The U.S. Capitol dome. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Trump signs bill to expand Georgia national park sites

Originally published on 2/26/19

WASHINGTON - Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield will soon grow, adding sites that help illustrate the Civil War conflict for visitors, under a public lands bill President Donald Trump signed into law on Tuesday. 

The same legislation will also add land for preservation and recreation to Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island — which traces its history to Georgia’s founder — and the important Native American site at Ocmulgee National Monument.

The enactment of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act allows the National Park Service to begin acquiring previously identified lands around Kennesaw, Fort Frederica and Ocmulgee near Macon.

“I’ve worked on these three bills in collaboration with state, local and federal officials for a long time to expand opportunities for visitors who will get to experience Georgia’s rich history and recreational activities and to provide a boost for our tourism industry,” Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said. “I’m thrilled to see it cross the finish line and head to the president’s desk to be signed into law.”

The new law clears the way for the National Park Service to fold 8 acres into the popular Kennesaw Mountain park north of Atlanta.

Cobb County and the Cobb Land Trust have been holding onto the land for years with the intention of donating it to the Park Service, but an act of Congress and the president’s signature were required to take the property off the county’s ledgers.

Read more:Proposals for Georgia’s national parklands 

The addition includes two sites of historic significance to the site where Confederate and Union forces clashed more than a century and a half ago, killing 4,000 troops.

One is the Wallis House, a boarded-up structure that dates to the mid-1800s and was used at different times by both Union and Confederate troops as either a hospital or headquarters. The other is Harriston Hill, which the Union army used as a signal tower as it approached Atlanta.

Expansions of Ocmulgee and Fort Frederica will likely take longer.

The law will eventually quadruple the size of Ocmulgee National Monument, a 17,000-year-old Native American site near Macon, to about 2,800 acres; immediately redesignate it as a national historic park; and authorize a three-year study to evaluate a potential expansion in the future.

Hundreds of acres of land in conservancy will be quickly turned over to the Park Service, according to The Macon Telegraph. The rest could be purchased from willing landowners.

Already one of the largest archaeological sites in North American history — more than 2.5 million items from the Mississippian Indians have been excavated there — park Superintendent Jim David told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016 that the expansion “would fulfill an eternal dream for this park.”

The law also opens the door to an expansion of Fort Frederica National Monument in the years ahead.

Founded by General James Oglethorpe in 1736, the site is one of Georgia’s oldest English settlements. But when Congress established the national monument in 1958, it limited the park’s boundary to 250 acres.

The measure increases the cap on the park’s size to 305 acres and allows the Park Service to acquire previously identified land within the monument — including a fort, magazine, ruins of soldiers’ barracks and other trails — from willing sellers or donors.

Long road to passage

The new Georgia protections were tucked into a broad 698-page package that shields millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of rivers across the country from development.

The legislation sailed through the House on an overwhelming 363-62 vote last month after clearing the Senate by a similarly bipartisan margin.

Trump’s signature brings an end to years of lobbying and near-misses for boosters of Georgia’s parks on Capitol Hill.

For the better part of the past decade, expansion proponents faced a string of roadblocks that included shutdowns, scheduling issues and cost concerns.

Most of the bottlenecks were in the Senate, where floor time was difficult to come across and individual lawmakers blocked quick passage of the bill.

Photos:Tour Georgia’s national parklands

Some of the disagreements were philosophical — there are several Western conservatives who oppose expanding the nation’s park system — and others were financial, said Chris Watson, who focuses on the Southeast for the advocacy group the National Parks Conservation Association.

At one point, Oklahoma Republican U.S. Sen. James Lankford, a deficit hawk, objected to the cost associated with the demolition of derelict structures on the Ocmulgee site. That required Macon-Bibb County to step in and cover the costs.

“Generally speaking, these bills take quite a while to work their way through the Congress,” Watson said. “What happens is you get people who will have different views on a whole range of issues … and you have to be willing to stick with the legislation and to keep coming back and to keep overcoming the obstacles.”

More recently, the 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government blocked passage of the legislation late last year.

The Georgia expansions came 13 months after Trump signed a bill creating the state’s first national historic park at the Martin Luther King Jr. site near downtown Atlanta.

Ocmulgee will now become Georgia’s second national historic park.

All three Georgia components of the bill were designed to be of little or no cost to the federal government. They instead rely heavily on the support of trusts, other private groups and local entities.

“Southerners really seem to love their history and their heritage,” Watson said, “and these areas really are the best of the best.”

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Staff writers Meris Lutz and Ben Brasch contributed to this article.