November 28, 2013

Land along river could spur national park goal

Associated Press

— A land auction will result in permanent protection for 679 acres, the largest preservation deal in a pristine area of Bibb County’s river corridor since the creation of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in 1989.

The Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative, headed by Macon attorney and longtime Ocmulgee River advocate Brian Adams, led a recent effort to purchase the land, located off Bondsview Road in southeast Bibb County. But it was actually bought by the Ocmulgee Land Trust, using $815,000 provided by the nonprofit Peyton Anderson Foundation.

Formerly owned by Bibb County resident Steve Putnall, the property includes almost three miles of riverfront, with a tract completely surrounded by an oxbow of the river. Another tract adjoins Brown’s Mount and is crossed by Stone Creek. Mixed hardwood forests march across the uplands, while wetlands flood lower portions of land that was advertised as being rich in deer, ducks and turkey.

The sales of the four tracts are set to close on different days around the end of the year.

Adams said the land is among the most important of the privately owned properties separating Bond Swamp from the Ocmulgee National Monument. His group seeks to protect land in the river corridor between Macon and Hawkinsville, eventually through helping create the only “national park and preserve” east of the Mississippi River. (National preserve sections of the land would allow hunting.)

“This is such a significant piece of property within the corridor, and if it had ended up in the wrong hands it could have been a big problem,” said Adams, president of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative.

“When we heard it was going to auction, we dropped everything to try to make this happen. We’re so grateful to Peyton Anderson and the Ocmulgee Land Trust,” which helped put together the bid in less than a month.

Karen Lambert, president of the Peyton Anderson Foundation, said in an email: “The foundation acquired this property as one step toward encouraging and enabling the public sector to acquire this parcel of land as a part of the active initiative to establish a national park that would include the Ocmulgee National Monument and the Ocmulgee Corridor.”

The Peyton Anderson Foundation was also instrumental in the 1993 purchase and protection of Brown’s Mount, which is home to unusual rock formations, plant communities and a prehistoric archaeological site.

The Ocmulgee Land Trust, an organization that owns property as well as binding conservation agreements, is managed by NewTown Macon.

The tracts were the first purchased by the land trust since NewTown has managed it, but they were a good fit for the trust to pursue because “they are part of a long-term program of moving toward having a national park here in Macon,” said Mike Ford, NewTown’s president.

If more property becomes available that would support that goal, he said, the land trust would be open to acquiring those too.

Adams said no decisions have been made about who should own the former Putnall tracts in the long run.

The National Park Service has been drafting a boundary study to determine what lands would qualify to be added to the national monument.

The study has been delayed, said Jim David, superintendent of the monument, but it does not include the Putnall tracts.

It would have been part of the study except that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which owns Bond Swamp, was negotiating to buy the land and asked that it be excluded, David said. The Park Service had no problem with that, he said, believing the land would already be safe in federal hands.

Since that sale fell through and the property is now owned by a land trust, the land could eventually be given to either the National Park Service or the Fish & Wildlife Service, but it is likely to reach federal hands one way or the other. Adams said his group has been in talks with both agencies but hasn’t had time to decide how to proceed.

“At this point, we’re still on cloud nine,” he said. “We’re just so happy it’s protected and won’t be used for any purpose that will hurt our efforts” to make the Ocmulgee River corridor a protected national destination. He called the property “absolutely gorgeous.”

Adams said the Park and Preserve Initiative has expressed interest in buying more of the land that Putnall owns around Brown’s Mount if Putnall decides he would like to sell it. Adams praised Putnall’s stewardship of the tracts purchased Saturday.

David said protection of the former Putnall land is very important to the national monument. It will be harder to add to the monument because it was excluded from the boundary study, but David said it might still be possible.

David had expected the boundary study, the first step in expanding the footprint of the national monument, to be finished by late spring. Instead, he now hopes it will be ready for a public hearing in February or March. After that, a finalized version will go to Congress for approval.