Thank You For Helping To Save Oaky Woods!

03/23/2011

State Purchases a Major Portion of Oaky Woods!

By John Trussell

In 2007 where I and a small group of Oaky Woods supporters started "Save Oaky Woods", we were not given much of a chance of preserving the property, but we just had to try to save middle Georgia's last best wilderness area, and we had to hope that circumstances would change for the better. In December 2010, time was running out when the state made a strong push to purchase a major portion of Oaky Woods and high level negotiations were taking place. In fact, during the last deer hunt of the year, some of the DNR board members were given a tour of Oaky Woods on Friday December 3 by DNR Asst Commissioner for Operations, Todd Holbrook, and Lauren Curry, DNR Director of Communications. To support the purchase, several members of the “Save Oaky Woods” conservation group, including this writer, were present to greet the Board members and offer light refreshments during their visit. The board members seemed very interested in learning more about the property and carefully weighed all the facts related to the possible purchase. On Dec 7, the Land acquisition sub- committee voted 8 to 1 to recommend the purchase to the full board, and then on Dec 8 the full board voted to buy Oaky Woods on a vote of 11-6. The final hurdle was the review of the State Properties Commission. On Monday, Dec 13, they unanimously approved spending $28.7 million in state bond money on 10,015 acres of Oaky Woods and the deal closed out at the end of December. So finally, after 6 years of speculation and doubt, outdoorsmen saw a rare victory of conservation over development and now a major portion of Oaky Woods will be preserved for all Georgians forever!

Some Natural Resources Board members said the price was too high at $2,874 per acre, but that price fell between two appraisals, thus can be considered a fair market price and the state can only pay appraised value for property. In comparison, Oaky Woods Properties bought it for about $1,600 an acre in 2004 when Weyerhaeuser sold most their Georgia lands, a total of 400,000 acres. With such a large sale, Weyerhaeuser sold the land at depressed prices and many of the new owners resold their lands at a quick profit.The state passed on a chance to buy the Oaky Woods land then and the developers, Charles Ayer, Scott Free, Charlie McGlamery and A. L. Williams, set about to plan for up to 35,000 homes and businesses on the Oaky Woods property, but continued to lease the wma land to the state. They bought additional entrance right of way, applied for a bridge permit, petitioned Houston County for a waste treatment plant off Kovac Road, and paid for conservation and use assessments. However, when the economy tanked and development plans stalled, the owners and the state started new discussions and thankfully, those discussions where successful. The state was able to purchase the heart of Oaky Woods, with perhaps the most important bear habitat that lies along Big and Little grocery creeks. Also purchased were a 50 foot buffer around the perimeter road, plus the check station, workshop areas and additional river lands.

“Since 2003, the state has conserved over 200,000 acres through purchases, donations and easements,” Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Sonny Perdue, said in a prepared statement after the Natural Resources Board’s vote . “The conservation of Oaky Woods is a terrific addition to the state’s portfolio.” Todd Holbrook, DNR Asst Commissioner for Operations, said the purchase of Oaky Woods is” a crown jewel of land acquisitions for the DNR and the state has long sought to preserve the property. It is very important to preserve the Oaky Woods habitat for that small, isolated black bear population, the very rare black prairie chalk lands and the many rare plants, flowers and diverse habitat”. Kevin Kramer, Chief Region Biologist for DNR’s Fort Valley office, said immediate plans for Oaky woods call for the development of a 50 year management plan that will stress habitat improvement for wildlife, increased care of black prairie areas and improved public access. The good stand of pine trees will be managed primarily for wildlife and second for timber production. Currently valued at about 1000 per acre, the trees will provide a long term cash crop for state revenue. Kramer said that in the past the land was primarily managed for timber production and the state was very limited as to what it could do, because the land was only leased, not owned by the state. Now that the land is state owned, wildlife management will take a front row seat, says Kramer, good news for sportsmen. Raye Jones, long time Oaky Woods wma manager says that although he is disappointed that the state could not buy the whole wma, he is very pleased that a major portion of the wma will be preserved forever and looks forward to improved wildlife management opportunities on the wma.

Presently, Oaky Woods WMA is comprised of 19, 401 acres and of that amount, 16,286 is leased from Oaky Woods LLC. With the states purchase of 10,015 acres and 1117 acres already owned by the state along the Ocmulgee River, Oaky Woods will have 11,132 acres of state owned land. In addition, Houston County now includes 1998 acres in the wma, located on the south end of the property, around the land fill, thus the total acres that includes state and county land is 13,130 acres, thus Oaky Woods will retain two –thirds of its land mass, a pretty good outcome, says Kramer. In the initial wma contract, the state was set to purchase 9,595 acres, but in final negotiations, the owners offered an additional 420 acres on the south end of the proposed land map, which brought the total land purchased to 10,015 acres. The attached map does NOT include the 420 acres because the property lines were being drawn at press time. But basically, the 420 acres extends in a narrow band from the south end of this map and continues in a south direction to the mouth of Big Indian Creek at the Ocmulgee River. This is cut over, flood plain land, but as Kramer said, the trees will grow back and this is an important addition .The big question now is whether the state will be able to maintain the privately owned land in the lease, primarily the west and south portions of the wma, and keep it in the wma. Both Holbrook and Kramer said that decision depends on the new state budget and last year the DNR saw significant cuts in its lease funds and about 4,500 acres of Ocmulgee wma, lands north of highway 96, that were cut from that wma. Seventy five percent of lease monies tickle down from the federal government and the state only contributed 25%, but state law makers cut that 25%. Hopefully, those cuts can be avoided in 2011, and now is a good time to discuss this issue with your local Representatives. On Oaky Woods, the lease is 12.50 per acre, the most costly in the state and Ayers says the tax runs 11.25 per acre because the owners can not take advantage of conservation tax cuts due to their eventual plans to develop some of the property.

On the December 1-4 deer hunt, wildlife Biologist Bobby Bonds says that 448 hunters checked in and took 108 deer, 66 bucks and 42 does and that works out to a success ratio of 25%, pretty good for a wma hunt. The rut runs into late November and the first of December on Oaky Woods, so this hunt catches the tail end of the rut and some hunters reported chasing activity. Mike Taggard of Acworth, Clyde Yoder of Montezuma, Victor Williams and Allen Davis from Snellville, all brought in nice bucks to the check station. Kramer says the deer population is down slightly from the 1980’s when it was in the 28 per square mile range, but he now estimates that the population is around 20 per square mile. He says that natural mortality, degraded habitat and food competition caused by wild pigs are primary limiting factors, followed by a very small degree of predation by bears and coyotes during the fawn drop period. But in the near future, the DNR will be planting more native plants and creating more natural openings to increase browse for deer, which should help increase the population. Also, the very limited doe hunting on the wma is an effort to increase the herd and the population is now below the carrying capacity of the land, says Kramer, so there is room for growth. The last deer hunt of the year, a buck only, sign- in hunt, was held for Jan 1-7, 2011 and now the small game season is underway, but check the regs for full details.

Wild pig hunting continues to be a strong draw of interest to hunters at Oaky Woods, but on the Dec 1-4 hunt, only two wild pigs were checked out. Most hunters reported seeing little hog sign which is indicative of a lower wild hog population. Bobby Bond said this probably shows that the wild hogs have been hammered by the small game hunters and prededation permit holders during the off season, which is a good thing as wild pigs compete for common deer and turkey food sources. This writer saw several pigs running through the thick cutover areas but could not get a shot at them during the Dec 1-4 hunt. So if you try pig hunting during the small game dates, try the thickest cover you can find. Also try the creek bottoms, thick with maiden cane, along Big Grocery Creek and the slews along the Ocmulgee River. Make sure you take a gps or compass to avoid getting lost, because when the sun starts to set, it can get spooky down there.

As a side note, middle Georgia hunters and target shooters need to know that the Ocmulgee wma gun range is now has paid range officers on site to reduce accidents and assist shooters, according to Kramer, and there is still no charge to use the range. Range hours are 10 am to 6pm Tuesday –Saturday and 1pm -6pm on Sunday. The range is closed on Monday and check the DNR website for driving instructions.

In closing, this writer wishes to thank the many individuals and groups who assisted in the long effort to preserve Oaky woods.Terry Todd at GOA and and Steve Burch at GON have been very helpful in bringing breaking news on Oaky Woods to outdoorsmen . Pierre Howard, President of the Georgia Conservancy and Will Wingate, legislative coordinator, toured Oaky Woods with this writer and wrote supportive letters to the DNR Board. At the Georgia Wildlife Federation, Jerry McCollum Glen Dowling, and Sam Stowe provided booth space to the Save Oaky Woods group at their trade shows to talk with effected sportsmen. Thanks to Heather Duncan, who wrote several positive stories in the Macon Telegraph. The Save Oaky Woods Board was also very supportive, especially Sec / Treasurer Alex Morrow, Walt Wood and Art Christie. The Houston County Board of Commissioners, especially outgoing chairman Ned Sanders and incoming Chairman Tommy Stalnaker have been very supportive, as have state employees Todd Holbrook, Steve Freidman, Kevin Kramer, Bobby Bond , Raye Jones and the DNR Board. Principal owner spokesman Charles Ayer always maintained open lines of communication which was greatly appreciated. Brandon Trussell (digitalpeach.com) developed and maintained the Save Oaky Woods web site, a tremendously valuable service. Lastly, thanks to Gov Sonny Perdue, State Senator Ross Tolleson and Oaky Woods LLC for their efforts to preserve Oaky Woods. We will keep the web site active as we try to inform and educate Georgians to the tremendous value of Oaky woods and look for new opportunities to expand its borders. I hope to see you down at Oaky Woods soon!

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