The Sandy Path Home: Ecology, Tourism and Newell Lodge after COVID-19

What if the natural world we love so much no longer existed? What if there were no blue skies overhead? No live oak trees or sandy beaches? What if the seasons never changed? I can’t imagine what that world would be. But the recent devastation wrought by COVID-19 have left many of us shaken and questioning the path forward.

Like you, I feel fortunate to live in a region filled with a wealth of nature and a diverse cultural history. In my capacity as a regional tourism leader, both in my Charlton County home and at Newell Lodge and Resort, I have learned that the sandy path to home is also the one that leads to a better future.

The question of “How do share our unique resources with others?” is one that has become more important than ever as each of us in the region, in the nation, deals with the effects of COVID-19 on our local economies.

The answer is simple and one which we embrace at Newell Lodge – tourism.  

Ecotourism is the heart of Newell Lodge. The lodge is a favored Southern hospitality destination for multigenerational horse and nature enthusiasts who want a memorable Okefenokee experience. As soon as it’s safe, we’ll re-open our cottages and bistro and fill every room with laughter and gratitude.

Nature is a great healer. When people finally begin to leave their homes and rejoin family and friends to celebrate life and to grieve what has come to pass, they will necessarily turn to the wonders of nature.

How do we encourage regional economic growth without destroying the natural environment which makes us who we are?

The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”  

At Newell Lodge, this type of responsible travel translates into a direct experience of a gently built environment which conserves the 300 year old oak grove at the heart of the property. We work tirelessly to protect Buffalo Creek, which winds through our campgrounds, and to offer visitors a window into the history, culture and families which are intrinsic to live in the Okefenokee region.

Ecotourism is not only necessary but critical to the tourism industry in the U.S. and our state.  This is especially true for South Georgia and our Coastal communities. It is so much more than just traveling and sightseeing.   

It’s also about growth of resources for our neighbors. People who work at the lodge are local, and the money guests and diners at SwampFire Backwoods Bistro spend goes back into the local or regional economy. 

We invest in eco-tourism because we’re committed to consciously creating sustainable relationships between people and places we love.

In the days ahead, as businesses reacclimate to a new normal, we must encourage people to explore the coastal area’s ecologies and microclimates in ways that positively impact both the environment, through preservation and restoration, and our communities, through positive growth. 

You’ll see more of this sense of exploration in our horseback riding offerings, including family oriented events and trail rides, as well as yoga with horses.

Environmental education and conservation create economic opportunity. Now and for the future, we can work together to create a positive and exceptional experience for everyone through ecotourism. 

According to an article by written by Richard Louv, 

“People are wired to love and need exposure to the natural world.  Researchers have found that regardless of culture, people will gravitate towards nature.”

It is this concept of sharing our love for the places we call home that propels us forward as we embrace ecotourism. Our marketing strategies must invite people into our communities who share these interests, rather than being bound by geography or the limitations of the past. 

Value-based sharing of our region’s ecology and lifestyles is likely our best opportunity for sustainable growth as we recover from the impact of COVID-19.

 Researchers at the University of Rochester report that “exposure to the natural environment leads people to nurture close relationships with fellow human beings, value community, and to be more generous with money.”

Shouldn’t we nurture the human connection we all value, build our communities, and encourage generosity in all that we do?

Shouldn’t we consciously create the future we want for our children?

Several years ago, rich deposits of the mineral zircon were located on Newell Lodge property.  Great news, right?  The Carter family, my family, thought so at first.  Unfortunately, the trees would be removed for mining.  Our family passed on the opportunity. Had we chosen otherwise, would Newell Lodge be here today? Probably not.

Today, Newell Lodge guests can continue to embrace nature-based activities surrounded by a unique 300-year-old natural oak grove, surrounded by the beauty of our native scrub forests while picnicking, fishing, or bird watching. Through these and other experiences, guests increase their appreciation and understanding of the natural and cultural values found in the Okefenokee corridor of the coastal region.    

Visitors here are actively encouraged to explore the local ecosystem and history, whether at Newell or by a visit to the Okefenokee.  Similarly, guests are encouraged to visit to the region’s historical and natural attractions of our coastal partners. Through one-of-a-kind experiences, we elevate the heritage and culture of the region and increase appreciation of the relaxed lifestyle available to us in South Georgia: one of rejuvenation, meaningful connection, and deep natural beauty.

Charlton County is my home. I have lived in appreciation of the natural beauty of our region my entire life, as has my mother and her mother, as well. My grandmother spent her childhood years in the Newell community, just across the railroad tracks on the right.  During those days Newell supported a thriving turpentine industry. My Grandmama’s stories of those long-ago days are rich with our local culture and a sense of family. 

One story that I remember is that she and her sister, Mildred, loved to walk along the dirt roads, picking wildflowers for their mother, my great-grandmother. She recalled the beauty of the flowers they chose, the sweet coolness of spring afternoons, and the simple pleasures she shared with her family. Her story reminds me of a simple truth, one that is at the heart of who we are. Everything we need to make Folkston and Charlton County grow is already here, right at our fingertips. We have but to choose the sandy path back home.

We have a story to tell. The story is found deep in our culture, our small-town atmosphere, our southern hospitality, and an ecological system that compares to no other.  In the days ahead of COVID-19, it is my mission to promote Newell Lodge and my home of Charlton County as an ecological vacation destination. 

Together, we can share our beautiful Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, rich colonial Wiregrass and Swamper heritage, our industrial era legacy of timber and trains, exceptional southern cooking, exclusive lodging accommodations. We can enjoy simple things: horseback riding, exploring nature trails, and investigating the wonders of our natural environment.

We can improve our lives and those of others through this generosity of spirit.

Our stories are those of Indians and outlaws, of steel magnolia women and hard-working men who faced and overcame adversity and fell in love with prairies and pine forests, wrestled alligators, charmed bees, and found beauty in the everyday, all around them.

In the days ahead, as life returns to “normal,” we invite you to become a part of our story, even now, as you rebuild and renew cherished relationships. Together, let’s experience the sweetness our lives in Folkston and Charlton County have to offer.

You have my commitment and belief. In the proactive support of ecotourism, we redefine what Charlton County and the Okefenokee Swamp means to Coastal Georgia tourism. 

We can redefine the future.

Albert Einstein said, ““Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”  

How great is that?   

Ashley Carter-Gowen is  the event coordinator and dedicated equine expert at Newell Lodge, LLC, where she is a partner in her family’s business.  She received her degree in Diversified Agriculture from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and currently serves as executive director of the Charlton County Development Authority.             

Ashley believes that our future can be found in the simple things: horseback riding, exploring nature, and investigating the wonders of our natural environment.  Her mission is to promote Newell Lodge and her home of Charlton County as an ecological vacation destination. 

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