As Georgia’s first Forest Ranger, it only seems fitting that Roscoe Conklin Nicholson would have been born in “Pine Mountain,” a heavily forested area in Rabun County where Mr. Nicholson developed the values needed to become one of the most important early figures in the history of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
Mr. Nicholson’s formal entry into forestry began in the early twentieth century as a local surveyor for the newly created U.S. Forest Service, an agency created by the Weeks Act of 1911. It was this landmark piece of legislation which allowed the Forest Service to begin purchasing cut-over forest land throughout the Eastern United States for restoration and development into new national forests. Up to this time, all forest reserves had been established in the West on lands already held by the federal government.
Upon his appointment as Forest Ranger in 1913, “Ranger Nick,” as he became known, began negotiating the purchase of additional Forest Service land on what is now the Chattooga River Ranger District, one of three districts within the Chattahoochee National Forest. He also assumed responsibility for managing timber, wildlife, soil and water, and recreational resources. Fulfilling these responsibilities was not always easy at a time when most local farmers were unfamiliar with scientific forestry practices. Some were also suspicious of government intrusion into their traditional way of life like, for example, burning off the forest floor in order to “green it up” for free-grazing livestock. To gain the support of farmers, Ranger Nick made numerous presentations about safe and sustainable forestry practices. He also used movies and printed materials to inform local audiences about the importance of conservation. By all accounts his success in reaching out to the public was aided by his excellent public relations skills, making him a popular and well-respected representative of the Forest Service.
In the early years, Ranger Nick’s job canvassing the forest and interacting with local farmers was carried out on horseback, the only reliable option available before the county began paving roads in the late 1920s. During this period, it was not unusual for Ranger Nick to be gone several nights at a time, camping in the woods or staying with the families of fire wardens. Of all the early tasks undertaken by Ranger Nick, it seems preventing and fighting forest fires was especially troubling. He and his fire wardens successfully resolved this challenge with an aggressive educational program to prevent careless fires, the purchase of bloodhounds to track down arsonists, and the construction of the first fire tower in Rabun on Rabun Bald.
The 1930s brought a new chapter in Ranger Nick’s professional life with the arrival of four Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps. Nationwide, the Forest Service supervised much of the work done by men working for the CCC, a public work relief program established as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In Rabun, the CCC men were a blessing for Ranger Nick who oversaw the placement of their camps and their work in carrying out his comprehensive plan for forest improvements. According to Foxfire Magazine (1991), this included building 150 miles of new roads, stringing 40 miles of telephone lines, making improvements to some 37,000 acres of timber, constructing 3 miles of new foot trails, surveying over 129,000 acres of timber, building 28 new bridges, and controlling erosion on 14,000 feet of road banks.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Rabun County remained largely isolated from the outside world. This would change dramatically with the coming of a railroad which also brought tourism, logging and dam building.
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