The public has until March 26 to comment on the proposed Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve.
As far back as he remembers, Chief James Floyd’s parents taught him the history of his people. Floyd was born in Oklahoma, on the reservation that became home for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation after their forced removal from Georgia in the early 19th century. Floyd’s mother was a Lower Creek and his father an Upper Creek — on both sides, he is six generations removed from the East.
In 2016, Floyd was elected Principal Chief of the Muscogee Nation. That’s when he got a call that changed his life: Community activists in Macon, Ga. were pushing to preserve a swath of land in central Georgia that for thousands of years had been sacred to successive generations of indigenous people, most recently the Muscogee. The landscape comprises floodplain forest with cypress, tupelo, red maple, and black gum, as well as swamps, pine ridges, and upland forests. It’s home to alligator, white-tailed deer, wild turkey, and bald eagle, as well as a distinct population of black bear — one of three in Georgia.
Floyd told me that elders often said they weren’t “supposed to talk about the past” or go back to their ancestral homeland. They weren’t eager to revisit historical traumas. Floyd made his first visit in 2016. “It was a very comforting feeling, to actually be there,” he said. “You could see why we loved the area so much, why there was so strong an attachment.”
Seven hundred acres were protected by the U.S. in 1936, and in 2019 the area was designated Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. Advocates now want the entire Ocmulgee River corridor, from Macon to Hawkinsville, to be designated a national park and preserve in order to protect sacred sites and allow hunting. Until March 26, the National Park Service is accepting public comments on the potential designation of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve.
“Our whole existence comes from the earth and from the ground and so it has a deep meaning to us,” Floyd said. “It’s very much about being attached. That’s one of the best things about going back, say to Ocmulgee Mounds, we’re able to go back and be a part of what made us who we are now. It’s a very real thing for us.”
The South has little public land compared to the rest of the U.S. The federal government owns 28% of the U.S., and about 92% of that land lies in Western states — in Georgia, 5.25% of the land is in federal care. The South was already impacted by settlement when the land preservation movement manifested with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, and resource extraction in the region was rampant after the Civil War.
To have so few national parks in the South — especially Georgia — is to say that very little of the region’s landscapes are nationally significant. Nothing could be farther from the truth: In fact, the most visited — indeed, overvisited, with 12.1 million visitors per year — national park in the U.S. is Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The movement to protect this area of central Georgia started in the early 2000s when Chris Watson, a geography graduate student at the University of Georgia, made a wilderness map of Georgia. He noticed an undeveloped corridor along the Ocmulgee River. The area has been inhabited continuously from the time of Archaic mammoth hunters through the Mississipean mound-builders by people who left a lasting record in the form of earthworks. Many mounds, including the Great Temple Mound, look out over the floodplain of Walnut Creek and its confluence with the Ocmulgee River. Evidence of 17,000 years of human habitation has been found there.
“That really triggered the reality that there was this hidden jewel in Middle Georgia that nobody was paying attention to,” Watson told me.
With the help of activists in Macon and tribal members, he pushed for a special resources study of the area to be approved by Congress and conducted by the National Park Service to look at the national significance of the larger river corridor and the feasibility for a national park and preserve. The group formed the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative.
Land preservation in central Georgia is important for saving the unique, wild, and undeveloped qualities of the area, including forests that store carbon; rare ecosystems like blackland prairies; lowlands to regulate the extreme floods and droughts wrought by the climate crisis; as well as hiking, biking, horse, and canoe trails for people to recreate. Economic feasibility studies have shown that an Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve would be a major economic driver for the entire region, leading to a six-fold increase in visitation within 15 years and adding $206.7 million in annual economic activity. A national park could support nearly 3,000 additional jobs.
The Park Service’s website states it “has been working hard to understand the Ocmulgee River Corridor,” and that the public’s “thoughts on the resources and use of the corridor as well as their current and potential future management are needed to complete the study.”
Chief Floyd, along with other advocates and residents, know that the next step — creating a national park — is significant. Not only does it offer more protection from development and resources to preserve the land, it’s also an act of atonement, of truth, and of reconciliation.
Janisse Ray is the author of several books, including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. She lives in Georgia.
What to do:
If you only have five minutes, you can go to this NPS site and submit your comments.
A prompt will give you the option of printing out your comments and also mailing it. Do that if you have time. Mail to:
Attn: Ocmulgee River Corridor SRS
National Park Service
Denver Service Center
12795 West Alameda Parkway
PO Box 25287
Denver, CO 80225-0287