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Move to give Army forest land draws controversy

Jul. 22, 2013 - 01:14PM   |  
Vehicles go out the main gate to Camp Merrill on July 16 in the forests near Dahlonega, Ga.. The Army wants to take over a 282-acre swath of land near Dahlonega called Camp Merrill that it currently leases from the Forest Service to train Army Rangers.
Vehicles go out the main gate to Camp Merrill on July 16 in the forests near Dahlonega, Ga.. The Army wants to take over a 282-acre swath of land near Dahlonega called Camp Merrill that it currently leases from the Forest Service to train Army Rangers. (Jason Getz / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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Army personnel walk July 16 near the main gate of Camp Merrill in Dahlonega, Ga. The Army wants to take over a 282-acre swath of land called Camp Merrill that it currently leases from the Forest Service to train Army Rangers. Camp Merrill is the home of the 5th Ranger Training Battalion and the mountain phase of the U.S. Army Ranger School. (Jason Getz / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

DAHLONEGA, GA. — The rumble of Humvees and the buzz of choppers are already commonplace to the neighbors of Camp Merrill, an elite Army base in the rolling hills north of Dahlonega. Some worry they are about to become a lot more frequent if a North Georgia lawmaker’s late legislative push succeeds.

The Army wants to take over a 282-acre swath of land that it leases from the Forest Service to train Army Rangers. After two decades of negotiations didn’t yield a deal, Gainesville Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Collins stepped in with an amendment to a defense bill that gives the Army the land.

Now environmental groups are worried that an expanded military presence could threaten pristine forestland, pollute churning streams and restrict access to the popular web of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails that crisscrosses the area.

What makes this fight particularly unusual is the Forest Service’s public outing of its concerns with the military takeover. The agency says Collins’ push will cast aside 60 years of cooperation with the military over the land and that any changes should be hashed out by the two sides and not in Congress.

The Army, meanwhile, is firmly backing the land transfer as it heads toward the Senate. Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the commanding general of Fort Benning, wrote a letter to Collins aide Vernon Robinson saying: “I greatly appreciate the legislation and your willingness to assist the Army.”

The opposition to the Army move can seem perplexing in a region that has always had strong ties to the military. Dahlonega, a roughly 20-minute trip down the road, is home to the Military College of Georgia, and uniformed soldiers stroll side-by-side with tourists in the town square.

But the respect for the military is running up against something equally fierce. The hikers and bikers who flock to the area cherish the relative calm of the woods and worry about smacking into a military transport or happening across target practice at the wrong time.

Something that cropped up in a dozen interviews with opponents is a fear that the Army is building the foundation for a vast new base in the forest. David Govus, a 67-year-old retired grading contractor who lives nearby, uses the term “mission creep,” a reference to military missions that have steadily expanded in scope.

“Listen, I’ve never served. And I’m not anti-military. But enough is enough,” said Govus. “They’ve got huge military bases all over the country. So what gives? Why do they need more land?”

The answer from supporters: It’s not the land they need, but the right to improve it without Forest Service approval. Collins said the Forest Service has delayed projects such as tree trimming and sewer maintenance for additional studies that have cost taxpayers at least $3 million.

The Forest Service said it did not know where that figure came from. Judy Toppins, public affairs officer for the Chattahoochee National Forest, said, “Our employees work efficiently and diligently to meet (the Army’s) sometimes complex needs.”

The two government departments could have agreed to a land swap, and Collins said they were close last year, when the Forest Service could have scored some prime property bordering Lake Lanier. But Collins said the Army balked when the Forest Service asked for an additional $10 million to pay for buildings on the new property.

Toppins said negotiations fell apart because the swap was not “mutually beneficial.” She said the Forest Service has no official position on the Collins bill but wants to work out a deal under existing law.

Toppins said the Forest Service was not aware of Collins’ amendment until shortly before it passed last month, with no debate. It was submitted in a flood of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act and passed in a voice vote on the floor.

A common thread in opponents’ concerns is that because it was slipped in as an amendment, they weren’t given a chance to weigh in on the proposal. Frank Gilkeson, a 71-year-old local advocate who lives in the nearby woods, said Collins is betraying his roots as a small-government advocate who often champions the need for less regulation.

“He acts like he doesn’t care or need to know what anyone else thinks,” said Gilkeson, who said the congressman was behaving in an “undemocratic” manner.

Collins disputed the notion that his amendment was a surprise. “We’ve been very transparent in what we’re doing,” Collins said. “We have not tried to hide a thing.”

Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss say they have no plans to introduce similar legislation in their chamber, but Collins said he will work to get the bill into law while continuing to mediate the dispute.

“We’re still open to work with Forestry, but after 20 years I think it’s time to get something like this done,” Collins said. “We’ll work with all concerned parties.”

Collins said he has the support of the local community, from Dahlonega Mayor Gary McCullough to area state legislators. He said environmental concerns are overblown because the transfer would trigger an evaluation under the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Army would have to comply with federal wildlife and water quality rules.

One of the Army’s worries is security, and a recent trip to the camp showed why. The Forest Service roads that crisscross the installation offer relatively free access inside. On one venture inside the camp’s fenceless perimeter, a visitor went unchallenged as soldiers nearby rappeled down a wall and practiced formations in a grassy field.

Outside the base, neighbors point out signs of wear-and-tear on winding roads, though it’s uncertain how much came from soldiers and how much from visitors. Deep ruts in the dirt paths make some roads almost impassable, shattered cans from target practices dot the landscape and clearings that neighbors say have been used for helicopter drops abruptly break the forest.

Some people say the Army may get more than it bargains for if it succeeds in acquiring this land. Lt. Col. Sam Booher, a 71-year-old Army retiree who trained at the camp in the 1960s, said the Army has no business taking control of forestland.

“Is the Army in the business of preventing erosion? Is the Army going to start sending in armed people to prevent poachers?” asked Booher, a Vietnam veteran. “They’re going to get a lot of new responsibility if this passes.”

Not all locals share his concern, though. Dennis Fortner is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church, a tiny white chapel that sits on a hill overlooking the base. With each new batch of soldiers, his pews are suddenly packed with 50, 60 soldiers. And he relishes the chance to preach to a greater flock if the camp does expand.

“It’s a blessing for them to be there,” he said. “On my end, the more people who come through, the more good we can do.”

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