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A forrested stream with rocky shores.
Information icon Raccoon Creek. Photo by Brett Albanese, Georgia DNR.

A wildlife gem, in the shadow of a booming Atlanta

Braswell, Georgia — It was 1946, a cold night in the Blue Ridge mountains, and the six frustrated deer hunters hunkered down in a glade as the wind howled. Two days spent scrambling over the hills had flushed but one doe. The annual hunt was no longer worth the long drive from Paulding County outside Atlanta.

“What I’m figuring,” said E.F. Corley, a farmer, sawmiller, truck driver and ordained Baptist minister, “is stocking deer in the hills behind home.”

His buddies thought him crazy. Locals would “shoot ‘em before they could be put out of a truck,” one later recounted to Outdoor Life magazine.

Corley, though, ultimately convinced his friends and dozens of other Paulding County farmers, townsfolk and government officials that a hunting reserve would work. They raised $1,400, created a “conservation club,” pooled 12,000 of their own acres and made everybody promise not to hunt the land for five years.

Twenty deer (imported from South Carolina) soon bounded into the hills of northwest Paulding County, author Charles Elliott wrote. One-hundred wild turkey eggs and 20,000 fingerling rainbow trout were added and — just like that — a brand new wildlife reserve was created.

A small stream with overhanging tree limbs.
A little-known fishing hole along Raccoon Creek. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Today, the Paulding Forest and adjoining Sheffield wildlife management areas (WMAs), just 35 miles west of the Georgia state capitol, rank in the top 10 statewide for deer hunting and No. 2 for turkeys. Raccoon Creek, a main tributary for the Etowah River which flows eventually into Alabama, is a biodiverse gem with valuable habitat for at-risk darters, crayfish and mussels.

As Atlanta sprawls ever closer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), Paulding County and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which manages the 32,000-acre tract, are considering the WMAs a new breed of outdoor amenity. While hunting and fishing will remain paramount, luring school kids, garden club grandmothers, mountain-biking millennials and families that experience nature only through a car’s window into the wild takes on greater importance.

Metro Atlanta, like much of the urbanized South, suffers a paucity of easily accessible wilderness opportunities. The state-run WMAs are largely given over to hunting and fishing. The refuges managed by the Service are located far from most cities. Too few Atlantans visit the national parks beyond the Chattahoochee National Forest.

A map Raccoon Creek and surrounding public lands.
Raccoon Creek cuts through Paulding Forest and Sheffield WMAs. Map by Roy Hewitt, USFWS.

A key priority for the Service is the creation of a “conservation constituency” of urban, suburban and rural wildlife lovers who’ll support and protect nature well into the future. It’s not all altruism: more refuge visitors translates into more support in Washington for the Service’s programs and budgets.

“People aren’t going to want to protect the land unless they have access to the land so they can understand the benefits it provides,” said Robin Goodloe, a supervisory biologist with the Service in Athens, Georgia. “And the recreation in Paulding is not just hunting and fishing. It’s hiking, birdwatching, wildlife picture-taking and more. More people should avail themselves of it.”

Paulding has been important to the Service since the late 1940s, when money raised via the Wildlife Restoration Act (aka Pittman-Robertson) delivered a truckload of Wisconsin whitetail deer to the still-young reserve. Federal programs have since funneled more than $20 million to expand the WMA’s borders, protect its at-risk fish and birds and support the state wildlife agency.

In all, nearly $70 million has been raised from the federal government, the state of Georgia, the county, the Nature Conservancy and family foundations to turn Paulding into the region’s premier WMA.

“Hopefully we’ll keep this beautiful green swath the way it is forever as Atlanta sprawls this way,” said Tim Pugh, the environmental coordinator for Paulding County’s water system. “People are blown away at how pretty it is. It’s one of the best kept secrets in Georgia.”

Plenty of fish and deer

The Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont plateau and the coastal plain all come together at the Paulding Forest and Sheffield WMAs, creating a rich tableau of flora and fauna. Remnants of a “montane” longleaf pine forest overlay the wildlife area and stretch into Alabama. Fox squirrels, Bachman’s sparrows and Northern long-eared bats, as well as other at-risk species, populate the WMAs.

Brown and orange pine leaves extend from a young tree.
Young, old and recently burned longleaf pine in the Paulding Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Raccoon Creek teems with wildlife. Relatively clean – agriculture, industry and development are located a few miles from the headwaters – the stream is home to 43 native fish species. The famed Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest tallies 31 native species.

The Raccoon Creek watershed is the only known habitat for the federally endangered Etowah darter below Lake Allatoona. The largest known population of the Cherokee darter, a threatened species, is also found in the creek’s watershed. Etowah crayfish, a state threatened species, have been collected at several sites throughout the basin.

And, attention anglers: Raccoon Creek is one of the southernmost streams stocked with trout.

“This creek has a lot going on – there’s an Etowah crawfish right there,” said Brent Womack, a Georgia wildlife biologist, pointing mid-stream to the distinctive red-and blue-clawed crustacean. “It’s kind of a gem.”

A biologist on the bank of a stream.
Brent Womack, a wildlife biologist with Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, checks out a fish passage project along Raccoon Creek. Photo by Dan Chapman, USFWS.

Womack, on a recent, sun-dappled tour, pointed out the Paulding watershed’s natural wonders: the headwaters, hidden just below the popular Silver Comet bike trail, where 10-inch trout congregate; a ravaged wild turkey egg covered in ants; lowbush blueberry, butterfly pea, coreopsis and lespedeza; and the growing acres of longleaf pine forest.

“This is my favorite shot right here,” Womack said marching uphill through a healthy, newly burned longleaf patch. “We want to apply this thinning, burning and replanting scheme to thousands of acres here. That’s our goal.”

Forests, and then tree farms, covered much of the land cobbled together to create the two WMAs. Deer and wild turkeys, most imported from nearby Berry College, were stocked through the 1990s. A state fish hatchery in Summerville, Georgia, supplied most of the trout, bream and redeye bass.

Meanwhile, Atlanta edged closer and closer. The abandoned railroad tracks (now the Silver Comet) steered ATVs into the wildlife area where they tore up trails and eroded stream banks. Residential, commercial and industrial development marched out U.S. 278 from Atlanta and threatened to turn Paulding County into another Cobb or Fulton. (Paulding was the nation’s fifth fastest growing county in 2010.)

The Service and Georgia DNR began adding land to the still-small WMA in the early 1990s. The big money, though, started rolling in 15 years later. More than $24 million from state, federal and nonprofit sources translated into an additional 3,700 acres. In 2006, Paulding residents voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves $15 million to buy up another 2,500 acres.

The feds, overall, chipped in $21 million with grant money also coming through the U.S. Forest Service. Fish and Wildlife tapped Pittman-Robertson as well as Recovery Land Acquisition grants used to establish habitat for threatened or endangered species.

“Our saving grace out here is we’ve got Etowah and Cherokee darters in Raccoon Creek,” Womack quipped.

Millions of dollars are also being spent removing culverts and dams, rebuilding bridges and reintroducing upper Coosa basin mussels into the creek.

Access: Getting it right

More land will likely be added to Paulding Forest and Sheffield, but managing the WMAs – protecting at-risk species, maintaining deer and turkey populations, planting and burning longleaf – is now of paramount importance. With metro Atlanta edging ever-closer, though, state, federal and county officials must determine how much access to grant the public. Unlike national parks, WMAs aren’t in the tourism business. Paulding Forest, for example, doesn’t have a bathroom.

While birders and hikers are welcome, no designated trails run through the WMA. Access to the best fishing holes on Raccoon Creek isn’t easy.

“Recreation is going to happen and it should happen,” Womack said. “There are opportunities here for other user-groups like hikers and maybe some mountain biking and horseback riding. But that would take a level of management above what’s currently available.”

The state doesn’t tally how many people (beyond hunters) experience Paulding Forest and Sheffield WMAs. Anecdotally, though, the numbers are rising. A couple hundred Kennesaw State University students have done aquatic research along Raccoon Creek over the last 15 years. Ultimately, says KSU ecology professor Bill Ensign, an environmental education and research center might rise alongside the watershed.

High school science teachers from Paulding and Cobb counties take field trips to the WMAs. Boy Scout troops hike the dirt roads and earn birding and fishing merit badges. The popular Silver Comet Trail runs right through the Paulding Forest.

The Service struggles as well with how much access is too much access. Its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, though, states that “helping adults and children who live in our urban areas develop a love for the land is a 21st century challenge for the Service.”

Pugh, the county environmental coordinator, says local officials haven’t quite figured out what, ultimately, the Paulding Forest and Sheffield WMAs should be.

“It’s a tough question. We all realize it needs to be opened up, but there’s apprehension,” he said. “We don’t want it to just blow up and get over-used. But we don’t think it should be locked away either.”

Contact

Daniel Chapman, Public Affairs Specialist
daniel_chapman@fws.gov, 404 679-4028

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