By Leighton Akins
Take a trip with me back to the late 1930s. Franklin D Roosevelt is President of the United States, the Great Depression is nearing an end, and World War II is on the horizon. Approximately twenty-five miles north of Macon lay vast tracts of barren, eroded farmland that had been largely abandoned due to the lack of fertile soil, the boll weevil, and the economic upheaval.
Timber clearing in the 1800s and over-farming in the time since then had resulted in a devastating loss of the vital root systems provided by the forest that had once dominated this area of Georgia. Due to this loss, this vast stretch of land was quickly becoming a desolate wasteland; however, what appeared bleak to most was just beginning to blossom in the mind of President Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt had become a lover of the Georgian countryside during the time that he spent in Warm Springs, Georgia. When not soaking in the temperate spring water to help relieve the pain of polio, President Roosevelt would often drive his Ford convertible through the surrounding countryside and visit with farmers and other citizens living along these country roads.
The 35,000 acres that now make up the first of Middle Georgia’s two wildlife refuges was purchased in the later half of the 1930s by the Resettlement Administration (created by President Roosevelt as part of the New Deal). On January 18th of 1939, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8037 creating Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge.
Today, nearly eighty years since President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8037, Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge stands as an awe-inspiring testament to the forestry and wildlife management skills of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Begin your visit to the refuge by stopping in at their Visitor Center, where you can learn about the various wildlife that call the refuge home and the on-going conservation efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While at the refuge Visitor Center, be sure to pick up a refuge map, brochure, and bird-watching guide!
On an average day, a bird-watcher can expect to see more than a few of the countless species that call Piedmont NWR home; however, one bird stands out from the rest. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker is a small to mid-sized woodpecker with black and white horizonal bars running down its back, who boasts white cheeks. The males of this species possess a small red spot, called a cockade, behind their eyes. It is this red cockade that gives this woodpecker its name.
This beautiful woodpecker, thought to have been extinct at one time, was listed as an endangered species in the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Its numbers declined due to the devastating loss of habitat throughout the Southeastern region of the United States. The species remains endangered to this day. Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest in old-growth pines (80 to 100 years old), which have been largely removed from much of this bird’s range for timber and logging purposes. It is in protected forests, such as Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, that this endangered woodpecker continues to make a comeback.
While researching this fascinating bird, I learned many additional facts that I found incredibly interesting; however, when I began to share them with my wife, she basically ignored me, so I have decided to keep this section short in the interest of not boring my readers. Suffice it to say that the red-cockaded woodpecker is a rare species, with an unusual social and family structure that avian enthusiasts would do well to research.
In addition to bird-watching, the recreation seekers among you will find several small ponds that can be used for fishing — provided that you possess a fishing license and appropriate permit (always check the most current regulations on the refuge before going fishing).
While on a recent drive through the refuge, I came across Eric and his family as they were unloading their fishing equipment and heading to the pond located just off of Little Rock Wildlife Drive. Eric, a tall African-American fellow with the build of a pro-football player, stated that they fish at the refuge frequently and that they always find the fishing very good. He went on to state that they normally put in their lines at Allison Lake, near the refuge office, but that they were trying something different that day. I wished them the best of luck and continued on my drive.
If it’s a long walk through nature that you seek, look no further than Piedmont’s many designated nature trails and footpaths through the refuge. While the refuge has many unnamed footpaths through various parts of the 35,000 acres, the best views can seen from the 5 miles of designated hiking trails near the visitor center and along Little Rock Wildlife Drive. While on a walk down one of these trails, you could possibly see a family of white-tail deer, a lizard as it scurries for the protective cover of the nearest hole, or even the rare red-cockaded woodpecker.
Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge is a paradise for the person who seeks to escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city and reconnect with nature. If you are interested in visiting the refuge, visit them at https://www.fws.gov/piedmont/ first to plan your day trip. The Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge visitor center is located on Allison Lake Road, and it is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Friday except federal holidays.