Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest History

The Chattahoochee National Forest (NF) takes its name from the Chattahoochee River whose headwaters begin in the North Georgia mountains. The River and the area were given the name by the English settlers who took the name from the Indians living here. In one dialect of the Muscogee, (indian language) Chatta means stone; ho chee, marked or flowered. These marked or flowered stones were in the Chattahoochee River at a settlement near Columbus, Georgia.

The Cherokee and Creek Indians inhabited North Georgia. When the pioneer colonists arrived, the Indians learned new farming skills and lived in harmony with the pioneers. Then, gold was discovered. Indians were driven off their land in the tragic "Trail of Tears" relocation to reservations in Oklahoma. Land was given away in land lotteries. Gold was mined and almost every stream in north Georgia suffered tremendous damage from hydraulic mining. But nothing lasts forever, the gold ran out and the timber companies moved in on steel rails.

In the 1880’s, railroads began penetrating the North Georgia Mountains making timber easier to access. Large landowners built these railroads. These companies bought much of this mountain land for as little as $1.00 per acre. Their goal was to cut the timber, sell the land, and move on to another location. They logged the land for lumber and for bark of chestnut, chestnut oak and hemlock trees. Tanic acid was extracted from the bark, which was used in tanning leather. This was big industry in those days as almost every household item was leather or involved leather in its use.

Wildfire also took a toll. Sparks from wood burning trains and skidders ignited thousands of acres. Farmers lost control of fires they set to clear land, to rid the woods of insects and snakes and to improve forage for cattle and swine which roamed the woods. This loss of forest resources was about to change. Congress passed the Weeks Law authorizing land purchases from willing sellers to protect the headwaters of navigable streams and insure a continuous supply of timber.

The Forest Service purchased 31,000 acres in Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin and Union Counties from the Gennett family in 1911 for $7.00 per acre. Thus, began the role of stewardship on lands that would become the Chattahoochee National Forest.

In the beginning, the Chattahoochee NF was part of the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests in North Carolina and Tennessee. In the early days, managing the national forests for the "greatest good" was difficult. Travel over the forest was mostly on horseback. Accommodations were rustic log cabins or tents, (acquisition camps) set up for land examiners making additional purchases to the national forest. Many of these purchases were old homesteads but rangers slept out "in the field" on these management trips because many of the abandoned farm dwellings were infested with bed bugs. 

The Greatest Good:
A Forest Service Centennial Film

“ . . . where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question will always be decided from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

- Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester, 1905


The goal to manage timber, wildlife, soil and water, and recreation resources in the proper balance was hard to do. Scientific forestry practices were not widely accepted. It was into this setting that Rangers Roscoe Nicholson and Arthur Woody came to work for the Forest Service. These men did much to gain the support for forestry practices that nurtured the agency through its infancy.

Ranger Roscoe Nicholson, the first Forest Ranger in Georgia, negotiated the purchase of most Forest Service land on the former Tallulah Ranger District. He was responsible for getting telephone lines run from Clayton to Pine Mountain, purchased bloodhounds to track arsonists, and built the first firetower on Rabun Bald. Ranger "Nick," as he was called, made many small timber sales to local people providing many of them their only source of income during the 1930’s. Beautiful Coleman River Scenic Area near Clayton, Georgia was dedicated to Ranger Nick in honor of his promotion of conservation ideals.

Ranger Woody also promoted conservation. Unwise land and resource use had caused the deer and trout populations to virtually disappear. Woody brought trout and deer back to North Georgia. The trout were shipped to Gainesville and hauled across narrow, dirt, mountain roads and released in the 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.

Later in the 1930’s, the Chattahoochee NF entered into a Cooperative Wildlife Agreement with the State of Georgia and established additional wildlife management areas. Together, they brought in more deer, stocked trout streams and cultivated food plots for turkey and deer.

Many landmarks bear Ranger Woody’s name in tribute to his stewardship. Sosebee Cove, a 175-acre tract of prize hardwood along GA 180 is set aside as a memorial to Woody who negotiated its purchase for the Forest Service.

April 6, 1936, the worst tornado in Georgia history struck Gainesville. The Forest Service came in with its radios for communications and workers to help with clean up. Helping in this community effort built good will toward the Forest Service and established an atmosphere of trust.

On July 9, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the Chattahoochee a separate national forest. Also in July, 1936, the first Forest Supervisor’s Office for the Chattahoochee NF was located in the Hosch Building in Gainesville. Walley Prater was the first Supervisor. His staff included Roswell Levitt, Milton Bryan, Crawford DuPree, Ted Seely, Richard Lowndes, Clint Johnson, and Art Grumbine.

In 1936, the Forest was organized into two Ranger Districts, the Blue Ridge and the Tallulah. Today, the Chattahoochee NF contains over 750,000 acres, has three ranger districts and employs over 100 people.

One of the Chattahoochee NF’s first tasks was to write management plans. These plans included management of soil and water, wildlife and recreation resources, with emphasis on reforestation since much of the timber had been cut before Forest Service purchase.

Implementing these management plans was given a boost by the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC’s). Seventeen CCC camps such as Camp Woody near Suches were located on the Chattahoochee NF. These CCC’ers planted trees, checked and controlled tree disease and insect infestations, built firetowers, roads, ranger stations, and recreation areas, laid communication lines, and did erosion control work. The style of architecture developed for the CCC’s was distinctive as the improvements harmonized with the environment and used native building materials.

World War II came and the CCC boys went directly into the armed forces. This greatly reduced the workforce of the Chattahoochee NF and put the Forests at risk to loss by fire. Out of this need arose the most successful advertising campaign in history—Smokey Bear. Posters, media ads, and appearances by Smokey Bear soon made their way into almost every home with the message: "Only You, Can Prevent Forest Fires".

The Chattahoochee NF contributed timber toward the war effort. Red Oak was used for gun mounts and bridges. Basswood was used for dough boards and drawing boards. Poplar was used for airplane construction. After the War, new uses of wood and wood products emerged making the forests even more important. Recreation, home and industry use increased dramatically.

On November 27, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed 96,000 acres of federal lands in middle Georgia as the Oconee National Forest, and the Oconee NF joined the Chattahoochee NF to become the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.

The 60’s began with the signing of the Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield Act that specifies the national forests be managed for outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, fish and wildlife purposes in such combinations and manner that they will best serve public needs. The 1960’s were characterized by a wave of activity on the Chattahoochee NF. Tremendous construction efforts were undertaken to provide recreation areas within 50 miles of every major town. Roads such as the Richard Russell Scenic Highway were built for better access to the national forest. Perhaps the most spectacular recreation area constructed was Brasstown Bald Visitor Center atop Georgia’s highest mountain. Other recreation areas constructed or improved included Andrews Cove, Anna Ruby Falls, DeSoto Falls, and Lake Russell. Many of these improvements were made possible through human resource programs such as Accelerated Public Works and Operation Mainstream, which employed senior citizens.

Timber harvests also increased in the 60’s as the timber in the 1930’s began to mature. The largest timber sale on the Chattahoochee NF was made in January, 1964. It took five years to cut over 9,390 acres taking only 10 1/2 million board feet of timber. The explosive growth period in the 60’s brought concerns and greater appreciation for the nation’s natural resources. Environmentalism became the critical factor in forest management in the 1970’s. During the mid 70’s Cohutta and Ellicott’s Rock Wilderness areas were established. These areas offered forest visitors more primitive recreation activities in secluded areas.

The Chattooga River was designated a Wild and Scenic River during this time. One of the few remaining free flowing streams in the Southeast, the Chattooga offers exciting white water rafting and beautiful scenery. The movie "Deliverance" starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was filmed on the Chattooga River.

The 1970’s also brought increased emphasis on environmental education. Woodsy Owl became the national anti-pollution symbol. Earth Day ushered in ecology curriculums in schools. The Youth Conservation Corps and Young Adult Conservation Corps were taught sound environmental principles while they worked on the Chattahoochee NF.

The 70’s brought many changes in traditional forest management. Fire towers were phased out and replaced by aerial fire detection; the Chattahoochee NF hired its first minority professionals, and expanded disciplines brought more technical expertise to the forest.

The Chattahoochee NF entered the 1980’s in the midst of the energy crisis. Thousands of free firewood permits were given the public as people returned to wood as a method to heat their homes. Around 350,000 acres of the Chattahoochee NF were leased to oil companies for exploration, but as the energy crisis abated, some of these leases were not renewed.

The Land Management Plan for the Chattahoochee NF was the first forest-wide management plan actively seeking public opinion in managing the national forest. Most of the public responding to this plan indicated they want more wilderness and areas to ride off-road vehicles, and are opposed to clearcutting, road building and pesticide use on the national forest. Achieving the proper balance in resource management is as challenging for us today as it was for the first foresters. While the way we do things has changed many times during the last 80 years, our tradition of stewardship—caring for the land and serving people has remained the same.