land purchase within the state of Georgia, buying land from two wealthy sawmill owners named Andrew and Nat Gennett. The Gennett brothers owned a 31,000-acre tract in the Rock Creek and Noontootly Creek (today known as Noontootla Creek) area of Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin and Union counties.
Having paid around $1 an acre for the tract in the early 1900s, the brothers sold it to the federal government for the unheard of price of $7 per acre. Because of its remote location and poor access, much of the land still contained virgin timber, thus justifying the high price.
The Gennett tract, along with a 90,000-acre tract in North Carolina purchased from the wealthy Vanderbilt family that later became part of the Pisgah Reserve, were the first two land purchases in the Southeast made by the federal government under the Weeks Act. A few years later in 1920, both tracts became part of the Cherokee National Forest, which eventually included lands in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Later still, each state claimed its own national forest within its borders. All lands inside Georgia became the Chattahoochee National Forest.
At the time it was purchased in 1912, the Georgia tract was known locally as the Noontootly National Game Refuge. Officially, the Rock Creek property became known as the Cherokee National Game Refuge No. 2, (Cherokee Game Refuge No. 1 included the Vanderbilt property in North Carolina). One of the first actions taken by the Forest Service after purchasing the land was to survey and mark the boundaries. As part of the survey crew, it hired a young backwoodsman from Suches named William Arthur Woody.
The 28-year-old mountaineer had grown up hunting, fishing and exploring most of the land inside the refuge property, and he was a big asset in identifying boundaries and working with the adjacent landowners.
At this time in history, most mountain people shared a considerable distrust for anything or anyone associated with the federal government. Arthur Woody’s father, Abe, was adamantly against his son taking a “government” job. Despite his vocal disapproval, Arthur took the job because he much preferred to be working in the woods instead of following a dull life of farming, as most young men of his generation were destined to do. Arthur was well liked, and he knew everyone in the community. His real value to the Forest Service lay in his ability to bridge the gap between local residents and government officials. In essence, he became a good-will ambassador.
Arthur Woody always referred to the area as Rock Creek Refuge or simply the “game refuge,” and that name stuck with local residents for many years. Later still, the area became known as the Blue Ridge Game District or Blue Ridge Refuge. It was also frequently referred to as the Blue Ridge Reserve or the Blue Ridge Ranger District. In 1936, it finally became Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area, the name it still goes by today.
Because Arthur Woody seemed tailor-made for his job with the Forest Service, he rose quickly through the ranks. In 1918, he became Georgia’s second official forest ranger. This job gave him quite a bit of responsibility and leeway. With his larger-than-life charisma and his steadfast motto, “Do what needs to be done and ask permission later,” he became one of the Forest Service’s most productive rangers. Even though he was a maverick in many ways and seldom wore an official uniform, Arthur got away with breaking rules because he was so good at what he did. He helped the Forest Service acquire land; he fought forest fires; he planted trees; and he devised new ways to manage the growing timber more efficiently.
But his vision went far beyond simply restoring the forests.
The novel idea of making his beloved Rock Creek Refuge into a true wildlife reserve as well as a forest preserve—a place where deer and other wildlife could be restocked, protected and grown in numbers while the forest was being regenerated at the same time—was a concept that he constantly brought before his Forest Service superiors. Ironically, even though the Cherokee National Game Refuge No. 2 contained the words “Game Refuge” in its title, it was anything but during those early days.
When Arthur Woody first went to work for the Forest Service as a lineman on a survey crew, the stated mission of the Forest Service was to re-establish the badly depleted forests in the mountain region. Fire prevention and restoring the forests were its two top priorities. This far-sighted goal was a daunting task in itself, and the Forest Service single-mindedly pursued its objective with very little thought to other matters. Ranger Woody was fully on board with these important objectives, and he did an exemplary job in both areas, but his almost utopian vision of restoring fish and wildlife to the mountains had been etched in his mind since his boyhood days. In an article written by Harold Martin that appeared in the Sunday American section of the Atlanta Constitution on June 13, 1937, titled “Forests Coming Back, Georgia Ranger Says,” the author quoted Ranger Woody as saying:
“My granddaddy came here to these mountains from Virginia (by way of North Carolina) nearly a hundred years ago. Built him a cabin and took up farmin’, right over yonder in the valley, not more’n hollerin’ distance from where old Joe Brown, the wartime Governor (Civil War), growed up farmin’ with a bull hitched to his plow.
“Granddaddy growed up here and raised his family. When he come here, the woods was full of game. The virgin growth was on the hills. Land was rich and timber was plentiful. Bear and deer by the thousands in the woods, turkey and pheasant (ruffed grouse)—all you could shoot.
“Then the country got thick settled. Somebody livin’ in every cove. Smoke from a cabin in every holler. They killed off the game till there wasn’t a deer left, killed off the turkey, killed off the bear.
“The loggers come, the big lumber companies bought most of the hill land, and the folks moved out of the coves and the hollers. The loggers cut over the woods, cleaned out the woods, took the big timber, butchered the woods. Folks with stock burned the timber, thought it ‘greened’ the woods for better grazing, ruined the timber year after year.”
Of course, Harold Martin’s article was written nearly two decades after Arthur Woody became a Forest Ranger, and much had happened to restore the forests during that time. But from his earliest association with the Forest Service, Ranger Woody’s dream included going far beyond simply restoring the forests. What’s more, his vision also included allowing people to enjoy those forests filled with fish and game as a form of outdoor recreation the way he had enjoyed them as a boy. In other words, his vision included utilizing the land by its citizens through hunting and fishing, camping, hiking, canoeing, and studying nature the way he had always done in his early days.
The idea was simple. The government has acquired all this land and made it into a national forest. Why not set some land aside within that forest specifically for wildlife and protect it so that the fish and game species that had been wiped out years ago could be reintroduced and enjoyed by the hard working Americans, whose tax dollars had paid for it in the first place? Of course, the land he wanted to set aside for this purpose was his beloved Rock Creek Refuge.
The same year he became an official forest ranger, Ranger Woody’s first step toward implementing his dream was to stock non-native rainbow and brown trout in the refuge in 1918 (see May GON). During the next 15 years, he also established trout-rearing ponds on Rock Creek Lake inside the refuge. These fish-rearing ponds were eventually taken over and expanded by the Forest Service. In 1937, thanks to Ranger Woody’s initial efforts, Blue Ridge WMA became home to the Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery, now run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ten years after he released the first trout into Rock Creek, Ranger Woody released five deer into the refuge in 1928 (at his own expense), marking the beginning of the return of whitetails to the north Georgia mountains. During the early 1930s, Charlie Elliott had worked closely with Ranger Woody on a number of important wildlife and conservation projects in north Georgia, including the planning and building of the Appalachian Trail. Charlie had worked in various capacities for the Georgia Forestry Department, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, and the two men had become very close friends.
By the early 1930s, Ranger Woody had been lobbying the Forest Service for a number of years to make his beloved Rock Creek Refuge into an official wildlife reserve in addition to being a forest preserve. On the state level, Charlie began working behind the scenes with state officials. The fruits of their joint efforts were finally realized in March 1936 when the Georgia Wildlife Division, under the leadership of Zack Cravey, who was then Commissioner of Natural Resources (Charlie Elliort would take his place as Commissioner in 1940), entered into a historic cooperative agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. The partnership between the federal government and the state of Georgia provided that the state would manage all fish and wildlife resources on Rock Creek Refuge, while the Forest Service continued to manage all forest resources.
With the official name of “Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area,” Ranger Woody’s refuge became the first wildlife management area in Georgia and the first of its kind in the nation. It was also the first federal property to be managed by a state agency. After years of prodding and practically begging his superiors, Ranger Woody’s dream had finally come true.
By 1936, Blue Ridge WMA had been expanded to almost 39,000 acres. Throughout the 1920s and early ’30s, Ranger Woody had reintroduced a number of black bear cubs into the refuge and worked tirelessly to grow and protect the native wild turkey population. Later on, when turkeys were restocked in other parts of the mountain region, it was not necessary to stock them in Blue Ridge WMA because the native population was large enough to stand on its own. As a result, the turkeys found at Blue Ridge WMA today are known for having one of the purest native bloodlines of any wild turkeys found in the mountain region, although their once-pure genetics have no doubt been somewhat diluted by other birds coming into the area in recent decades. Turkey experts like writer and GON contributor Herb McClure, who killed his first Blue Ridge gobbler in 1956, believes these native birds have slightly darker feathers and other distinguishing characteristics.
Following the success of Ranger Woody’s Blue Ridge WMA in 1936, four more wildlife management areas were established in the north Georgia mountains within the Chattahoochee National Forest: the 23,000-acre Chattahoochee WMA, the 19,000-acre Chestatee WMA, the 40,000-acre Cohutta WMA and the 13,000-acre Lake Burton WMA, all managed by the Georgia Wildlife Division. More WMAs were established in later years. Deer from the Pisgah Reserve in North Carolina were stocked in each one of these areas during the 1930s. Because the Georgia partnership worked so well, numerous other states soon followed suit with similar programs. Today, the vast network of wildlife management areas found across the U.S. can trace its roots back to the vision and determination of one man, Arthur Woody. His idea of having a refuge inside the forest preserve eventually evolved into the modern wildlife management area system in Georgia as we know it today. This may well have been his single greatest contribution to the conservation movement.
By 1940, in the span of just 13 short years, the 60 to 80 deer stocked during the late 1920s that had been the foundation for the Ranger’s fledgling deer herd at Rock Creek Refuge had increased their numbers substantially. The herd in and around the refuge had now grown to an estimated 2,000 animals. The first historic deer hunt of modern times conducted jointly by the state and the Forest Service was held at Blue Ridge WMA in October and November 1940. A much-anticipated five-day archery hunt with long bows, followed by two five-day firearms hunts, became media events that made national headlines. No deer were taken on the archery hunt, but 22 bucks—and several does shot by accident—were killed on the historic firearms hunt.
In a November 1972 article written in Outdoor Life, titled “The Blue Ridge Hunt,” author Charlie Elliott made the following observations:
“That first WMA (Wildlife Management Area) was rugged, primitive wilderness. About the only management that the deer and turkeys received was protection, though a few small feed patches were planted in the forest in later years.”
Both Charlie Elliott and Ranger Woody firmly believed that the “refuge” or wildlife management area system was the future of hunting in the South. Fish and animals could be protected and the surplus could be taken by hunters and fishermen. Both men strongly supported opening more WMAs on federal lands in north Georgia during the mid-1930s. In his 1972 Outdoor Life article, Charlie also noted:
“The WMA is one of the big factors in the future of hunting—and possibly much of the fishing. More acreage is being turned over to the state each year for management. A good percentage of this is national forest land, and a healthy chunk belongs to the pulp-and-paper and big-timber interests, which have found that such an arrangement is one of the best public-interest tools they can employ.”
Charlie’s words, written 45 years ago, have proven to be very prophetic.
Although the exact acreage has fluctuated somewhat over the years, Blue Ridge WMA today boasts about 38,900 acres within the Chattahoochee National Forest. Popular outdoor activities include now bicycling, camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and hunting. Hunting opportunities include annual seasons for deer, turkey, bear and a variety of small game.
Ranger Woody’s health failed rapidly in the mid 1940s due to heart and kidney disease. He was forced to retire prematurely, and he died in 1946 at the relatively young age of 62. However, his achievements during his 33-year career with the Forest Service were extraordinary. He had introduced rainbow and brown trout to the mountain region, protected native brook trout, reintroduced deer, and pioneered many innovative forestry practices that are still in use today. But one of his crowning achievements in the realm of conservation has to be his vision for a game refuge inside the national forest that eventually became Georgia’s first WMA. Today, Blue Ridge WMA is incredibly significant in Forest Service history because of its many firsts—a number of which were initiated by Ranger Arthur Woody.
Editor’s Note: Autographed copies of “Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” may be ordered by sending $35 (this includes tax and shipping) to Duncan Dobie, 3371 Meadowind Ct., Marietta, GA 30062. The hardback book is 512 pages featuring more than 180 vintage black-and-white photos.