Enriching a Georgia treasure

The National Park Service has taken the first steps in a process that could expand the Ocmulgee National Monument’s size, as well as its economic impact on surrounding communities. The park is looking for public input on a study to determine whether lands near the monument are suitable for inclusion within the park.

The Ocmulgee National Monument was authorized by Congress in 1934 to protect lands recording 17,000 years of human activity in the Ocmulgee River valley, including the region’s beloved Indian Mounds. Unfortunately, when the site was officially designated in 1936, land acquisition was limited to 675 acres. Since then, only a few acres have been added.

A boundary expansion will ensure the preservation of a rich archaeological landscape, representing the history of the Southeast from the Ice Age to the era of Indian removal. It includes one of the great Mississippian-era settlements in North America, sites sacred to contemporary Muscogee Creek people and elements of the stories of the American frontier, the Creek Civil War and Tecumseh’s Rebellion and the War of 1812.

Today, the Ocmulgee National Monument is Middle Georgia’s most popular tourist destination — attracting 109,000 visitors and adding $5.4 million to the economy in 2010. In fact, America’s national parks are significant economic engines for their local communities. The parks receive only one-thirteenth of 1 percent of the federal budget, or roughly $2.9 billion annually. Yet park-based visitor spending adds much more to the national economy.

In the case of the Ocmulgee National Monument, current economic impacts could grow substantially if the monument is expanded and linked to other public lands along the river, including the Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Oaky Woods and Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Areas to the south. The true value of the monument to the region’s recreation and heritage tourism economy has yet to be realized.

As Georgia’s urban population continues to grow, the need for park land, open space and recreational amenities also increases. This growing desire is reflected in the recent formation of a multicounty partnership to establish an Ocmulgee River Blueway paddle trail. Eleven counties have passed resolutions supporting the Blueway and the establishment of new access points for river-based recreation.

An expanded national monument would serve as a key northernmost piece of the Blueway, providing additional publicly owned river frontage and the potential for new recreational features such as put-ins, trails and camping facilities. It would thus also enhance the river’s scenic quality and help to build the case for designating the Ocmulgee as part of the National Water Trails System.

Concerned Georgians should support the expansion of the Ocmulgee National Monument and further protect this unique piece of our heritage, while providing a significant economic boost to the state. Please let your voice be heard. Submit your comments before May 19 at parkplanning.nps.gov.

Chris Watson is program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association’s southeastern office.