One of the largest national forests east of the Mississippi owes its birth to an environmental disaster. The history of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which takes its name from the river whose headwaters rise in the north Georgia mountains, is the story of a phoenix rising, not from ashes but from a rubble-strewn landscape left in the wake of clear-cut logging on an industrial scale.
The history of the land encompassing the Chattahoochee National Forest extends back centuries to the Cherokee. Their homeland, stretching across North Georgia, covers the present-day national forest. It has been estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 Cherokee were living in the Georgia mountains by 1700. Under relentless pressure to surrender their ancestral homeland and make way for the growing influx of white settlers, the Cherokee were forced to cede growing portions of their land to the state of Georgia. Rabun County was established in 1819 on one large cession that occurred in 1815.
Trail of Tears
The discovery of gold on Cherokee territory near Dahlonega in 1829 further fueled the desire of Georgians to possess Cherokee land. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized President Andrew Jackson to negotiate removal treaties with Native American tribes in the Southeast. However, the great majority of Cherokees refused to leave their homes. As the 1838 deadline for removal approached, President Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson’s successor, directed 7,000 U.S. Army soldiers to round up approximately 100,000 Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole Indians at bayonet point and march them 1,200 miles to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma. It is estimated that more than 5,000 Cherokee from north Georgia died during the winter of 1838-1839 on the “trail where they cried,” known as the infamous Trail of Tears.
While this tragedy was unfolding, gold miners poured into the Dahlonega area, preceding by 20 years the California gold rush. Tons of gold were stripped from rich veins and scooped from creeks and streams. So much gold was mined that the U.S. mint opened a branch in Dahlonega in 1838. Left in the wake of the nation’s first gold rush was a landscape deeply scarred by uncontrolled mining and a decimated fish and wildlife population. However, environmental damage in north Georgia would soon become much worse and widespread throughout the region.
Logging on an Industrial Scale
Large lumber companies that made their way to north Georgia in the 1890s brought industrial-scale logging to the region. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forestland were clear-cut during the first decades of the twentieth century, leaving a rubble-strewn landscape where giant poplars, oaks and maples once towered more than 100 feet. The Tallulah Falls Railroad gave added impetus to uncontrolled logging by enabling companies to ship lumber to northern markets hungry for this natural resource.
Narrow-gauge railways were built into mountain hollows by lumber companies, blasting out entire hillsides to gain access to remote forests. Splash dams were built across mountain streams to build up water to a level sufficient for holding hundreds of felled trees. When these dams were dynamited, enormous floods swept the trees down the mountain to waiting oxen teams and railway cars. Mountainsides were severely eroded and disfigured, while fish and wildlife populations were devastated. The Byrd-Matthews sawmill vividly illustrates the magnitude of what was happening. Located near Helen in White County, this sawmill was the largest east of the Mississippi, cutting 70,000 board-feet or 13 miles of lumber every day at its peak in 1917.
Nantahala National Forest
In response to the devastation of the nation’s forestland, Congress enacted the Weeks Act in 1911, authorizing the United States Forest Service to purchase clear-cut land with the goals of reforestation, controlling soil erosion and maintaining navigable waterways. The Forest Service started buying land in Rabun County in 1913 for $7.50 per acre, which generated another bonanza for the logging companies. Having originally paid only $1 to $2 per acre, the loggers were only too happy to sell their now-worthless land at a huge profit. Tens of thousands of additional acres were purchased from logging companies in other counties across north Georgia. On this land, together with large tracts of clear-cut acreage in North Carolina, the federal government established the Nantahala National Forest in 1920. This was the first step toward the creation of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
The goal of reforestation, along with managing existing stands of timber, wildlife, soil and water, was difficult, at best, to achieve, since scientific forestry practices were not widely understood nor welcomed by farmers long accustomed to doing what they wanted on their land, regardless of environmental impacts. Resentment also was widespread over the amount of land now owned by the government. It was into this setting that Rangers Roscoe Nicholson and Arthur Woody came to work for the Forest Service.
Forest Rangers Nicholson and Woody
Nicholson became Georgia’s first Forest Ranger in 1912. Under the Weeks Act, he purchased much of the clear-cut land for the Forest Service in and around Rabun County. His territory also covered large portions of North and South Carolina as well as land in north Georgia west of Rabun County. “Ranger Nick,” as he was known, was focused on transforming the region’s clear-cut landscape into thriving forestland. He was adept at overcoming resentment over forestry management through a sustained public relations program aimed at educating the public about sound forestry practices.
Clear-cutting had caused the deer and trout populations to virtually disappear in north Georgia, and Woody spearheaded the effort to repopulate the region with wildlife. He shipped trout from hatcheries in Gainesville and released them into mountain streams. Woody also purchased fawns with his own money and fed them until they could be released on what became the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Fannin, Union and Lumpkin counties.
New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps
However, many of Nicholson’s and Woody’s plans could not be implemented due to a lack of funding and a shortage of labor. That began to change in 1933 when New Deal legislation created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a peacetime army of unemployed young men recruited to work on conservation and other land improvement projects. Four CCC camps, totaling nearly 1,000 men, were established in Rabun County by the summer of 1933. Another 30 CCC camps were formed in north Georgia that year.
The CCC was focused on reforestation and alleviating the problems of soil erosion and stream siltation. In addition to planting hundreds of thousands of trees, Rabun’s CCC camps improved 6,000 acres of existing timber and worked to protect the county’s remaining stands of white pines, which had become an endangered species. The CCC also built new roads and improved existing ones, strung telephone lines and built the fire tower atop Rabun Bald that still stands.
Chattahoochee National Forest Established in 1936
In response to the progress made by the CCC and the work of Rangers Nicholson and Woody, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Chattahoochee National Forest as a separate entity from the Nantahala on July 9, 1936. Today, the Chattahoochee National Forest encompasses more than 750,000 acres, stretching west from Rabun across the northern tier of Georgia counties. On November 27, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the Oconee National Forest on 96,000 acres of federal lands in middle Georgia. The Oconee subsequently joined the Chattahoochee to form the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests that today totals a combined 867,000 acres.
The economic impact of the Chattahoochee National Forest is enormous. It is a destination for millions of visitors annually, whose spending injects millions of dollars into local communities. In addition to tourism, the Forest protects water resources and wildlife, operates a trout hatchery and manages responsible timber harvesting.
It is an irony of history that environmentally devastated land gave rise to the Chattahoochee National Forest. Or perhaps it can be said this was a case of unintended consequences, which frequently yield results less than desirable. In this case, the result was a sprawling national forest that has been a mainstay of northeast Georgia’s economy for decades.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia in August 2023.