Note; This is a special article written by Hunter Quintal, a student intern to the writer, who has now graduated and entered Brown University.
It’s a clear-sky Saturday morning. The hike was supposed to start about half an hour ago, but John Trussell is still parked at the entrance to Oaky Woods. Cell phone reception is spotty already, but I don’t even attempt to call John; he’s too busy directing the stragglers to my current location. It rained again last night, so the dirt and gravel road has transformed into a pasty, staining mud. In fact, I barely made it to this check station in my tiny Honda Civic. As I manage to group together this ragtag band of hunters, hikers, families, and scout troops, John and his wife pull up, followed by a veritable parade of cars. It’s time to begin.
John Trussell is a warm soul; he is all smiles and is incredibly patient with these hikers, young and old. He is in his element out here. Gathering us at the steps of the check station, John animatedly talks of the weather, where we will be hiking, and what to bring with us for the next hour or two. Plenty of water and a tolerance for hiking, if you were wondering- this hike went for about four hours. Leaving early isn’t really an option because only an experienced outdoorsman who grew up here, like John Trussell, knows how to navigate these woods.
Oaky Woods is found between the town of Kathleen and the Ocmulgee River, with parts of Big and Little Grocery Creek and Big Indian Creek passing through it, but even I had never heard of it. As a budding conservationist, I have a lot of respect for Save Oaky Woods’ efforts. This allocation of resources and public interest, as well as the tireless hours spent working with the state government to ensure the protection of over 13,000 acres in Middle Georgia is truly impressive. But when I first became John Trussell’s ‘intern’ of sorts, one question remained in the back of my mind, “What about Oaky Woods is so unique and special that it needs saving?”
I believe that Oaky Woods is special because these woods are of scientific and historical significance. These woods represent the culmination of changing water levels in the southeast and a resulting inland ocean, the eroding mountains of Appalachia which have provided for our current topography, the surprising diversity of the temperate forest ecosystem, the existence of a pre-colonized society, more recent proof of prohibition in our society, and current debate of development versus conservation of local wilderness.
Oaky Woods is a part of the Coastal Plain of Georgia, and is shaped today by events of the past. Between 542 and 490 million years ago during the Cambrian Period, shallow seas covered the eastern edge of North America, and sediments, sandstones and shales were deposited due to erosion. Thicker deposits of limestone formed in these warm shallow seas in the Mississippian Period, and westward flowing rivers deposited sediment to the region as mountains eroded in the Pennsylvanian Period.
However, the tangible proof of Oaky Woods history comes from the Cretaceous and Pleistocene Periods primarily. Mollusk shells found in the woods today are remains of marine sediments from the Atlantic Ocean that covered Georgia as far west as Macon. Abundant echinoids fossils (sand dollars) and an early whale’s fossils can be found today in the Eocene Ocala Limestone cliffs of Oaky Woods, which also come from this period. In the Pleistocene Period, large mammals including mastodons and mammoths inhabited Georgia. After years hiking and exploring in the Oaky Woods, John Trussell happened upon a Mammoth tooth, which is an incredibly rare find.
John passes out health waivers, explaining that Save Oaky Woods cannot afford to be responsible for any personal injury that could result from this hike. The organization didn’t even have enough money in its trust to maintain its 501(c)(3) title as a non-profit. He distributes them out quickly, eager to move to the fun part of the hike; he obviously would rather not deal with paperwork. John Trussell is a true outdoorsman. He then pulls out a mammoth tooth, pictures of an ancient whale bone that a boy scout leader found on a hike , and his own collection of arrowheads, and describes his treasures as a sportscaster would a championship game.
John Trussell represents the population of hunters, fishers, and outdoor enthusiasts that flock to the woodland areas of central Georgia. John grew up in Warner Robins, collecting arrowheads in Oaky Woods as a boy in the 1960’s and falling in love with the natural environment like so many others before and after him. This influenced Mr. Trussell to become an outdoor writer in his free time, sharing his wealth of knowledge with the general public through magazine articles and guest appearances across middle Georgia. As a retired Chief Probation Officer of Houston County with much respect in the courts, John now has the time, ability, and experience to stay heavily involved in the regional legislation concerning wildlife and wildlife habitats.
This put John in a position to aid the state in the purchase of the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area by land developers. Weyerhaeuser Company sold 400,000 acres (including Oaky Woods) in 2004. the developers Charles Ayer, Scott Free, Charlie McGlamery and A.L. Williams bought a lot of Oaky woods. These groups planned to construct tens of thousands of homes and businesses on one of the last true wildernesses in the state, but plans went awry when the housing market crashed in 2007. Oaky Woods Properties LLC had been leasing the land to the state, but the state could not receive the benefits of the timber industry until it was state-owned land. With a ragtag group of volunteers and a few friends in the Warner Robins- Perry area, John Trussell began gathering support for the preservation of Oaky Woods. He personally gave scores of hikes into Oaky Woods to enviromentalists, tv and newspaper reporters, scout and educational groups, to spread the word about preserving Oaky woods.
We proceed to drive even further into the wilderness and begin the hike. Around fifty people troop through semi-dense foliage single-file, resting every few hundred steps. In the next two or three hours, we come across many rock formations, limestone cliffs, a blown up and rusted over moonshine still, and countless shell fossils. And just like that, around forty hikers became connected to Oaky Woods. Oaky Woods became tangible, memorable, and real to locals. This impact is the very nature of community involvement. Public interest in Oaky Woods is a major factor in the preservation and continuity of these woods. This determines the availability and accessibility of support through individual contributions and expressed representation in the state and federal legislature. Oaky Woods is the sum of the flora and fauna that make it up and the humans that care for and defend it.
After consulting with Department of Natural Resources board members, the Land Acquisition Sub-Committee supported the state’s purchase of around 2/3 of the original land of Oaky Woods as it is of value economically as a timber source and naturally as a refuge for countless populations of plants and animals. Negotiations began for the state to acquire some 10,015 acres as state-owned property that would become a part of around 13,400 acres now known as the Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area and now the area is state owned.
John Trussell is incredibly proud of his efforts. As an avid hunter and outdoorsman, he continues to impact local policy as it relates to conservation and preservation of our natural resources. John has successfully urged the Ga DNR to move the Oaky Woods hunting season of an endangered population of black bears to December, which has drastically brought the number of female bear sows deaths down to a sustainable level. Since this population of 300 black bears represents the diversity and importance of Oaky Woods, the loss of habitat to urbanization would have wrecked havoc on the ecosystem. Luckily, public support and involvement prevented a pending catastrophe. This is one example of how modivated individuals can influence legislation. He proved, with the help of others, that it was in the public’s interest to move the bear hunt later in the year and defend the bear’s habitat to become a sustained resource, and the Ga DNR responded.
John Trussell maintains the public’s interest with continued articles on Native American remains in central Georgia woodlands, hundred year old name carvings in local Beech trees, and the incredible age and size of Champion Trees in the woods. He describes in his hike how the local Ocmulgee Tribe left thousands of arrow tips in the woods to be found by outdoorsmen such as himself. He also tells of the use of these woods as a refuge for moonshine operations during the years of Prohibition. John councils and advises wildlife legislature and believes that it is important to have a local habitat to appreciate rather than one that hours away. John also educates the public with guest appearances in schools and civic clubs.
The whole point of founding Save Oaky Woods as a non-profit was to ensure legitimacy of the cause and to make public donations tax-deductible. Once the goal of the non-profit was reached (to successfully lobby the state into buying Oaky Woods), the status of Save Oaky Woods as a non-profit was dropped due to expenses. However, the legacy of Save Oaky Woods and John Trussell remains with every individual that takes something from the gorgeous and historic Oaky Woods.
As I drive home from a four-hour hike, I am relaxed and content. The smile that has been slowly forming on my face refuses to leave.