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Georgia’s Ocmulgee Mounds May Be America’s Next National Park

September 22, 2021

The decades-long movement to turn Ocmulgee Mounds into a national park and preserve is nearing completion. Here’s what that could look like—and why now is the best time to visit.

A sprinkling of ancient earthen mounds dot the undulating hills of central Georgia, and soon, this historic expanse could be placed in the national spotlight. Ocmulgee Mounds, a forested park in Macon with 17,000 years of human history, is well on its way to becoming the country’s next national park—and the first one in Georgia—a feat that could happen as soon as 2022.

Currently classified as a national historic park, the landmark is basically a 2,000-acre time capsule—it’s home to one of the National Park Service’s (NPS) largest archaeological collections with thousands of ancient finds dating back to the area’s earliest inhabitants of the last Ice Age, millennia before Egyptians erected the Giza pyramids.

And the park’s array of hillocks transport travelers to another important, more recent, time period: the Mississippian era. Built between 900 and 1100, these artificial mounds, crafted out of dirt and clay by Mississippian builders, were part of Native American villages, with public buildings, homes, and temples. From atop the grandest of the mounds, the 55-foot-tall Great Temple Mound, a masterpiece that required an estimated 10 million baskets of dirt, societal leaders watched over the village and out across its forested-swamp surroundings. Today, a staircase lets visitors snag the same view, while park trails link this site with other mounds and ancient gathering places.

While this rich history and distinct landscape have long drawn travelers to Ocmulgee Mounds—in addition to a number of outdoor activities on offer—the push for national park status means the destination is lingering in that sweet spot: when new infrastructure and experiences are being put in place, but the national park-size crowds haven’t quite landed. Here’s what the months ahead may hold, for Ocmulgee Mounds and visitors alike.

Inside the proposed national park and preserve

As a national historic park, a designation given to preserve areas with deep American history, Ocmulgee Mounds currently is comprised of 2,000 protected acres, which includes sites like the Great Temple Mound and Mississippian gathering place, the Earthlodge. But there’s more where that came from, says Seth Clark, Macon-Bibb’s mayor pro tempore and executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative (ONPPI).

“There are historic markers and mounds all throughout this corridor, I mean dozens of them that are unexcavated that have thankfully been protected by private landowners,” he says.

If Ocmulgee Mounds were to become a national park—the crown-jewel status of the NPS—it could expand to protect anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 acres of land. Congress, who ultimately will determine the park’s fate, would draw the final boundaries. And they could get the chance to do so as soon as mid-2022, after the last step in the national-park process, the NPS’ special-resource study, concludes in March.

One thing playing in the initiative’s favor? Widespread local support. The ONPPI is aiming for national park and preserve status, a title that allows hunting and fishing in certain park stretches, satisfying virtually all area recreationists, Clark says. This dual-designation status isn’t new. Others like it include Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, Denali in Alaska, and the latest addition to the national-park lineup: New River Gorge in West Virginia.

Enhancing central Georgia’s outdoor recreation

Beyond preserving history, national-park status could boost outdoor recreation along the Ocmulgee River corridor, starting with enhanced river access. The tranquil and Class I Ocmulgee River Water Trail spans 200 miles, from south Macon to Lumber City. Much of the land south of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park is privately owned, but as a national park and preserve, local officials could add paddling launch sites to make the water trail more accessible.

Another trail that’s already underway—and growing—is the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. The 12-mile bicycle and pedestrian path links Macon’s historic attractions, including Ocmulgee Mounds park and the Otis Redding Bridge, named for the musical icon who grew up in the area. In the future, the route could connect to a larger central Georgia plan to transform an abandoned railway into a 33-mile bike trail connecting Macon and, to the east, Milledgeville, creating dozens of trail miles throughout central Georgia—all linked with Ocmulgee Mounds.

The change in designation, and the resulting attractions, would likely increase park visitation. As this year’s record-breaking visitation across parks proved, Americans are going out of their way to cross national parks off their bucket lists. Experts believe an Ocmulgee Mounds National Park and Preserve could experience similar effects, with one report suggesting a potential six-fold increase in visitation, up to 1.3 million annual visitors, within 15 years following a new designation.

Naturally, as the area experiences around 100,000 annual visitors, that makes this the time to see the national-park-in-the-making. But Clark said beating potential crowds isn’t the only reason to put Ocmulgee Mounds on your near-future bucket list.

The societal reckoning sweeping across central Georgia

The area’s potential national-park status illustrates an important reckoning taking place in central Georgia—a movement travelers can support by visiting and learning about firsthand.

The Muscogee (Creek) people, ancestors of the Mississippian mound builders behind the park’s historic attractions, were forced off their southeastern U.S. homeland, including the sacred Ocmulgee Mounds area, as part of the Indian Removal Act of the 1800s.

They now live in Oklahoma, but former Muscogee Chief James Floyd, who retired in 2019, said hundreds of Muscogee people make pilgrimages to the park each year “so they can experience the feeling of returning to our homeland,” he says. Leaders, like Floyd, have worked in lock-step with the ONPPI to protect this treasured land.

Under Floyd’s administration, the Muscogee nation purchased land near the park “to begin to have a more formal presence by the nation and the Muscogee people, [for] showing our culture and exhibiting the ways in which we live in the present time,” he says.

“Part of the objective is to let people know we still respect these sites; it wasn’t that we just volunteered to up and leave,” he says, noting this is a common misconception. “We still retain our culture, and that culture’s tied to the southeast.”

Protecting an expansive mosaic of flora and fauna

Expanding park boundaries also means preserving central Georgia’s profusion of wildlife. The move could tether the Ocmulgee River corridor’s many natural resources, such as Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, with a southern terminus in Hawkinsville. The final product? A protected patchwork of biodiversity.

“Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park has more amphibian species than Congaree, more birds than Mammoth Cave, more reptiles than Shenandoah, more mammals than Biscayne—and that is without expansion,” says Heather Bowman Cutway, professor of biology at Georgia’s Mercer University.

The region is also home to central Georgia’s isolated bear population, along with the threatened Robust Redhorse sucker fish, a species that was believed to be extinct for over 100 years before it was rediscovered in the state in 1991.

The road ahead

Transitioning Ocmulgee Mounds from a national monument to a national historic park, a feat achieved in 2019, is a solid sign of progress. Nabbing national-park-and-preserve status, which requires an act of Congress, is no easy feat—but Clark is optimistic.

Feedback to the public-comment portion of the NPS’ special resource study, which analyzes the area’s fit as a national park and preserve, has been overwhelmingly positive, he says.

The proposal also aligns with the Biden administration’s emphasis on elevating Indigenous voices in public land management, as illustrated by the recent nomination of Charles F. Sams III, tribal citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla, for NPS director.

“Next year is the opportunity to get this done,” Clark says, noting that, if 2022 doesn’t happen, the park and preserve could be created in subsequent years. But he’s optimistic 2022 will be the year Georgia welcomes its first national park: “I’m not sure the stars could align more strongly.”