Officials Seek Hunting Protections In Ocmulgee National Park Proposal
State resolution expresses concern over WMAs being included in the park and seeks assurances that hunting would be a priority.
John Trussell | March 2, 2022
When the Georgia Legislature is in session, it is interesting to see the many types of bills that are introduced that could be become the law of Georgia. At a lower level, Senate and House Resolutions can be introduced by any member to honor an individual or express a concern or support about a pending issue. Of special interest to the outdoors community is House Resolution 529, which expresses concern about the proposed national park that would stretch from Macon to Hawkinsville along the Ocmulgee River corridor.
HR 529 was introduced by Representatives David Knight (R-Griffin), and co-sponsored by Trey Rhodes (R-Greensboro), John Corbett (R-Lake Park), Matt Dubnik (R-Gainesville) and Dominic LaRiccia (R-Douglas).
HR 529 is a response to an effort to turn over to the National Park Service (NPS) the management and control of a 50-mile stretch of the Ocmulgee River corridor from Macon to Hawkinsville for the creation of a National Park & Preserve. Of particular concern to legislators and sportsmen is a proposal to include state Wildlife Management Areas and existing National Wildlife Refuges in the National Park Service proposal. The defined study area for the national park includes state-managed Ocmulgee, Oaky Woods and Echeconnee Creek WMAs, as well as Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
Citing the fact that hunting is routinely prohibited on NPS lands, the resolution states in part: “members of this body urge the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to remain the primary authority for all purposes of wildlife management and regulation in the case that a national park unit is established in the study and between Macon and Hawkinsville; members of this body insist that all lands operated by (DNR) shall be managed to provide hunting, fishing and other appropriate wildlife recreational opportunities following sound principles of wildlife management without influence of conflicting goals set forth by the National Park Service; and, members of this body urge the National Park Service to have enabling legislation that establishes hunting and fishing as the primary uses of any lands within a newly established or expanded National Park Service unit between Macon and Hawkinsville.”
It seems that in one corner, we have 5.9% of the 2020 Georgia population who buy a hunting license and when they are outdoors, they primarily hunt and fish. They appreciate our states natural resources and want to preserve them for future generations. They are also loyal readers of GON and take an active role in supporting hunting and fishing activities within Georgia, which is all good!
In the other corner, we have citizens who want to preserve these valuable woodlands and wetlands for future generations, and they are primarily outdoor recreation types who hike, bike, canoe on the rivers, walk their dogs, enjoy camping, bird watching and other “non-consumptive” activities. Many of these individuals do not hunt or fish and just enjoy the great outdoors, which is all good!
However, it’s the pro-hunting group of people who buy a hunting license and supply the bulk of the funds that come to the states for land acquisition through the Pittman-Robinson fund, which is a federal tax on guns, ammunition and archery equipment. They are no dedicated taxes for land acquisition on binoculars for bird watching, bikes, canoes and other types of outdoor equipment, other than regular sale taxes which go in the general funds of a county or city. Thus it can be easily argued that hunters are covering the bulk of the cost for land acquisition and wildlife management.
Many outdoorsmen who hunt and fish are now concerned about a park initiative that would seek to turn a huge swath of middle Georgia woodlands and wetlands into a “Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve,” where hunting is “allowed.” But who sets the rules, and exactly how much hunting and fishing might be allowed?
Will hunters and fishermen be outnumbered and out-influenced by the 94% and of the population that does not hunt? Do we need to be concerned that instead of state and local control, we will have to petition the federal government for our hunting and fishing rights? Will Georgia hunters be heard when the federal government requires public input on future public surveys on a national level that determines the allowed uses of public land in our state? Might hunters be overshadowed by not only Georgia non-hunters, but also by an increasingly urban and liberal population that may not support hunting? The state with the second-highest number of public comments on the Ocmulgee Park proposal, behind Georgia with 51% of the comments, was California.
Hunters are concerned, and rightly so, when they turn on the news and constantly see highly politicized shows where minor points of view are covered like mainstream ideals. We are constantly on a 24/7 news cycle that can make any person, regardless of beliefs, highly paranoid.
GON published my article on this topic entitled “National Park Sought For Middle Georgia” in the October 2020 issue, which explored many of the issues associate with the national park proposal. Perhaps you might want to revisit that story which was a review of the many issues associated with the proposed national park. If you don’t still have your October 2020 issue of GON, the article is online at gon.com/news/national-park-sought-middle-georgia-ocmulgee-river.
Early in the planning process, a group called the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative (ONPPI) published a report called “Diamond in the Rough,” which stated that “Consolidating these areas (other public lands — Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee and Echeconnee WMAs and Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge) into a single entity, along with their habitat, cultural resources, and recreational opportunities, could offer increased management efficiency and better visibility and public access.”
This master plan raised concerns about the intent of the proposed national park to include existing state-managed lands.
In discussing this topic with hundreds of GON readers in the last two years, I discovered that the majority of them are opposed to a new Ocmulgee National Park. I think it boils down to a loss of local and state control and distrust of politicians in Washington. We have all heard stories of massive 1,000-page bills that no one has had the chance to read, much less study! Then the courts are supposed to determine the true “legislative intent” with court cases that are never-ending.
While most are in favor of more public hunting lands, they wonder why we would want to turn river swamp land, that often floods, into a park where few would want to visit? And why buy and pay for land preservation on property that is naturally preserved by natural river flooding and can never be developed? And why try to take over a potential huge swath of land of 60,000 acres or more where the main visitors now are hunters and fishermen? Sportsmen support heritage preservation and the Ocmulgee National Monument, but some say that expanding the Park to Hawkinsville is a huge overreach of the park idea. One hunter, Clemente Rodriguez, commented that the NPS can’t fund the lands they control now, and user fees often drive off citizens, especially those on low incomes.
There is a recent story in the Washington Post, and I strongly encourage you to read it. Search for the title “Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Conservationists seeking to establish first national park and preserve in Georgia.”
The establishment of a national park could be a good thing, but local citizens will clearly remember that a portion of Eisenhower Parkway in Macon abruptly ends at the Ocmulgee River flood plain, never completed. It has been referred to as the road to nowhere. In today’s political world, nothing is simple, and complex issues seem to get litigated through the courts and federal government for years.
The Fall Line highway was to run between the Ocmulgee Mounds and Lamar Mound to the south, thus there was a legitimate concern by the Muscogee Nation that this road would further degrade the area that had been crossed by the railroad (destroying part of the mounds) in the early days and I-16 more recently. Outdoorsmen certainly respect the rights of Native Americans and can appreciate their feelings of connection to the homelands of their ancestors. This writer just did a story in GON in the February issue, “Hunting For Indian Artifacts” that covered the laws associated with artifacts and the history of Native American in Georgia, so check it out. This writer has also volunteered in the past to help at the Ocmulgee Indian Festival, which explores a very important part of middle Georgia history. I, and many outdoorsmen, have a deep respect for Native American culture.
Tracie Revis is a member of the Oklahoma Muscogee Nation that has its roots in central Georgia and now works for the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative (ONPPI). Tracie says that Native Americans were the first hunters and fishermen, and she has a deep respect for the old outdoor traditions. She says that hunting and fishing will be included in any National Park legislation, and the Muscogee Nation has provided input to the NPS and desires a seat at the negating table.
I was able to interview Mike Worley, Director of the Georgia Wildlife Federation, at the GWF Outdoor Show in Perry on Feb. 13. Mike said the Georgia Wildlife Federation was initially skeptical of the national park effort and many members still have some serious concerns. But he said the GWF is now taking an active role in the planning process, and he and the GWF governing board plan on making sure that hunting and fishing rights are protected on any lands that might be acquired by the proposed national park.
Ted Will, Director of the Wildlife Resources Division of Georgia DNR, says he would be strongly against any takeover of existing state WMAs by the proposed national park, but he is willing to work with any group that can increase hunting and fishing opportunities in Georgia.
State taxpayers and hunters paid $28.5 million for Oaky Woods WMA back in 2010, and it is one of Georgia’s most popular WMAs. The land is now actively managed by expert DNR staff for wildlife. The timber is also managed for wildlife, with pines grown and eventually sold, with the funds going into the state treasury.
I was also able to interview Seth Clark, Mayor Pro Tempore of the consolidated Macon-Bibb County government. Clark is also the Director of ONPPI. Clark noted that federal lawmakers such as Rep. Austin Scott (R), whose district encompasses Robins Air Force Base, and Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D), who represents the Macon area, agree on the park’s importance. Clark had just returned from a trip to Washington to promote the proposed Ocmulgee River corridor park.
Clark said he grew up in middle Georgia hunting and fishing with his father and grandfather, and he says preserving the outdoor heritage is very important to him. He said he especially enjoys fly fishing. He says that the proposed park has no plans to attempt to take control of existing state WMAs, but would intend to work with the state to ensure that common goals and objectives are considered. Clark was aware of HR 529 and said that the ONPPI would work to ensure that state concerns are considered as legislation is written up in the future. It should be noted that the proposed park can only acquire land from willing sellers, and the process to establish any park lands will take many years, if it is eventually approved by Congress.
The public comment period for the park proposal ended last spring, and a new report of that civic engagement process is summarized in a report that can be found online at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=415&projectID=91276&documentID=113319. According to the summary, most responses were in favor of the park, but it does not present data on how many comments were in favor or opposed. After accounting for “form letters,” the study team received 1,344 unique correspondences, and of those, only 51.7% were from Georgia.
One of the questions in the report is, “If the area is designated as a national park, will hunting still be allowed on Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the three state-managed Wildlife Management Areas?”
The NPS response is as follows: “If an NPS unit were to be created that included these lands whole or in part, it would not necessarily change how the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or how the state wildlife management areas are managed by Georgia DNR. This includes these organizations’ regulations regarding hunting and fishing. There are many examples of national park units that encompass or contain lands managed by other state or federal land managers. Examples include Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina (includes Pea Island NWR), Cuyahoga Valley National Park near Cleveland, Ohio (includes various metro parks), and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area near Los Angeles (includes multiple state and city parks). In these situations, rules and regulations and their enforcement are the responsibility of the land-managing agency.”
I have found that in most cases, both state and federal land managers work together very well. In one recent instance, I asked Carolyn Johnson, the acting manager at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, why the small-game season on Piedmont closed at the end of January instead of the end of February as inline with state seasons. Carolyn said that she consulted with state DNR biologists, and they decided to close the small-game season a little early in an effort to help bring back the quail population on the refuge. Late in the season, its very important to have a viable population of mating pairs so the breeding season can be successful, says Carolyn, and that make perfect biological sense.
When will the study team reach a determination on the park? According to Deborah Coble, Regional Affairs Specialist for the NPS, no recommendation will be made by the National Park Service until the study is concluded, which may not be for another year. Though the NPS is conducting the study, it is ultimately up to Congress and the President to make any designation as a national park unit (via the Antiquities Act).
In summary, the proposal for a National Park along the Ocmulgee River from Macon to Hawkinsville is a work in progress. Hunters and fishermen need a spot at the negotiation table, and some would say we need to be at the head of the table. As we move into the future on this issue, you can be assured that GON, Mike Worley at the Georgia Wildlife Federation, and Ronnie Gaskins at the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation will promote the desires of hunters and fishermen.
Editor’s Note: Author John Trussell, of Warner Robins, was founder of Save Oaky Woods and led the effort to rebuild the Ocmulgee Boat Ramp Park at Highway 96. He also helped to establish Flat Creek PFA and the Go Fish center in Perry.
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