Clear Cut Controversy: DNR responds to storm of protest over clear cutting at Hard Labor Creek State Park
By Judy A. Maxwell | Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
When a tornado ripped through Hard Labor Creek State Park last November, residents along the park’s boundaries knew some cleanup would be in order.
More than 250 trees in the public park were felled by the Nov. 30 storm as well as trees and buildings on nearby private property.
The cleanup, however, which got under way last month has startled and dismayed park neighbors who did not expect to see large swaths of forest clear-cut to the ground. The residents say they were unaware of such aggressive action and have collectively protested the clear-cutting. In response, the state Department of Natural Resources has decided to hold off on some of the activity until the issues can be addressed. And officials say they regret not letting the public know more about what to expect.
Last month, park neighbors Tommy and Judy Breedlove heard the noise of tree cutters deep in the woods and figured the storm cleanup was under way. They have lived in Rutledge for more than 35 years and were familiar with such activity.
Tommy Breedlove went out of town for a couple days, during which time Judy called him and in a distraught voice said, “You should see what they’ve done to the forest.” Breedlove returned home to a completely leveled landscape. Where loblolly pines and maples once shaded the loamy ground were now acres and acres of stumps, logs and forest debris on muddy red clay. Almost on the floor herself, Judy Breedlove was grieving the sudden loss of forest and way of life. Also wounded are her memories of growing up next to Hard Labor Creek.
“My wife learned to swim in Lake Rutledge,” said Tommy Breedlove. “She went to camp there; when our children were small we swam, picnicked and rode horses there.”
Breedlove is among 100 or so park neighbors who have expressed shock and anger over the DNR’s clear cutting of the forest. “We want the park to be there for our children and grandchildren,” said the 69-year-old Breedlove last week.
It will be.
So says Tim Banks of the state Department of Natural Resources. Banks, assistant chief of operations and law enforcement for DNR’s parks, recreation and historic sites division, says the majority of the activity at Georgia’s largest state park is “regeneration cuts.” During an interview with the Citizen on Monday, Banks asked that the term “clear-cutting” not be used as it is not an accurate description of the park’s plan to preserve and sustain the park’s forests and wildlife.
About 300 of the park’s 5,000 acres are undergoing a common forest management practice this year as loggers chop down aged loblolly pines and hardwoods such as sweet gum, maple and poplar. The forest management is being done in the name of wildlife preservation. None of the trees being felled are good for animal food at this point. The pine trees have grown too tall and the hardwoods offer nothing nutritional and sustaining to deer and other wildlife, said Banks. Plus, the shallow top soil cannot support the trees, which were planted over eroded cotton fields more than 50 years ago.
Regeneration cutting had taken place in the park in 2007 and 2010, but mostly where neighbors and park visitors cannot see it, said Banks. It is the same with this current cutting, too.
But why can all park goers see the barren landscape along the miles of road that lead to the park’s boat ramp? Because that cut is not a regeneration activity, said Banks. That cut has nothing to do with the 2011 forest management plan. It is a “salvage cut” in which the DNR is clearing out an area damaged by the Nov. 30 tornado. “They are separate; they are two different things,” said Banks, who agrees the aftermath of the clear-cut is a shock to the unprepared.
As he did during a public gathering at the boat ramp two weeks ago, Banks said he feels the DNR should have done a better job of informing and educating the public about the upcoming cuts. Both are standard practice in forest and wildlife management. At the cove next to the boat ramp, the salvage operation was meant to clear out the fallen trees before they dried up and began to rot, enabling the DNR to sell the timber at a market price. The money raised from that cut (about $800 an acre) will be spent on restoring the area. New pines and lower-growing herbaceous plants will be transplanted on which animals can feast. The process will take about two years.
In the meantime, in response to residents’ protests, the DNR will plant brown-top millet, said Banks. The green plant will start to grow in five to seven weeks, with grasses getting up to six feet high by summer. Besides improving then aesthetics for park goers, the fast-growing millet will be food for wildlife. Also at the cove, the DNR will clean up the leftover debris and landscape the site so it looks more pleasing to neighbors and visitors.
Banks said the salvage cut is the operation that most closely impacts the neighbors because they can see the aftermath. Where the planned, regeneration cuts are occurring, most people will not see, said Banks. He said, except where roads and fire breaks are called for, the DNR will leave a 75-wood buffer between the property lines and park. It has also added to volunteer to leave such buffers along the roads and horse trails where cutting is taking place.
Many of the residents at the boat-ramp meeting said there are no buffers so far. In a follow-up communication Banks e-mailed to residents last Thursday, he said, “The bid for sale of timber for April 12 will be delayed until issues that have been raised have been explored fully.” One such issue, said Banks Monday, is that loggers in other areas were unable to read or see the no-cut markings in recent cuts at a nearby state park where the same kind of forest management recently took place.
Planting millet at the cove and landscaping the area are two other steps Banks outlined in the e-mail.
Another action promised by Banks was to seek more public input into future forest-management activities: “The resource management plan for the park will be fully developed with opportunity for public input into the purposes, goals and objectives.”
Printed in the April 14, 2011 edition