The Oconee District

A Piedmont conservation success story that could be even better
by John Paul Schmidt : District Leader

The 115,000-acre Oconee National Forest is the only Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests ranger district located entirely in Georgia’s Piedmont region. As Paul Sutter notes in his 2015 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South, Piedmont national forest lands, unlike those in the mountains, originated in a federal mission to control soil erosion, and have been managed differently, with a primary focus on pine silviculture. In fact, for several decades, before the Forest Service ended the timber program on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, timber harvested from the Oconee Ranger District was a major revenue generator for the entire forest. While pine production on the Oconee District is, as intended, an excellent demonstration of what environmentally sensitive and soil-conserving forestry practices should look like – broad riparian buffers, slopes maintained in hardwood and mixed forest, bottomlands largely set aside – its predominance diminishes the potential value of the district for recreation. Despite a number of unique and expansive examples of Piedmont natural communities, the district has few dedicated hiking trails and mainly attracts hunters, fishermen, boaters, horseback-riders, and off-road vehicle enthusiasts.

The value of the Oconee District as non-game wildlife habitat – other than the red-cockaded woodpecker – has also received short shrift. The 1995 designation of the forest south of I-20 as a Habitat Management Area to support recovery of this federally endangered woodpecker resulted in a management regime of regular controlled burns to maintain most uplands as open pine savannas. Around the same time, burning not just uplands, but also on slopes and bottomlands was scaled up as Congress provided increased funding for prescribed fire on the national forests. This policy was intended to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires on public lands in the West, but now is in effect nationwide. Although fire, beneficial for some species, and important in managing some habitats, was certainly present historically in the Piedmont, the long-term effects on ecosystems and plant and animal populations are uncertain. A third of the Oconee District is target for controlled burns each winter and early spring – a level of burning that seems to be motivated by budget rather than management priorities.

Despite its origins in an effort to retire degraded lands from farming, the Oconee District is made up of a diversity of forest types and terrains. Small scenic outcrops, knobs or mounts formed from mafic geology that were preserved as woodlots during the agricultural era are scattered across uplands where they support a dry oak-hickory forest that often includes Shumard oak. The Monticello glades, an extensive area of mafic uplands underlain by an impervious layer creating semi-wetland conditions, supports an unusual species assemblage that includes sabal palmetto (Sabal minor) and the rare Oglethorpe oak (Quercus oglethorpensis). The 1,100-acre Murder Creek Research Natural Area, designated by Congress in the 1970s, protects an impressive remnant of mature Piedmont bottomland hardwoods. Equally impressive bottomland hardwoods occur along Rock Creek southwest of Eatonton where open pine-oak woodlands cover slopes and uplands. The Scull Shoals area in Oglethorpe and northern Greene counties forms a 4,000-acre contiguous section of forest surrounding a large complex of beaver ponds and associated wetlands. Large contiguous holdings with sizeable expanses of swamp and bottomland forest in the Ocmulgee and Oconee drainages make up the southernmost portion of the Oconee National Forest in Jasper, Jones and Putnam counties. Other sensitive or rare plant species with known populations on the district include relict trillium (Trillium reliquum), ovate catchfly (Silene ovata), lance-leaved trillium (Trillium lancifolium), trailing trillium (Trillium decumbens), Carolina anemone (Anemone caroliniana), shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), log fern (Dryopteris celsa), southern twayblade orchid (Listera australis), bottomland skullcap (Scutellaria nervosa), and oval ladies tresses (Spiranthes ovalis).

Despite the diversity and extent of unique, high-quality Piedmont natural areas on the Oconee National Forest, only 7% of the forest is set aside either congressionally as wilderness, national recreation, national scenic, or research natural areas, or as botanical or recreation areas within the Forest Plan. Nor has the potential to expand the best-preserved existing features been given adequate consideration as a management goal within the Plan. The upcoming revision of the Forest Plan provides the opportunity to address these issues and, hopefully, to broaden conservation and restoration efforts on Georgia’s Piedmont national forest.

John Paul Schmidt is a Research Scientist in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.