National Park Sought For Middle Georgia Along Ocmulgee River

Effort includes unlikely proposal to incorporate Bond Swamp and state WMAs into Ocmulgee River corridor park that would extend from Macon to Hawkinsville.

John Trussell | September 28, 2020

Have you heard about the new “National Park & Preserve” that might run from Macon to Hawkinsville along the Ocmulgee River? If so, you might be concerned because hunting is prohibited in most National Parks—it is only allowed, and tightly controlled and very limited, on 59 of 390 National Parks, normally for one or just a few days per year. Even then, hunting on Parks too often draws negative media attention and opposition, primarily from an urban population that is far removed from the natural world.

Most National Parks are geared toward a multitude of recreational users, and hunting is not seen as a compatible use. Thus, this is a good reason for hunters to sit up and pay attention when a National Park & Preserve is being proposed for a wide swatch of middle Georgia.

Hunting is not allowed on the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area near Atlanta where thousands of people walk the trails, float the river and just watch the deer. Surprisingly, some of the biggest bucks in Georgia come from Fulton and Cobb counties in this area where deer thrive in pockets of suburban woodlands.

This idea for a National Park & Preserve in middle Georgia is a complicated proposal with many facets. A Preserve is a hybrid type of idea that combines the traditional park with allowances for hunting and fishing. Most National Parks & Preserves are in the vast Alaskan wilderness, with only a few in the continental USA. The closest to Georgia is the Jean Lafitte Historical Park & Preserve near New Orleans. The 26,000-acre Barataria Preserve, where hunting is allowed, is part of the park. The hunting on the Barataria Preserve section of the park requires special permits, but hunting dates closely follow Louisiana state seasons, so it’s more open than you might expect.

Now let’s discuss the details of the Ocmulgee Park & Preserve proposal.

In March of 2019, Congress authorized eventually quadrupling the size of Macon’s Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, formerly managed and designated as a National Monument. The park currently is 702 acres, located beside the Ocmulgee River. It contains the largest Mississippian mound complex in southeastern North America, and the Interior Department is currently in negotiations to expand the Ocmulgee Mounds park to 2,800 acres within Bibb County. However, Congress provided no money for land purchases to expand the size, so park promoters, led by a group called the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative, are currently raising the approximately $2.5 million needed to complete the initial part of the expansion plan.

Now, the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative seeks to expand, unite and link the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park to extend from Macon all the way down the river corridor to Hawkinsville. They want to begin this process by incorporating lands that are already public—state and federal public lands clustered along the Ocmulgee River. These lands include Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the three state wildlife management areas of Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee and Echeconnee Creek WMAs.

What are the chances of this happening?

The National Park Service (NPS) is conducting a Special Resource Study of the Ocmulgee River Corridor between Macon and Hawkinsville. The purpose of the study is to identify whether the Ocmulgee River Corridor meets specific criteria to be recommended for potential inclusion as a unit of the national park system. This Special Resource Study is being managed by the U.S. Park Service Archaeologist Charles “Chuck” Lawson, who is based in Denver, Colorado.

Lawson and his group of Park Service professionals will give the Ocmulgee Park proposal a fair evaluation. This process will take three years and provides for public hearings and other input later in the process.

Lawson explained that NPS guidelines for a Special Resource Study outlines four criteria to be evaluated to determine eligibility for potential units of the national park system. These criteria include: 1) national significance, 2) suitability, 3) feasibility and 4) need for NPS management. The study process is linear, and each of the four criteria are evaluated sequentially. If the study finds that the river corridor does not meet one of the criteria, the study will not evaluate the subsequent criteria, and thus the study would stop. Lawson says the guidelines set a high bar to get over for the establishment of a park, and the requirements are stringent. While the NPS will conduct this study, the designation of National Park units is ultimately the purview of Congress and the President. The purpose of the study is solely to evaluate the area and report to Congress.

In regards to a proposed National Park assuming control of other federal and state-owned lands within the river corridor, such as Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee WMA and Bond Swamp National Refuge, Lawson said such a move would be “highly unlikely.” He said if other federal and state properties are well managed within the proposed park footprint, the U.S. Park Service would not see any need to assume control and the costs associated with their incorporation.

There has been some debate on the intentions of the National Park promoters to include WMAs and Bond Swamp, but a study called “Diamond in the Rough” was published by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). It  states: “Consolidating these areas into a single entity, along with their wildlife habitat, cultural resources, and recreational opportunities, could offer increased management efficiency and better visibility and public access.”

Read the study yourself at  NPCA_Ocmulgee_Economic_Impact_Report_Feb_2017_web.pdf.

However, recently I spoke with David Lamform, Southeast Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, and he says they don’t see a new park taking over other state and federal lands along the Ocmulgee River corridor, despite the intent stated in the study. He says the process “is fluid” and subject to change in the future. The NPCA is a strong national organization that does a great job of promoting the interests of national parks, and Chris Watson, senior program manager, says the middle Georgia area would greatly benefit from a National Park.

What shape might an Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve take? That is yet to be determined, and the boundary and configuration would be determined by Congress, and only after a thorough public scoping process with numerous opportunities for input from local communities and state, federal and tribal officials. Several designs are possible, says the “Diamond in the Rough” study. The Georgia Conservancy has a map online at

Looking at the possible footprint of the park, it could grow to thousands of acres by including Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, as well state wildlife management area systems—but again this is just proposed option. As you may remember, Ocmulgee WMA used to be 29,000 acres and is now just 15,000 acres, and Oaky Woods WMA used to be 19,000 acres is now 12,750 acres. If the park could possibly add in upland areas in the river corridor, and leave present state and federal lands alone, it could be considered a positive to preserve and conserve these lands that might otherwise be gobbled up by development—but only if willing sellers could be found.

It is important to note that a Congressional boundary determination, whatever its extent, would not immediately result in public ownership. The National Park Service and local partners would spend several years acquiring pieces through donations or purchases from willing sellers, and only as funds became available. The park proposal does not allow for the condemnation or eminent domain confiscation of private properties, so if you own land that is determined to be within the possible “footprint of the Park,” you never need to worry about losing your land. You retain the right to sell, give away, or donate your land to whoever you choose.

Brian Adams is a Macon attorney and the president of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative.

“We have this unique asset so many people didn’t realize was there,” Brian said. “It was over a decade ago when I was in law school that I became aware of the concept of preserving a larger corridor of the river. I’ve been working with the original visionaries ever since. Our goal is a National Park & Preserve, rather than a National Park alone, because maintaining public hunting access is important to so many. We wanted to be able to say, ‘If you hunt, your great grandkids will be able to hunt the same land 50 years from now.’”

The question might be, however, is how much hunting and fishing would be allowed over what time period, and would it be subject to a new layer of federal regulations? Hunters might find themselves limited to a few weekends of hunting or applying for quota hunts within a national park. In today’s tight finances, both state and federal agencies have to deal with many hunts on many properties with limited staff, thus we find hunting opportunities tightly restricted. Modern wildlife management often has to do more with people and money management than wildlife.

Hunting clubs that now occupy lands along this section of the Ocmulgee might eventually lose their hunting leases if the land is sold or donated to the park, but if this happens, lease holders could presumably hunt the land for free or with a limited cost permit. These types of details of course have not begun to be discussed, but on Piedmont Refuge, hunters pay $12.50 for a limited deer hunting permit, and the archery hunting is free with a signed regulation pamphlet. Bond Swamp also allows limited hunting. Like many hunters, I harvested my first deer on Piedmont Refuge and regularly hunt on Bond Swamp. Both are great places, with excellent staff and are already managed by the federal National Wildlife Refuge system with wildlife and habitat as the priority.

On another issue, a part of the park proposal deals with the historical background of the river corridor and the “need to preserve historical resources.” Many are familiar with the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds in Macon, and that would be the northern anchor point of the proposed expanded park. This is a wonderful and well-supported park.

A Mercer University survey of known historical and archaeological sites along the 70 river miles between Macon and Hawkinsville was recently completed as a part of the park proposal. Dominic Day catalogued and mapped almost 900 historic sites that had been previously documented. These vary from more ancient mounds and villages to Muscogee settlements, historic mills, forts and cemeteries. One of those locations is probably the Trussell Site, an ancient village  just off Thompson Mill Road that this writer documented about 25 years ago from Native American pottery and a kirk corner notch point dating from 9,000 years ago. The site is now lost to time and is a huge housing subdivision. It must be noted that practically any river corridor in Georgia would have a similar record of historical sites. Native American were here a long time and left a lot of artifacts in the form of mounds, arrowheads, pottery and other tools all over Georgia. However the Ocmulgee River corridor is a good representation of this time period.

The historical report was directed by Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, professor emeritus of history and senior research fellow in historical archaeology at Mercer. Dr. Klingelhofer feels the Ocmulgee River corridor with the anchor of the Ocmulgee Historical Park in Macon with the Indian Mounds and strong community support could be the basis of a great national park with many types of outdoor recreation with fishing and hunting. However, Dr Klingelhofer said he doubted that the proposed park would be able to incorporate existing state and federal lands into the park, especially if they were funded and well managed by the state of Georgia or other divisions of the federal government. He said National Parks constantly face an underfunded budget that would probably only get worse in the coming years, and it makes no sense to take over lands that are already preserved and publicly accessible like Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee WMAs.

I spoke with Ted Will, the assistant director of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Ted said he would be strongly opposed to a proposed National Park trying to take over Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee WMAs, since they were state owned or managed lands for hunting and fishing. The state of Georgia paid $28.5 million for a large portion of Oaky Woods in 2010, and he saw no way the state would ever consent to these lands being incorporated into a National Park. This writer was very active in the effort to preserve Oaky Woods, its small bear population, black prairie areas and rare plants. I formed the group “Save Oaky Woods,” which successfully led to the purchase of Oaky Woods in 2010 (see The Oaky Woods WMA was threatened by a housing subdivision with 30,000 planned homes, which would have been disastrous to the small, isolated bear population and slashed into public hunting opportunity on the region.

Carolyn Johnson, assistant refuge manager of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, said she was opposed to the inclusion of Bond Swamp NWR into a National Park, as they have different goals and objectives.

I heard a range of comments from outdoorsmen about the proposed park, from support to serious concern about its impact on hunting and fishing.

Bill Buthune, an avid rabbit hunter from Monroe County, worries that horse riders and other non-hunters might have a negative impact on hunting. A few years ago he had conflicts with horse riders in the Oconee National Forest and quit going there. He is also strongly opposed to Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee WMA being in a park, as they are his main rabbit hunting grounds. He said the state WMAs should stay owned by the state, so we in Georgia can have local control.

Mike Worley, president and CEO of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, says he would be adamantly opposed to Oaky Woods or Ocmulgee WMAs being taken over by a park, as the funds to buy those land came from hunting and fishing license fees, and the land should be primarily for hunting and fishing. He does support some type of multi-agency river corridor protection plan, if that is proposed in the future.

Sam Stowe, Buckarama show manager of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, said he, too, is opposed to a National Park along the Ocmulgee, as he feels hunting and fishing will eventually take a back seat to other users under National Park management.

Bubba Paulk, hunter and owner of Paulk Landscaping in Cochran is also concerned about a future influx of tourists causing conflicts and trying to reduce hunting and fishing activities. To deal with these type issues, federal refuge staff at Bond Swamp and Piedmont Refuge normally close nature trails on hunt days to avoid any conflicts. They don’t want to have hikers, bikers or tourists in the woods on hunt days. On the positive side, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has been making an effort to better align federal hunting dates with state hunting regulations, thus expanding hunting on federal lands.

Chuck Leavell, the former Allman Brothers Band member and current keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, said, “If the proposed park meets the U.S. Park Service requirements, it would be a great thing to see it come to reality. I believe it would be good for Macon and middle Georgia if it can pass the test.”

Leavell is a serious hunter and tree farmer and owns Charlane Plantation, along with tracts of land in the Ocmulgee River corridor in Twiggs County.

Local advocates have proposed that the end result of a consolidation of lands into the designation of an Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve will be an economical benefit to the region. The globally recognized National Park Service brand would boost the region’s profile as a national and international tourism destination, says Heather Duncan, principal writer of the “Diamond in the Rough” study.

Sandy White, Director of the Hawkinsville/ Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, says the river is important to the local economy.

The “Diamond in the Rough” study takes a look at the benefits of a National Park & Preserve and claims that it could lead to a six-fold increase in visitation within 15 years and add $206.7 million in annual economic activity. The report says that the majority of this economic activity—about 90%—would come from increases in visitor spending associated with a number of key activities: heritage tourism, bicycling, paddling, camping, fishing, wildlife watching, hiking, hunting and horseback riding.

To this writer, the estimates are hugely optimistic, and today I would estimate that 90% of the visitors to the river, outside of near downtown Macon, are local fishermen and hunters. However, I strongly support more outdoor recreation, and local government officials would certainly love to see more positive economic activity in central Georgia. This stretch of the Ocmulgee River from Macon to Hawkinsville is remote with no services. Some of the current boat ramps are rough and poorly maintained  and are frequently impacted by flooding waters, which further hampers its potential as a park.

In 1992, this writer led the effort to improve the Ocmulgee River boat ramp on the Ocmulgee River on Highway 96 near Bonaire. Back then, I was doing a GON story with John Knowles on catfishing the Ocmulgee River, and we both complained about the poor condition of the boat ramp. With John Knowles’ inspiration, I began the effort of educating our elected officials of the critical need to improve the boat ramp area and to develop a small park and parking area for public recreation and emergency operations access. The Houston County Commissioners, led by Chairman Jay Walker, took an interest in the project. Long story short, less than two years later, the county purchased 3.2 acres, built a new boat ramp with the aid of Les Ager’s efforts through the Georgia DNR. The small park got a new paved 32-space parking lot, thanks to Tommy Stalnaker, who is now Houston County Commission Chairman. Eventually the boat ramp was named for John Knowles, who was a World War II veteran and part of America’s greatest generation. John recently passed away.

The Highway 96 boat ramp park on the Ocmulgee River in Houston County was named for WW2 Veteran John Knowles (left), pictured here with the author. They worked to get the boat ramp park rebuilt and improved several years ago.

Some of the other boat ramps along the river could also stand some improvements. Fishing the Ocmulgee River can be a true wilderness experience. Unfortunately, many anglers avoid fishing the river due to its hazardous conditions, like strong current, numerous stumps and fallen trees which at times can entirely block boat passage. Also, if you need anything on the river, you better take it with you, especially extra gas, and propeller pins as hidden obstructions regularly damage motors. I like fishing the river, but it’s adventure fishing and not like a trip to Lake Oconee, where you can easily get help or assistance. On more than one occasion, I have come across stranded fishermen on the river and used a tow line to pull them back to the boat ramp. My good friend David Davidson was fishing on the river a few years ago and had motor trouble and got stranded. Rather than spend the night in the bottom of his boat and get eaten by mosquitoes, he hiked out through the swamp to Bonaire—be prepared for anything if you fish the Ocmulgee River.

One great thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to wait for the possibility of a National Park to visit the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia. It’s free and open 24/7 today to fish, hunt or a boating trip. There’s great public hunting on state and federal areas. To the best of my knowledge, the Ocmulgee River corridor is not threatened by development or plagued by any serious issues. During seasonal flood stages, the river can cover a half mile of bottomland, and this greatly deters any development. It is one of the last true wilderness areas in Georgia, home to central Georgia’s black bear population and should remain wild and free. Despite the litter and some minor chemical concerns, the water quality remains good, according to Georgia DNR. We should be thankful for a free flowing river, with abundant fish and wildlife, so get out and enjoy it soon!

What do you think about a National Park on this section of the Ocmulgee River? GON will keep readers posted as the U.S. Park Service begins their  public comment period on the proposal, stay tuned!

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  1. Shawn on September 29, 2020 at 2:31 pm

    Leave it alone, Local control is better than the politicans in DC. Plus the last thing that area (or Ga) needs is more development and tourists. All this building and catering to the northern transplants is killing what makes the South so special.

  2. BubbaDotcom on September 28, 2020 at 9:49 pm

    Little River Canyon National Preserve in Alabama is adjacent to Georgia.

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