Janisse Ray, author of several books including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was instrumental in helping protect Moody Forest. Ray writes about her childhood in south Georgia and the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem, helping generate support for this storied and diminishing landscape.
As temperatures rise, spring peepers wake from their winter slumber, echoing a faint chorus through the woods. Soon, these little frogs will signal the start of spring, 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 and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2000, what was once called “Moody Swamp” is a rich example of biodiversity in south Georgia.
A Legacy for Longleaf
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. 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.”
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-wiregrass 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.
Protecting a Treasure
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 on the Altamaha River.
The 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. Guided tours are available 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.
-By Shan Cammack and Hillary Smith