by Chaya Tong, Georgia Recorder
December 26, 2023
Georgia is well on its way to getting its first national park.
Georgia’s senators along with U.S. House representatives, both Republicans and Democrats, are in the process of drafting legislation to make the Ocmulgee Mounds in middle Georgia a National Park. Bills in the House and Senate will likely go through in the early part of 2024.
Last month, the National Park Service completed a Special Resource Study assessing the national significance and feasibility of giving the Muscogee (Creek) cultural site increased federal protection. If the mounds do become Georgia’s first national park, they will also be the first national park co-managed by a removed indigenous tribe.
The Ocmulgee Mounds were built around 900 A.D. and were used by early Mississippian farmers for multiple purposes including a funerary site and the village chief’s home. It was later home to 60 villages that comprised the Muscogee Nation. Over 2,000 artifacts have been found in the area and date back as far as 8,000 or 10,000 BC. But in 1836, the Muscogee people were one of five tribes forcibly removed from their land during the Trail of Tears to what is now Oklahoma.
Tracie Revis, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and the director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, says the nation’s goal is to partner with the National Park Service and help make the park accessible so that the public can learn about the land’s 17,000 years of continuous human habitation and enjoy the natural beauty it has to offer. Under the co-management plan, the Muscogee Nation will help oversee the property, assisting with issues such as species and land management techniques and cultural or historic knowledge.
“It is bringing the original people back who can tell you the stories of this land whose words are still etched on the landscape, all over middle Georgia, helping to educate what that all means and bringing it together,” she said.
While the park may be in Georgia, Revis says the issue is much bigger than one state.
“It’s beneficial for our people in Oklahoma for them to be able to come back and enjoy this land and know that it’s protected and know that our artifacts are protected and our ancestors who are buried here in this ground are protected,” she added.
Efforts to preserve Ocmulgee have been ongoing for almost 100 years. Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt set aside 678 acres to make the mounds a national monument. In 2019, it became a national historic park, which was the starting point for the Special Resource Study and now, a chance at achieving national park status.
“We’ve made a case to our representatives in the Senate in the House, here locally, that it’s time to re-designate a full blown National Park and Preserve,” said Seth Clark, the executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative and a Macon-Bibb County commissioner.
The potential national park has support from both Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Warnock visited the site in Macon last month and reaffirmed his commitment to seeing legislation through for establishing the mounds as a national park.
Ossoff said that he expects legislation for the park will move forward in the coming months. “I am working right now with colleagues in both parties in Congress to draw up legislation to establish Ocmulgee Mounds as a National Park and Preserve, which would create a protected space for its native sacred sites and preserve hunting and fishing rights for local folks,” he said in a statement. “We are making solid progress on this in large part because there is such unified and intense local support.”
The bipartisan effort has also been championed by U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, an Albany Democrat, for more than 20 years.
“Designating the Ocmulgee Mounds as a National Park and Preserve is a bipartisan, bicameral effort to help protect our state’s history and have a lasting, positive economic and cultural impact in Middle Georgia,” Scott said in a statement.
Bishop echoed Scott’s endorsement of the national park effort.
“Creating this national park will not only spur economic development in Middle Georgia and its surrounding communities, drawing tourists and recreators from around the country, it will also help conserve the land, preserve the history of Georgia’s indigenous people, and ensure this site’s legacy is appreciated and enjoyed for generations to come,” Bishop said.
Bipartisan support has been foundational to the project, Clark said, as well as approval from local people. “Middle Georgia is not a homogenous community. We are urban, we are rural. We are Black and white and liberal and conservative and the advocacy for this effort needed to match that,” Clark said.
Middle Georgians have strongly supported the park’s creation and were involved in the process from the beginning. A national park in the area is expected to increase tourism and boost the economy. An economic analysis of the proposed park by the National Park Conservation Association said that it could increase visitation six-fold in the next 15 years and bring in $206.7 million to the annual economic activity, supporting over 3,000 jobs through visitor activities and tourism.
The timing of the imminent legislation is, perhaps, most meaningful of all, coming just past Macon’s 200th anniversary.
“It’s just a very poignant moment that we are going through this together. Macon was chartered on the heels of Indian removal – that’s why we existed,” Clark said. “The creation of this park and the process of creating this park has been a real source of healing and reconciliation between the tribal and non-tribal communities working on it that’s needed to happen for a long time.”
Revis emphasizes that national parks, at their core, benefit all communities by allowing people to get outside and connect – no matter the political party.
“It’s beneficial for our health, it’s beneficial for our mental health, it’s beneficial for our family time together,” she said. “That is what these parks do. They allow us to have places to go and reflect and enjoy land that was here longer than any of us.”
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