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Muscogee (Creek) Nation, conservationists seeking to establish first national park and preserve in Georgia

This walkway leads to the Earth Lodge, an earthen mound that the Ocmulgee (Creek) Nation built about 1,000 years ago in what is now Georgia. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

MACON, Ga. — Georgia has no national park, but with a deal finalized this week to purchase and protect an expansive tract of forest, swamp and sacred Native American tribal land, that could soon change.

Designating a national park adjacent to downtown Macon is a goal for Middle Georgia conservationists and Oklahoma’s Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whose citizens were forcibly removed from these ancestral lands in the early 1800s.

Previously under contract for industrial development, the 951-acre Ocmulgee Mounds Expansion Tract lies next to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. The purchase is part of a 2019 expansion of the park that resulted from the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. Signed by President Donald Trump, the legislation nearly quadrupled the park’s authorized boundary from 701 acres to more than 3,000. The area being studied for a national park holds more than 800 known archaeological sites, the majority of them unexplored. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation previously considered the newly acquired parcel, also known as the Ocmulgee Old Fields, one of the most historically significant unprotected acreages in North America.

The $5.43 million deal, finalized Tuesday, was mostly funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund and was negotiated by the Open Space Institute, a conservation organization that deeded the land to the National Park Service. When combined with extensive stretches of land already under — or targeted for — conservation protection, the national park could ultimately run for nearly 60 miles through more than 70,000 acres along the Ocmulgee River.

Changing the Ocmulgee Mounds park’s designation from a site of national historical significance to a national park and preserve would put it on equal footing with iconic national parks such as Congaree in South Carolina; the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee; Death Valley in California and Nevada; and Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

The effort is being led by Seth Clark, Macon’s mayor pro tem, who is directing the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, a coalition of Middle Georgia conservation and civic leaders. Last month, tribal lawyer Tracie Revis, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, joined the ONPPI’s staff. Her long résumé includes a stint as the first woman in the tribe’s history to be chief of staff to a tribal chief. On a blustery late January afternoon, the two led a tour of the focus area.

The Ocmulgee Mounds are part of the National Park Service’s Ocmulgee River Corridor Special Resource Study. The multiyear effort, begun in 2019, relies on scientific research, surveys and public input to evaluate the corridor for historical, cultural and ecological significance along with its suitability to function as a national park. Should the area meet national park criteria, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland would make a recommendation to Congress. Lawmakers would then decide whether to send President Biden a bill authorizing the designation. (Congress also could send the legislation to the president with no study.)

The “preserve” designation allows for hunting, fishing and limited resource extraction — including, in this case, clay mining and logging — provided the activities don’t jeopardize the park’s natural value.

“So you can visualize it, downtown Macon is on one side of the Ocmulgee River and the park is on the other,” Clark says while driving across the Otis Redding Bridge and into Fort Hawkins, one of Macon’s oldest neighborhoods. Reaching an ornate but dilapidated 1870s-era mansion, he points out a trapezoidal roof that was modeled on the nearby Great Temple Mound. The house was nearly demolished to make way for a convenience store but is now slated to become an independent, tribal-run Muscogee (Creek) Cultural Center. “It’s one of the most historically significant houses in Macon,” Clark says.

Revis points out that the house’s southern balcony faces a wide field that leads to an entrance of the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. She foresees a day when park visitors can witness a Muscogee (Creek) game of stickball, considered the precursor to lacrosse. “We can also bring our dances here to the people,” she says. “There’s a living history only we can tell.”

The span of continuous human history along the muddy Ocmulgee River runs back 17,000 years, when Ice Age paleo-Indians hunted woolly mammoths with hefty, stone-tipped spears. Ten thousand years ago, as the climate warmed and megafauna died out, Georgia’s Indians shifted to hunting smaller game and harvesting seasonal plants along the Ocmulgee’s fertile banks. About 2,500 years ago, tribes now known as Woodland Indians lived in small villages along the river.

In about A.D. 900, tribes from the Mississippi Valley spread rapidly across the Southeast, creating complex, stratified farming societies with pyramidal mound structures. The village at the Ocmulgee Mounds site once held a grand plaza that stood in the shadow of the Great Temple Mound, a massive nine-story earthen trapezoid built of countless baskets of soil carried uphill by thousands of laborers.

The decline of Southeastern tribes began in the early 1500s, when diseases spread by Spanish explorers ravaged Native societies. As European settlement expanded through the 1700s, tribes were pushed westward and a series of conflicts culminated in the Creek War in 1813, which forced tribes to give up 23 million acres of land between Georgia and Alabama to the U.S. government. Then in 1826, Georgia’s tribes were coerced to cede all their remaining land and were marched nearly 1,000 miles to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears.

Evidence of the disregard of Native history is visible at the Ocmulgee Mounds even today. Through the mid- to late 1800s, burial sites containing unknown numbers of Native remains and artifacts were destroyed to make way for railroads that still rumble past. In the early 1970s, Interstate 16 cut off the Great Temple Mound from the Ocmulgee River.

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Rolling south down Highway 23, Revis points out a few small pieces of land that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has recently purchased in what Tribal Chief David Hill refers to as the tribe’s homeland. Jason Salsman, the tribe’s spokesman, said the national park effort ranks high on the tribe’s list of priorities.

Clark navigates a muddy forest road into the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Along the edge of a stunning stand of broad-based Tupelo trees, he explains the area’s biological significance. The Ocmulgee River runs along the fall line, which separates Georgia’s uplands from its vast coastal plain. The flood plain is home to a small, unique population of black bears. Rare Indian olive, carnivorous pitcher plants and fly traps take root here, while more than 200 species of birds such as warblers, wood storks, bald eagles and snowy egrets soar through the trees. Increasingly rare river cane, a sacred building material to the Muscogee (Creek), grows along the riverbanks, while sturgeon, shad, herring, and striped and shoal bass ply its water.

“My uncles, my grandfather, everybody grew up bringing me down here to hunt and fish,” Clark says. “I’m a really avid fly fisherman. I’ve fished Central America, out West and even the Alps, but I’ve never caught fish anywhere like I have on this river.”

Unfolding a map of the Ocmulgee Mounds study area, Clark says that an independent study commissioned by the Knight Foundation has estimated that if a national park and preserve is established here, the number of annual visitors to the area would grow from 207,000 today to nearly 1.4 million over the next 15 years. Total park-related economic activity would increase from $26.7 million to $233 million and park-related jobs would rise from 357 to 3,171, the organization found.

Foundations for a vast national park, he adds, have been laid through local, state and federal conservation efforts. Tens of thousands of acres from Macon to Robins Air Force Base south to Hawkinsville have been protected through a patchwork of hunting clubs, state wildlife management areas and the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Commanders at the base have backed the park’s expansion farther south on the expectation that it will protect from development areas vital for flight operations.

The idea of bringing these state-managed hunting and fishing lands under the umbrella of the National Park Service has been met with concern from the ONPPI, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Wildlife Federation, the state’s oldest conservation organization. Clark and Mike Worley, director of the federation, say that rather than federal control, they foresee service agreements that maintain state management and could extend the defined national park and preserve around Georgia’s Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee wildlife management areas to Hawkinsville.

“There is plenty of precedence for this in parks like Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio,” Clark says. “The preservation of the Georgia DNR’s management of state lands is a priority of ONPPI.”

Reached by phone the day after the tour, Worley said that the Georgia Wildlife Federation was initially skeptical of the national park effort — and that many members remain so. But the federation is now taking an active role in planning. He and Clark noted that lawmakers such as Reps. Austin Scott (R), whose district encompasses Robins Air Force Base, and Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D), who represents the Macon area, agree on the park’s importance.

Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) has also worked closely with the ONPPI on the study.

“For 17,000 years, the ancestors of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation inhabited these sacred and beautiful lands, which should be protected for conservation and recreation as a U.S. National Park and Preserve,” Ossoff said in a statement.

Said Worley of the added preserve designation: “National park and national monument status in a lot of cases [doesn’t] include hunting and angling. So absolutely there’s been both a lot of concern and a lot of interest among the hunting and fishing community to ensure that as this project moves forward, it does indeed include every opportunity that’s available to hunt and fish.”

Worley, Clark and Revis said they envision a 70,000-acre contiguous swath of hunting, fishing, biking and hiking areas should the national park and preserve come to fruition.

On Friday, National Park Service Director Charles F. “Chuck” Sams III said: “Acquiring the Ocmulgee Old Fields allows the National Park Service to tell a more complete and equitable story of America’s heritage. This expansion calls the nation to witness the triumphs and tragedies of the Muskogean people who are still here and active partners in the stewardship of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park.”

Back at the park visitor’s center, Revis proudly pointed out photos on the wall of her family, including a large portrait of her Aunt Addie, who once worked as a cultural ambassador for the park.

“Seth and I talked about it,” she said. “The opportunity came up and I’m here. I’m not here as a consultant, but truly as part of the team. It’s an incredible historical time to give back a cultural voice.”