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Photo: National Park Service

Statement of Craig D. Obey

Congressional Testimony

Craig D. Obey, Vice President for Government Affairs
National Parks Conservation Association

Department of Interior Oversight Hearing
on the
Protection of Native American Sacred Places

Submitted to the
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
U.S. Senate

August 2, 2002
Washington, D.C.

   The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) appreciates the opportunity to submit written testimony regarding the Department of Interior's management of portions of the Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property (District) located in Macon, Georgia. The sacred area, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, encompasses both Ocmulgee National Monument managed by the National Park Service and Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A Georgia Department of Transportation road project could cause irreparable harm to these precious lands, and contributed to NPCA's decision this year to place Ocmulgee National Monument on our annual list of America's Ten Most Endangered National Parks.1

   Founded in 1919, NPCA is the only private, nonprofit national advocacy organization dedicated exclusively to protecting, restoring, and enhancing national parks. Across the nation, 350,000 members support our organization in these endeavors including more than 6,500 in Georgia. Many Native American sacred sites fall within the boundaries of public lands managed by the National Park Service, and often the preservation of these places is integral to preserving the integrity of the park units. Our decision to place Ocmulgee National Monument on our endangered list this March is both intended to focus attention on the specific risks at Ocmulgee and to highlight systemic threats throughout the national park system.

National Significance of the Traditional Cultural Property2
   Congress first recognized the national significance of this area in 1934 by authorizing the creation of Ocmulgee National Monument. The legislation states that "lands commonly known as the 'Old Ocmulgee Field' upon which certain Indian mounds of great historical importance are located, comprising approximately two thousand acres, in and around the city of Macon….shall be set aside as a national monument."3

   The present monument encompasses 702 acres, less than half the size originally authorized since the remaining lands have never been acquired. The main unit adjacent to downtown Macon contains seven temple mounds, as well as the Funeral Mound with more than 100 burials some adorned with artifacts of copper and marine shell. The Earthlodge, a ceremonial building with the original floor dating back 1,000 years is also located here. A second 45-acre site, the Lamar Mounds and Village Unit, sits a mile or so to the southeast separated by privately owned lands. A spiral ramp ascending one of the Lamar Mounds is the only one known to exist in the United States.

   Ocmulgee National Monument is one of the few units of the park service that documents a continuous record of human occupation dating back 10,000 to12,000 years. The fertile banks of the Ocmulgee River attracted settlers from all major cultural periods—Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, and Historic. Remnants of these cultures include the first "Clovis" Ice Age spear point found in situ in the Southeast, along with embellished pottery, stone effigies, a copper "sun disk," and puma jawbones covered with copper.

   Centuries of disruption by European settlers destroyed the flourishing cultures of the Macon Plateau and the nearby floodplains. In 1540, Hernando de Soto's expedition became the first Europeans to encounter the native inhabitants of this area, then thriving at the Lamar site. This "first contact" introduced new diseases and brought social disorder. By 1690, the British established a trading post on the Macon Plateau, attracting many Muscogean-speaking people back to the Ocmulgee River, known then as the "Ochese-hatchee" (Ochese Creek). The British first referred to these people as the Ochese Creek Nation, and eventually simply called them the "Creeks." Almost a century later, William Bartram, the naturalist and explorer, followed the Lower Creek Trading Path to the then uninhabited area, and wrote of "the wonderful remains of the power and grandeur of the ancients in this part of America." He also noted that in an "account the Creeks give of themselves, this place is remarkable for being the first town or settlement, when they sat down (as they term it) or established themselves, after their emigration from the west..."

   Despite encroaching settlers, the Ocmulgee Old Fields remained revered by the Muscogee (Creek) people. In 1805, when they were forced to cede all their land holdings between the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers, they refused to give up the 3 by 5 mile "Old Ocmulgee Fields Reserve." Twenty years later, Chief William McIntosh signed a treaty relinquishing ownership of the last Creek lands, including the "Reserve" tract, and tribal members subsequently executed him. Within a matter of years, the remaining Muscogee people were forcibly removed to Oklahoma. The sacred Ocmulgee Old Fields became an oddity steeped in legend as they were incorporated into the town of Macon in 1828. A local newspaper reported, "The site is romantic in the extreme; that, with the burial mounds adjacent, have long been favorite haunts of our village beaux and belles, and objects of curiosity to strangers. We should regret to see these monuments of antiquity and of our history levelled by the sordid plow—we could wish that they might always remain as present, sacred to solitude, to reflection and inspiration."

   The federal government realized that this area represented more than an "object of curiosity" when it established the National Monument. In 1997, the national significance of the area was again confirmed when the Old Fields became the first Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) east of the Mississippi River. The National Register of Historic Places includes the traditional cultural property listing "because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community's history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community."4 The area is regarded as the "Cradle of the Muscogee Confederacy" for the federally recognized Muscogee (Creek) Nation, the Creek Independent Tribal Towns, and their kinsmen the Seminoles. It is considered the place where their ancestors first settled into an agrarian lifestyle, eventually creating a society encompassing a large geographic area.

   The Traditional Cultural Property includes Ocmulgee National Monument along with privately held, fairly undeveloped forests and floodplains stretching down the Ocmulgee River to include most of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The National Register of Historic Places Determination of Eligibility states that these lands contain 20 known archaeological sites, but no extensive survey has been done and eight additional sites were recorded in the last two years. The privately owned lands are also the location of the deepest peat deposits in Georgia outside of the Okefenokee Swamp. These deposits remain unexplored despite the likelihood of them containing well-preserved organic artifacts and a record of environmental changes over a vast span of time. In addition to these resources, the area's wetlands support diverse native wildlife, including woodstorks, black bear, bald eagles, and alligators.

Historic Threats and Adverse Impacts
   In his opening remarks, Chairman Inouye stated that many sacred sites were left "vulnerable to desecration and destruction" after the onslaught of European settlement. This was certainly the case at the Ocmulgee Old Fields and, sadly, it has continued even in recent history.

   Ill-conceived transportation projects from the past have left their mark on both the Monument and neighboring private lands. In 1843, a railroad line passed through the Lesser Temple Mound. After the Civil War, a second line devastated a portion of the Funeral Mound unearthing burials and sacred relics preserved only in newspaper accounts. During the late 1800s, the town of Macon used earth from the McDougal Mound as fill dirt for a local street project. In 1933, concerned citizens approached the Smithsonian Institute to examine the significance of the area, and within a year, Congress addressed creating a national monument. In the 1960s, the federal government constructed Interstate 16 straight through the monument's mile-long river boundary, severing the Macon Plateau Unit from the Lamar Unit and from the Monument's most important resource, the Ocmulgee River. This roadwork led to the discovery of three burials and numerous artifacts, including another "Clovis" point. A number of archaeological sites situated within and just outside the monument were destroyed, including Adkins Mound.

Current Threats
   Once again, a road project threatens the Ocmulgee Old Fields and the National Monument. In 1985, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) first started planning the Fall Line Freeway, a four-lane, divided highway to connect Augusta, Macon, and Columbia. The highway was seen as an economic catalyst for communities without access to a four-lane road. It follows the path of the fall line, a natural delineation where the piedmont meets the coastal plain. An extension of the Eisenhower Parkway became its preferred route through Macon, a proposal that would bisect the Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property and further degrade the National Monument.

   In 1996, the Georgia Department of Transportation opened the comment period for the scoping process of the Eisenhower Parkway Extension Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). NPCA both attended the public hearing and provided written comments questioning the limited scope of the project. Until that point, the less-than four-mile long project had been packaged as part of the more encompassing Fall Line Freeway. Making it a local project limited the study area and potential number of alternatives, justifying the preferred route through the Traditional Cultural Property. Before plans for this freeway, GDOT's traffic counts failed to validate construction of the Eisenhower Parkway Extension. To further complicate the issue, even the local newspaper continues to confuse the Eisenhower Parkway Extension with the Fall Line Freeway.

   More than six years later, the state agency continues to work on the EIS without any drafts distributed publicly. The first draft submitted by GDOT was rejected by the Federal Highway Administration. Later, internal drafts of the EIS were circulated to participating federal agencies for comment. A public draft is currently slated for release this winter. Throughout the process, the Muscogee Creek Nation has opposed the project by passing three National Council Resolutions and sending letters stating the reasons for their opposition. The Creek Independent Tribal Towns have also stated their opposition. The National Parks Conservation Association, along with other local and national organizations, has joined them in opposing the routing of this project through the Traditional Cultural Property. NPCA views this as one of the most significant threats to our parks nationwide.

   With the last cost estimates close to $130 million, the Eisenhower Parkway Extension requires local, state, and federal funds. Since all of the routes that have been seriously proposed will negatively impact the Traditional Cultural Property or other historic districts, in addition to Ocmulgee National Monument, wetlands, and endangered species habitat, section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act (49 U.S.C., Section 303) applies. This provision states:

"It is the policy of the United States Government that special effort be made to preserve the natural beauty of the countryside and public park and recreation lands, wildlife and waterfowl refuges, and historic sites."

Accordingly, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) may only approve a federally funded transportation project affecting public lands, historic resources, or sensitive environmental resources if:

  1. there is no prudent and feasible alternative to using that land; and
  2. the program or project includes all possible planning to minimize harm….

Those who oppose the routes currently proposed for this project, including NPCA, feel that "prudent and feasible" alternatives exist, including "no build." Seven of the ten routes outlined by GDOT pass through the Traditional Cultural Property, and the remaining options seem highly impractical. Ultimately, the FHWA must very carefully weigh the "purpose and need" for the local project against the lasting damage that will be done to nationally significant 4(f) properties—damage that cannot be mitigated.

Encouraging Best Protection Practices
   Clearly, a highway through this area is inappropriate, given the cultural, historic, and natural significance of the Ocmulgee Old Fields. Both the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of Interior have a responsibility to protect the resources within their designated boundaries from this immediate threat and should continue to actively participate in the EIS process.

   Both agencies should also become involved with proactive efforts to permanently protect the Ocmulgee Old Fields. NPCA encourages the Department of Interior to survey resources within the Traditional Cultural Property to determine if the significance merits their inclusion as public lands. Given the authorizing legislation for Ocmulgee National Monument, it appears that this park unit remains incomplete. In 1992, a local family donated 300 acres to Ocmulgee National Monument. This property, known as the Scott McCall Archaeological Preserve contains known archaeological sites. Currently, the Archaeological Conservancy is holding these lands adjoining the present monument's southeastern boundary. Similarly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been evaluating wetlands north of Bond Swamp for inclusion in the wildlife area.

   While this hearing specifically addresses the management practices of the Department of Interior, the Federal Highway Administration has the central role to play in the future protection of the Old Fields. The FHWA must oversee the EIS process conducted by the Georgia Department of Transportation and determine if the state agency complied with applicable law. We encourage the Committee to scrutinize the adequacy of the FHWA's oversight of the Native American consultations, Section 4(F) compliance, environmental justice issues, and selection of the routes. They must determine if there is a "prudent and feasible" alternative, or if "no build" is an appropriate choice. Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony.

 


1 The following website contains more information on NPCA's Ten Most Endangered Parks list: http://www.npca.org/what_we_do/ten_most_endangered

2 The Ocmulgee National Monument website gives additional information on the historical and cultural significance of the Old Fields including a timeline of events.

3 48 Stat. 958-959

4 "Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties," Parker, Patricia L. and King, Thomas E.;


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