Georgia Wildlife Resources Division
2070 U.S. Hwy. 278, SE, Social Circle, GA 30025
By Shan Cammack and Hilary Smith
As slowly rising temperatures beckon spring, spring peepers wake from their winter slumber, echoing a faint chorus through the woods. Soon, these little frogs will be vociferous, signaling the start of one of the most beautiful seasons in the longleaf pine forest.
In few places across Georgia is this beauty as evident and accessible as at Moody Forest Natural Area near Baxley. First protected by the Moody family, then The Nature Conservancy in 2000 and DNR, what was once called “Moody Swamp” is a rich example of biodiversity in south Georgia.
The story of the forest is tied to the story of the Moodys, a hardworking family that practiced conservation before it was a household word.
The Moody family came to Appling County in the mid-1800s. They bought land and lived a simple life. They realized their wealth in the wild things – pitcher plants, snakes and gopher tortoises, grasses, woodpeckers – that graced their cypress swamp and longleaf pine forests.
In 1952, siblings Causs, Wade and Elizabeth Moody inherited Moody Forest from Jake Moody. The siblings also inherited their uncle’s determination to protect the land from development and abuse.
The Moodys lived off the land, mostly by grazing cattle and harvesting turpentine. The rest of the forest was left, as Jake would say, “for the trees to grow.” Income was generated by selling gum tapped from longleaf and slash pine trees. Very little timber was sold. A few trees were cut and milled to build structures on the property. Relatives tell stories about the Navy buying timber for ships, and about land barons traveling for days to try to purchase some of Jake’s “big timber” for building homes.
The forests were probably burned annually, mostly in late winter, to produce new growth in the spring for free-ranging cattle and to protect the family’s turpentine trees from wildfire. The Moodys stopped burning in the 1960s, when turpentine operations ceased. Jake Moody’s management philosophy, while not favoring a particular species, preserved one of the few old-growth longleaf pine-wiregrassImage: Moody Forest stands that remain today.
When the brothers died, estate taxes levied against the family required the cutting of some timber. The Moodys steered loggers away from most of the virgin timber. Miss Elizabeth, the last heir to live on the property, maintained the family’s legacy of protecting the land until her death in 2000.
The fate of Moody Forest was then uncertain. The property went to 32 heirs, who put it up for auction. Despite considerable interest from timber buyers, The Nature Conservancy submitted the highest of eight bids.
The Nature Conservancy and Georgia DNR have since worked together to increase protection and conserve, protect, restore and maintain habitat quality and biological diversity. Moody Forest Natural Area is now a 4,432-acre preserve.
Unique natural habitats include the two miles of the mighty Altamaha River, with its mature bottomland hardwood forests and bald cypress/gum sloughs and oxbows, north-facing bluff forests replete with wildflowers and dotted with sandstone outcrops, mature longleaf pine/blackjack oak/wiregrass communities, and scrubby longleaf pine/turkey oak sand-ridge woodlands. Most management efforts have focused on restoring a more appropriate fire regime to benefit fire-adapted communities.
Vegetation monitoring guides management approaches, as outlined in a 50-year plan for the natural area.
Nature Conservancy and DNR objectives at Moody Forest are to protect and restore the native plant and animal communities while providing compatible public research, educational and recreational opportunities. Two interpretive trails have been developed and are open to the public year-round.
Tavia’s Trail begins at a kiosk near the corner of East River Road and Jake Moody Road. This three-mile trail leads visitors through several restoration areas as well as one of the best examples of old-growth longleaf pine/ blackjack oak communities.
A number of rare species thrive here, including red-cockaded woodpecker, eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. Prescribed fire has been carefully applied to this area to reduce dangerously high fuel loads and even more dangerous duff. While longleaf pine evolved with and is dependent on fire, old growth stands that have been fire-suppressed can be vulnerable to fire if improperly applied. The trail also leads through some of the intact bottomland communities, including old cypress and tupelo trees and the loblolly flats.
The other trail is the Altamaha River Trail, which leaves from the kiosk and parking area on Morris Landing Road and winds through the bottomlands toward the river. Highlights of this walk, covering eight-tenths of a mile, include bridges across sloughs and debris and high-water marks showing recent flooding.
Guided tours are available on the natural area for educational groups. Hunting is also allowed, with seasons for deer, turkey, and small game posted in state hunting regulations.
Moody Forest has inspired its residents and visitors alike for more than 200 years. Today’s hikers, hunters and visiting biologists and fire ecologists are writing the latest chapter in a long cultural history of this property, admiring some of the same old-growth longleaf pine trees that the Moodys looked upon when they first arrived in the 1800s.
From Baxley, take U.S. 1 north for about eight miles. Turn right onto Asbury Church Road and go about three miles. Turn left onto Jake Moody Road, go about a mile, and then turn right onto East River Road. The trailhead for Tavia's Trail is at the intersection and the office is about a mile to the east.
Shan Cammack is a wildlife biologist and fire management officer with the Wildlife Resources Division's Nongame Conservation Section. Hilary Smith worked with the Student Conservation Association as an intern with the Nongame Conservation Section prescribed fire crew in 2010-11.