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A lifes work in Dawson Forest
William Thacker retires as area manager after 30 years of service
William Thacker sits below awards and certificates from his years working in Dawson Forest. - photo by EMILY SAUNDERS

William Thacker spent more than half of his life taming some of the wildest land in Georgia.

He built. He burned. He fixed. He carved out roads with a bulldozer. He cleared acres of trees and planted many more. He dammed up streams to build ponds when the beavers were too lazy or preoccupied to do it.

He introduced a population of wild turkeys, planted food plots for deer and killed a few feral hogs and coyotes that didn't belong there.

He kept revelers from drinking too much alcohol and he put a short pipe in a rock spring so anybody could fill up jugs with chilly fresh mountain water.

He enforced every game and public safety law the legislature could stamp on the books. He rescued. He arrested. He cited. He warned. He kept no telling how many people - and animals - from killing themselves or each other.

During the past 30 years, he probably patrolled nearly every square inch of the dense, raw 25,000-acre Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area.

And sometimes, he was the one who found the bodies.

A life in the forest

"It was essentially a new area when I took it over, May 5, 1977," Thacker said recently, seated in his Lumpkin County living room.

On the wall above his head were two framed certificates - one from the state thanking him for 30 years of service, the other a gold-trimmed Senate resolution recognizing his accomplishments.

"They say that'll stay on record forever," he said, looking at it.

But like the forest itself, everything else is bound to turn over in time.

Thacker, 55, recently retired as area manager of Dawson Forest. He is the only man to have held that command, a job he has done ever since returning to his North Georgia home from his first department of natural resources job in South Georgia.

His departure from Dawson Forest leaves some giant boots to fill, because "this place is as much him as he is it," said Jim Johnson, a forest wildlife technician.

And considering the ages of some of the rangers who are left, "that sort of makes you think, well maybe it's time. When you've got rangers that weren't even born when I transferred up here," Thacker said, grinning.

In retirement, he and his wife of 26 years, Laura, plan to raise Boer goats on their rolling 18-acre farm. They plan to do some traveling. They plan to spend time with their two college-age sons. And they will try to look back over the past three decades with more fond recollections than frightening memories.

"When we first got married, he was gone a lot," she said. In fact, during hunting season in the 1970s and '80s her husband got to come home for about 12 hours - a week. "I wondered, what have I got myself into? Where's he at?"

Now, though, he has plenty of time to catch up on things at home.

Now, when a poacher's gunshot wakes him in the middle of the night, it is doubtful, but Thacker may decide to roll over and try to go back to sleep - if he can - instead of hopping out of bed and tracking down the shooter before sunrise, like he always has.

Now that he has left the forest, Thacker said he will miss "the old-timers, the ones raised around here," he said. "They don't worry about impressing you or me. They're just living their lives."

Friends in uniform

And now, even though he has retired, if there is ever another search for a body in Dawson Forest, authorities may call on the one man who knows it better than just about anyone alive.

But Thacker hopes it never comes to that again.

The last one was hard enough.

In January, suspected serial killer Gary Michael Hilton confessed to killing 24-year-old hiker Meredith Emerson and decapitating her in Dawson Forest.

Then he led Thacker and John Cagle, former Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent-In-Charge, to the crime scenes.

Cagle, who retired April 1, the same day Thacker put in his papers, is now a major in the criminal investigations division of the Dawson County Sheriff's Office.

Though their career arcs took different trajectories, the two have been friends since the early 1970s when they both worked as lifeguards at the North Georgia resort town of Bent Tree.

"William is a unique individual and everybody who knows him would probably say that," Cagle said.

"Because he's so down to earth, he's so knowledgeable about his job, and the outdoors, and about wildlife, and about law enforcement.

"I don't know of anybody else in DNR that I could have called and asked a question about Dawsonville or Dawson Forest or this particular area other than William. I would know he'd have an answer for me."

Safety of the wilderness

For the 15-minute trip from the Thacker farm to the forest, he wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt. No gun belt.

Alternating pulls from a pouch of Lancaster chewing tobacco and spits in a plastic Coca-Cola bottle punctuated the conversation.

Thacker said the area has a worse reputation than what it deserves.

"How many other 25,000 acres of wilderness do you know of within an hour's drive of 3 million people, and there's only been three murders in 31 years?" he said. "You're safer out there than you are driving on [Ga.] 400."

People have misconceptions about Dawson Forest, Thacker said, because they believe what they want to believe.

"I worked out there without a gun a lot more times than I did with one," he said. "Very seldom did I have any kind of problems. But I carry a gun to Atlanta. I feel safer out there without a gun, in uniform, than I do in Atlanta."

In all of his years in Dawson Forest, Thacker said he had a gun pulled on him only once, in 1978.

He was writing a fellow a ticket for driving around the gate at the forest entrance and getting stuck. Thacker looked away, reached for his ticket book and looked back up at "a .38 with the hammer back," stuck right in his face.

"It was close enough for me to see it was loaded," Thacker said. "He got away then, but we had him in jail by dark."

As for times when he was wearing a gun in the forest and had to pull it, Thacker said, there were no more than 10 in 30 years.

"That's one thing about game wardens. They ain't gonna pull it just to pull it. If a game warden pulls a gun, take notice, because something is about to happen."

A growing area

When Thacker drove in the forest's main gate, he pointed at a thicket of pine trees, planted as seedlings in 1979. Now they tower at least 100 feet tall.

Like the pines, Dawson Forest has grown right along with Thacker.

He explained that the first forest tract was a little more than 4,700 acres. Today, Dawson Forest spreads over Dawson, Gilmer and Pickens counties, split into two tracts, 10,000 acres owned by city of Atlanta and 15,000 owned by the DNR.

The area ranks third in the state in overall management responsibility, Thacker said. "And that is the good part of the job. It doesn't get too monotonous. You might be doing law enforcement one day, planting food plots the next. And the next you may be taking somebody down the river."

On a road that began just beyond the trees, Thacker embarked on a two-hour tour.

Stories to remember

Deep in the forest, Thacker's truck rounded a bend and he pointed to his left. Behind the veil of trees and vines, a dark, angular slab of rock jutted out to form a ledge.

Thacker said he remembered seeing that spot his first day on the job and thinking it was a cave. "But it don't go back in there far enough to form a cave," he said.

At a river bend called Devil's Elbow, he laughed a little when he said, "generations of drunks have gone there to get drunk." And nobody seems to be able to explain why.

Inside an enclosed platform called a water fowl observation deck, which Thacker designed and built with his men, he pointed out bird nests in trees a half-mile away.

There were other stories he remembers as well.

Some were funny: like the time he arrested and held captive, without his gun, more than 15 drunks he caught in the forest in the middle of the night - until deputies came and hauled them to jail.

Some were thrilling: like staking out poachers for eight or 10 nights straight.

"Back yonder it didn't matter. We was out here to catch people violating laws. We was having fun trying to catch them, and catching them. And they were having fun trying to get away."

Some were eerie: like working the Emerson case.

As his truck bumped over the rocky road, Thacker pointed at a locked gate blocking entry to a side road. It leads to the first part of the crime scene.

A little farther up the main road, Thacker again slowed and pointed out another side path, another locked gate.

"Up there was the second part," he said.

Then he kept on driving.

Ready for change

More than once before leaving the forest, Thacker remembered another story about another thing that happened at another time in the forest. Or something he built. Or something he saw.

And more than once, he paused to recall how things have changed.

Whereas 20 years ago, he could hop on an old D6 bulldozer and cut a new road in just a couple of days, it now takes two years worth of impact studies, paperwork and waiting for approval to clear 1/8-mile.

Today, drug users have replaced the deer-doggers as No. 1 offenders.

Today, rangers drop chemical pellets from a helicopter to conduct controlled burns over thousands of acres, instead of walking along the roadside with a drip torch to burn a couple of hundred.

Though Thacker says population growth in North Georgia has done more to change the forest, today he still knows most of the people who use it. Some of them he remembers as kids, and now when he sees them they have their own children with them.

He still cited them if they broke the law, but it didn't get any easier.

"I figured out real quick you can't apply the Golden Rule out here," he said. Then again, "When you get to know a lot of people, it's hard to write people you know a ticket."

Thacker started with the DNR as a young man because he "wanted to put something back." And he has.

In 1985, he went on to earn dual degrees in conservation law enforcement and criminal justice from Brenau University because he said he wanted to do the job right.

And after 30 years, he feels like he's done enough.

"Everybody's got a job to do," he said. "And I thought leaving it would be harder than it has been. I've got plenty of stuff to keep me busy. I can remember a time when I didn't think I was going to make it to retirement. It just seemed so far away."

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