Set between the rolling hills of northern Georgia and the flat plains of southern Georgia is a park with more than 17,000 years of continuous human history.
The dirt and clay earthen mounds found in Macon, Georgia, were once part of a capital-like city for what is now the Muscogee Creek Nation. Carbon dating of archaeological artifacts shows that the site predates Göbekli Tepe (a Neolithic archaeological site in Turkey) by some 5,000 years, the Tower of Jericho by 9,000 years, Stonehenge by 12,000 years, and Persepolis by 14,500 years.
Currently known as Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park (a designation that affords the area a lower level of federal protection than a fully fledged national park), the 2,000-acre area will likely be upgraded this year to become the United States’ 64th and newest national park.
If and when Congress grants the new status (it has yet to schedule a vote), the boundaries will expand to protect another 50,000-plus acres of floodplain, habitat for a rare species of middle Georgia black bear, and some of the most tribally significant land in the United States. It would be both the first national park in Georgia and the first national park comanaged by a tribal group that was forcibly removed from their ancestral lands.
“This land is incredibly important to the Nation, and we want to make sure that it’ll always be protected,” says Tracie Revis, director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative and a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation.
Within Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park are seven mounds—some that look like a small hill and others that are more obvious, like the Great Temple Mound, which rises 55 feet from the ground. The Indigenous locals used them for sacred ceremonies, as funerary sites, and for the village chief’s home, which was built atop the tallest mound.
In the early 1830s, the Muscogee Creek people (descendants to those who constructed the mounds) were forced off their southeastern homeland as part of the Indian Removal Act. Their journey to Oklahoma is remembered as the Trail of Tears.
Over the next 100 years, the site was subject to much abuse—in the 1870s, a railroad was built through the Funeral Mound, destroying an untold number of grave sites, and in the 1920s and ’30s, archaeologists unearthed and removed millions of items, such as pottery, weaponry, and jewelry, most of which was never categorized, so it’s not known exactly what was taken or where it went.
Efforts to protect the land have been in the works since the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt first learned of the area’s historical significance. He had wanted to create a national park then, but it would have necessitated an act of Congress, so instead, he created Ocmulgee National Monument, a distinction he could do unilaterally. Then, in 2019, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (a bill that protected 1.3 million acres of land throughout the country) redesignated Ocmulgee as a national historical park. In that same year, the National Park Service conducted a special resource study to determine if Ocmulgee Mounds met the “criteria for national significance, suitability, and feasibility” for national park status. That study wrapped up last year—the only thing standing in the way is the vote in Congress.
Luckily, according to Seth Clark, Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative’s executive director, the bill has widespread bipartisan support (it will be introduced by Georgia politicians on both sides of the aisle), as well as tribal and nontribal backing.
After the vote, the first order of business would be to begin creating a comanagement agreement with the Muscogee Creek Nation. “After celebrating a century-long advocacy effort to create a national park, that is,” Clark said.
What the legislation would likely do, Clark explained, is require that the federal government and the Muscogee Creek Nation negotiate what comanagement looks like. They’ll decide which land management practices need to be shared, what guidelines there will be about disturbing the land, and what hiring practices are necessary (like do cultural interpreters need to be tribal citizens), among other issues.
To Clark, the shared stewardship and management of Georgia’s first national park and preserve represent a big act of reconciliation to the area’s original inhabitants.
“It would be a significant increase in presence in their ancestral homelands,” Clark said. “Our city’s identity is deeply defined by the act of removal. We exist here because they don’t. I think it would mean a lot to both sides to have a partnership in managing this land that we each love so dearly.”