Saving Mill Creek’s Old-Growth
Author: Cliff Shaw
The Mill Creek watershed in Fannin County contains one of the largest surviving areas of unlogged old-growth forest on the Chattahoochee National Forest. Although part of Mill Creek’s magnificent ancient forest was clear cut by Forest Service timber sales in the mid to late 1980s, the preservation of over 300 acres of surviving old-growth is one of the great untold stories of this forest.
The 1,700-acre Mill Creek watershed was originally part of the 31,000-acre Gennett Tract, which was purchased by the Forest Service in 1912 from lumberman Andrew Gennett and his brother Nat Gennett. Except for areas that were cleared for farming in the mid-1800s, about 90% of the Gennett Tract contained “virgin” old-growth prior to its acquisition, according to a 1911 Forest Service timber cruise. At the time of its purchase, the Mill Creek drainage was dominated by huge American chestnuts:
As yet the chestnut blight had not crept south down the mountains, and often we tallied 10,000 board feet of chestnut per acre. It was a year of heavy mast; the ground was literally carpeted with ripe chestnuts. One could rake them up by the handfuls. The mountain hogs were too fat to walk; they lay on their sides and kept on crunching nuts. Today , scattered white skeletons, conspicuous among the living oaks and poplars, are the only vestiges of those magnificent stands of chestnut timber.
Under the supervision of the legendary Forest Service Ranger Arthur Woody, a “gigantic trout-rearing station” with 16 large circular concrete rearing pools was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 at the junction of Mill Creek with Rock Creek. Because maintaining Mill Creek’s water quality for the new fish hatchery was a top priority, logging in the Mill Creek watershed, including salvaging dead chestnuts, was prohibited by Ranger Woody and all subsequent rangers until 1985. Today, the rebuilt hatchery is known as the Chattahoochee National Fish Hatchery and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mill Creek’s fortunes would change when the roadless area evaluation process in 1985 denied wilderness study area protection for the 3,000-acre Mill Creek Roadless Area. With all protections now lifted, the Forest Service began to sell Mill Creek’s valuable old-growth timber after apparently disregarding the previous protection afforded to water quality for the fish hatchery.
Logging in the Mill Creek watershed during the mid to late 1980s outraged all those who knew about the area’s magnificent old-growth stands, including Congressman Ed Jenkins.
Representative Jenkins was born and raised in Young Harris, Georgia, and served as 9th District Congressman from 1973 to 1993. Protecting areas on the forest from logging was a top priority for Congressman Jenkins ever since he had sponsored a Wilderness Bill that protected four new wilderness areas on this forest in 1986.
The accelerating timber program precipitated by the 1985 Forest Plan prompted Congressman Jenkins to sponsor the Chattahoochee National Forest Protection Act of 1991, which created a suite of newly protected areas. One of these, the Springer Mountain National Recreation Area (later renamed the Ed Jenkins National Recreation Area in his honor) included the Mill Creek watershed. At last, the logging would stop in Mill Creek. But the Act accomplished even more — it established the Coosa Bald National Scenic Area as well as the Blood Mountain and Mark Trail Wilderness areas. When Congressman Jenkins needed ground-based information and a proposed map showing the boundaries of his soon-to-be-protected lands, he contacted ForestWatch District Leaders and asked for their expertise. Dubbed the “Chattahoochee Design Team,” charter members Dennis Stansell and Jim Sullivan were among those instrumental in helping Congressman Jenkins determine the final boundaries of these areas. Jim even testified before Congress on behalf of protecting these special areas. Once again, our ForestWatch boots on the ground were an influential resource for protecting the forest. We all owe the late Congressman Jenkins our gratitude for his contributions in preserving over 100,000 acres of this forest, including the thousands of acres of priceless old-growth these protected areas contain.
1. The Gennett Tract was the first parcel of forestland approved for purchase by the Forest Service in the eastern United States under the Weeks Act of 1911.
2. William Barbour, “A Bit of Chattahoochee History,” published in the September 1940 issue of The Dixie Ranger, a monthly newsletter published by the US Forest Service’s Region 8 headquarters in Atlanta.
3. From the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests’ 1985 Land and Resource Management Plan.
4. Our History: 32 Years of Watching Your Forest, Georgia ForestWatch 1986-2018