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Macon Telegraph: Whale of a Find - Oaky Woods Backers Cite Fossil Discovery

This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Sunday May 11, 2008

by Wayne Crenshaw

John Trussell has spent 31 years looking for a whale bone in the Oaky Woods wilderness in Houston County, but Amanda Rhonemus found one on her first visit.

Trussell didn't seem to mind, though, that Rhonemus made the discovery while Trussell was giving her Cub Scout Pack a tour of the wildlife management area on Wednesday.

"To find one on top of the ground in a whole piece is fairly rare," said Trussell, who is involved with a group trying to save Oaky Woods from development. "It's pretty exciting."

Rhonemus, an Webelos patrol leader, picked up the object thinking it might be an Indian artifact, possibly an ax head. When she showed it to Trussell, he immediately recognized it as the vertebra of a prehistoric whale.

To be sure, he consulted Thomas Thurman, a local amateur paleontologist, and Thurman agreed. They e-mailed photos to Dr. Jonathan Geisler, curator of paleontology at the Georgia Southern Museum and he confirmed it.

He said it appeared to be the vertebra of a basilosaurus whale, probably about 37 million years old. The whale averaged about 60 feet in length.

For Trussell, the find is ammunition for his case that Oaky Woods is a place worth saving. Currently leased to the state as a wildlife management area, the 20,000-acre woods south of Bonaire is privately owned and slated to become a housing development.

Trussell's group, Save Oaky Woods, is hoping for a deal similar to one announced in Paulding County last year in which a combination of local funds from a voter-approved bond, state money and private-foundation funds were used to preserve 6,865 acres.

Although budget cutting in the General Assembly this year chopped the $30 million requested for the conservation fund to $10 million, Trussell said that will not impact efforts to save Oaky Woods.

If a deal could be reached with the current owners, he said, there would still have to be a bond referendum and by the time all that concluded, it would be time for the next legislative session. By then, he hopes economic conditions might have improved enough to restore the conservation funding. Also, he noted, there are other avenues of state funding that could be used.

The bottom line, he said, is that efforts to save Oaky Woods are still going strong. The county has expressed openness to calling for a bond referendum, and Trussell said he believes the owners are willing to sell.

"We've got some things going that are still positive for the purchase of Oaky Woods," Trussell said.

State Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, agreed with Trussell's assessment that the cutting of designated conservation funds is not a major setback. Tolleson, who chairs the Department of Natural Resources Committee, also said talks with the owners of Oaky Woods are continuing.

"Between now and the next session more funding will come into the conservation fund," the senator said. "I think funding can be brought together, if a package can be put together."

Oaky Woods makes up part of the habitat of population of about 300 black bears, a key part of the case Trussell has been making to save it. The whale fossil, he said, is evidence of the historical significance of the site, which was once covered by the Atlantic Ocean.

It's easy to find fossilized sand dollars and sea shells on the property, Trussell said, but he has been looking for a whale bone on the site since he was 15 and had no luck.

Members of the Save Oaky Woods group have been giving tours of the site to try to generate public interest in saving it. Trussell was giving a tour toWebelo Pack 566 of Warner Robins when Rhonemus found the whale bone.

After Trussell identified it, she offered to give it to him. But even though he had been looking for a whale bone for most of his life, he told her she should keep it.

Contacted by phone Friday, Rhonemus said she has loaned the fossil to her son's school, Shirley Hills Elementary, where it is currently on display in the library.

"I thought it would be a great teaching tool," she said. "The kids were excited about it."

She added she had never heard of Oaky Woods previously.

"I think it's kind of sad they are wanting to develop it because there are such neat things like that out there," she said.

Any group interested in touring the land may visit, but after next week the tours will shut down until the fall, Trussell said, due to the heat.

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