July 22, 2014 - 23:40
FS Committee eyes volunteers
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Members of Polk County’s Forest Service Committee had an informal meeting with Forest Service representatives last Thursday to open lines of communication and discuss issues brought up after services were discontinued at several local camping and recreation areas.

Members of Polk County’s Forest Service Committee had an informal meeting with Forest Service representatives last Thursday to open lines of communication and discuss issues brought up after services were discontinued at several local camping and recreation areas.

At the crux of the meeting was the desire by local officials and community members to be aware of what is going on in the county. Forest Service representatives explained that they are bound by higher authorities to follow specific guidelines, but vowed to be a better neighbor and keep lines of communication open.

District Ranger Mike Wright explained that sites with amenities had to be maintained to specific guidelines set by the Forest Service. He said they did not have to make money, but could not lose money. Wright said they were down five positions since 2012, and the reduction of people was a significant part of the need to reduce services. He said they were to a point where they could no longer afford personnel for mowing, trash pickup, and maintenance. A Department of Labor program to employ senior citizens previously provided workers at no cost, but that program no longer exists.

Second District Commissioner Greg Brooks said the issue was the way they found out, adding the perception was that all campgrounds were closed. He said he had spoken to people in the rafting industry who said bookings were down.

Harold Webb said he found out on Labor Day Quinn Springs Campground had been closed. He said many of his customers use Quinn Springs to camp and he had no idea what to tell them. Webb asked when the Forest Service knew they were going to close, and asked why there was no annual meeting with outfitters. He said that would have been a good time to let outfitters know. Webb expressed concern that the Hiwassee River was being ignored. He said he worked on the river corridor plan and saw that signs had been installed along the Ocoee, but not the Hiwassee.

Wright said he thought the annual meeting probably fell through because the person who set up the meeting every year was one of the positions lost and not filled. Wright said the decisions to make changes were made in the winter. He pointed out that Quinn Springs brought in about $2000 a year but cost $5000 to maintain. Wright said Quinn Springs was the only area to be closed. He said not having bathrooms and picnic tables at areas such as Tumbling Creek did not mean they were not open.

Webb said when he was a kid the Forest Service was a big part of the community, even showing films at school. He said now just about anyone you spoke to had something negative to say or had a bad experience with the Forest Service.

Third District Commissioner Sheena Gaddis said she wanted to see a cost analysis on Tumbling Creek. Brooks said he’d like to see costs associated with all of the affected areas.  Gaddis said asked how having picnic tables there could be any more of a liability than the wood and rocks used to keep people out. She said boulders blocked the baptizing hole.

Philip Earhart said there was a difference in liability between sites they were inviting and encouraging people to visit versus those that were considered general forest area. He said they were not excluding anyone from being there and no work had been done there in years. Boulders have been placed at several locations to stop people from driving into the water because of erosion, but that work is not related to the changes made this season.

Matt Henry explained there are five levels of site development in the National Forest. Level one is a disbursed camping area. Level two might have things such as lantern posts to stop users from hanging lanterns on trees, geared toward protecting toward the forest. At level three the line is crossed between protecting the area and convenience to visitors, and those places will have picnic tables. Level four areas are campgrounds such as Thunder Rock and Chilhowee. The Ocoee Whitewater Center would be considered level five. Tumbling Creek is now considered a level one disbursed camping area.

Gaddis said people think it is closed because they can’t get their vehicles in. Laura Crawford suggested putting up signs explaining it was a disbursed camping area.

Garry McDonald asked why Quinn Springs couldn’t be considered a level one area instead of closing it. Earhart said there were power lines and a lot of other stuff in there that could be destroyed or cause problems. Wright said there was other camping available in the area, public and private, and that knowledge went into the decision. He pointed out Lost Corral was available for horses, but also open for camping.

Committee Chairman Aaron Hood asked if it was a national trend to go more toward disbursed camping. Henry said an act was introduced this year to get more volunteers for trails, and that led him to believe there was no more money coming for trails. Crawford said volunteers might be an approach to look at for local camping areas.

Wright said he had previously spoken with Third District Commissioner Daren Waters about local groups adopting campgrounds. He said the Forest Service and Boy Scouts often worked together. Wright said if sites were being maintained to the level required by the Forest Service, they could be opened back up. He said if things got broken it would be the responsibility of the group to fix it, but the Forest Service would get what was needed.

Brooks asked about using inmates to do the work. Wright said they had entered into an agreement with the Sheriff’s Department back when Spring Creek Shooting Range was opened, but they did not come out as they said they would. Brooks suggested using federal inmates housed in Bradley County. Earhart said they belonged to the US Marshalls. Wright said they couldn’t have any member of the public in there if federal inmates were there. Earhart said they did have some people who did community service in the forest when charged there.

First District Commissioner John Pippenger said he believed there were groups that would help. Wright said they would have to be non-profit organizations and there would be a requirement for a 5-year commitment. Crawford asked for a list of things necessary at each area in order to see what could be done. Gaddis said it was hard to know what could be done without knowing costs. Webb said it concerned him that everything came back to taxpayers to handle.

The committee will meet again August 14th at the Ocoee Whitewater Center. Forest Service members will bring costs associated with each area and what would need to be done for maintenance, as well as information about how groups in other areas have worked with the Forest service.

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