Explore and Enjoy Georgia’s Public Lands

In celebration of National Public Lands Day on September 25, the Georgia Forestry Commission invites you to visit state forests you may not even be aware exist! They’re located in both south and north, and they offer a variety of experiences for outdoor enthusiasts.

Dixon Memorial State Forest straddles Ware and Brantley Counties, just south of Waycross, and is bordered by the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It was acquired by the Federal Government in 1938 and deeded to the State of Georgia in 1955. The forest is approximately 35,500 acres, which is the largest state forest owned and managed by the Georgia Forestry Commission. The majority of the forest consists of slash and longleaf pine stands, while the other components are wetlands made up of pond cypress and swamp blackgum. The forest is managed for a variety of objectives, such as timber management, wildlife, wildfire resiliency, research, and soil and water conservation.

Dixon Memorial State Forest is also a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) that provides hunting and fishing opportunities to the public. To visit the state forest, you will need a current hunting license, fishing license, or lands pass, which can all be acquired online via the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ website.

Dawson and Paulding Forest WMA’s

Dawson and Paulding Forest recreation areas have very different histories but almost identical similarities today. They have a number of special features worth exploring, including their fascinating pasts.

The City of Atlanta-owned portion of Dawson Forest has a history that still intrigues visitors today. Dawson Forest, like most of north Georgia, was Cherokee Indian land that eventually became owned by European settlers. During the 1930’s through most of the 1950’s, Roscoe Tucker, an attorney and citizen of Dawson County, routinely purchased small farms and forestland that was in foreclosure and he eventually became one of the largest landowners in North Georgia. In 1956 he sold a contiguous tract of 10,130 acres to Lockheed Martin Corporation, which deeded the property to the US Government. The area became known as the Georgia Nuclear Aircraft Laboratory, where top-secret research related to the possibility of powering an aircraft by nuclear power took place. Soon after the facility lost funding in 1971, the City of Atlanta’s Aviation Department bought the property as a potential second airport location.

The Department also purchased 10,000 acres in Paulding County for potential airport expansion during the same period. The Paulding property has been owned by several landowners, but primarily Adelphi Land Investments and Florida Rock.

In 1975, the City of Atlanta developed an agreement with the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) to take over as primary land managers of both properties. The City supported the idea of GFC creating secondary agreements with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Game and Fish Division, to merge the properties into the WMA system. These agreements allowed multiple use recreation under WMA regulations and enforcement. Soon after the properties became open to public use, the State of Georgia began buying property adjacent and in close proximity, to expand the WMA footprint. As a result, both WMA’s have expanded to roughly 27,000+ acres each.

Today, Dawson and Paulding Forests have grown into two of the most popular WMA’s in Georgia. Both lie in close proximity to densely populated areas and visitor numbers are a reflection of that accessibility. Hunting and fishing are two of the most popular activities, but hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, bird watching, and camping are also very popular.

The Dawson Forest offers anglers opportunities for trout and warm water species, such as bass and catfish, in the many creeks and rivers. Paulding provides man-made lakes and numerous streams. The areas are also favorites of spring turkey hunters and harvest numbers for these areas are well above average in state-managed WMA’s every year.

The Dawson Forest has 28 miles of horse and mountain bike trails and two formal camping areas. Users are required to have either a hunting or fishing license, or Georgia Outdoor Pass, to access the state-owned portion of the properties. The City of Atlanta-owned portion does not require those permits, but there is a $7.00 daily camping fee, as well as a trail-use fee for those on horseback or mountain bikes at Dawson Forest. It is important to remember WMA’s have rather lengthy regulations, which are designed to help conserve the natural resources, reduce user conflict, and help provide an enjoyable visitor experience.

Much of the land now known as Paulding Forest, was once part of a thriving agricultural industry west of Atlanta. Common crops included cotton, corn, wheat, and tobacco. There are more trees growing in that part of Paulding County now, however, than there were in the farming days of the early 1900’s!

Paulding County has a rich history from its beginnings as Cherokee land through the Civil War period and into today. In 1864, land in and around Paulding Forest became a stronghold of Union General William Sherman. He used it to control traffic on primary county roads to disrupt confederate movements on his historic march to burn Atlanta. Today, Pickett’s Mill, just east of Paulding Forest, is one of the best-preserved Civil War sites in the nation.

Paulding Forest is widely known for typical WMA activities but it also offers a large section of the 61.5-mile Silver Comet Trail, which begins in Smyrna in Cobb County and runs all the way into central Alabama. It connects there to the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail, forming the longest length of multi-use trail in the country. Points of interest along the Silver Comet Trail through Paulding Forest include the Pumkinvine Creek Trestle that is 126 feet high and 750 feet long, offering nice views of the WMA. The 800-ft. Brushy Mountain Tunnel is another highlight of the trail near Rockmart. While trout fishing is a very popular recreational activity in the North Georgia mountains, Raccoon Creek in Paulding Forest actually offers one of the southernmost trout fishing opportunities in the state.

Dawson and Paulding Forests are only two of 105 WMA’s across the state. Other opportunities to explore Georgia’s natural beauty include (see map) Broxton Rocks Forest. It is named after roughly nine acres of Altamaha grit rock outcrops that are a unique feature to the region. Bartram Forest is a working forest south of Milledgeville, GA that is also a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers. Spirit Creek Forest is located outside of Augusta, GA and is also a working forest. All of these forests are WMAs that offer for hunting and public access. They are great examples of state agency and municipality cooperation for both maintaining a working forest and encouraging year ‘round multiple use recreation. Get out and enjoy a public use area near you today!

Read more about Georgia’s state forests here: https://gatrees.org/forest-management-conservation/state-managed-forests/.

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