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Timber clearing project stirs controversy

A meeting to discuss the cutting of trees on Recovery Hill behind Jack Wingate’s Lunker Lodge was started with a round of “Happy Birthday,” in celebration of Jack Wingate’s 80th birthday.

The meeting, which was held at the Lunker Lodge on Tuesday, had about 26 in attendance. Those present included state Rep. Gene Maddox, County Commissioner Russell Smith, representatives of both U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, Jack Wingate and others from the area concerned about the timber clearing being proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the timber clearing project, was represented by Bill Smallwood, operations manager; Don Morgan, Natural Resources manager; and Memphis Vaughan Jr., Woodruff/Seminole site manager of the ACF Rivers project.

The concerns of Wingate and his neighbors are that once the land has been cleared, erosion into the nearby marina will become worse.

“There is already a great deal of silt running off into the marina. You cut down the trees, and it will become a lot worse. The trees are what keep it somewhat regulated,” said Gale Goodman, part owner of Wingate’s Lunker Lodge.

According to Wingate, the large amount of silt in the water makes it difficult for people to put their boats in the marina. Wingate told the Corps officials that if a large amount of silt were to clog up the marina, a dredge would be needed to clean it out. He then inquired as to whether the Corps would be responsible for the cleanup.

Corps member Smallwood said they would not and claimed that any damage done to the area would be the property owners’ responsibility but would be overseen by the Corps of Engineers.

Another concern troubling the locals is the destruction of wildlife habitat.

The Recovery Hill area is home to fox, deer, coyotes, various birds and reptiles, and reportedly, a couple of panthers. The residents of the area are concerned that if too many trees are cut it will destroy the homes of these animals, and they will leave the area.

The land behind the lodge is also used for the public. Homeschoolers are taken out there to learn about nature and identify plants and trees.

The Corps stated that this kind of timber clearing is vital for a healthy forest.

Corps member Smallwood stated, “We need to cut trees to clear up the area. We reduce the undergrowth, and it improves bushes and growth. It will improve the wildlife area and make it a better habitat.”

A third concern brought up at the meeting was that of the graves on Recovery Hill. The residents did not want the graves disturbed out of respect. There are two gravesites on the hill, the first belonging to United States veterans. Only these two graves in this area have markers, but others are clearly recognizable from the sunken earth. Wingate stated there are a possible 38 graves on the hill.

The second gravesite is that belonging to a Fennell family. According to Mr. Wingate, the Fennells were a family of slaves that worked on the nearby Hutchinson Plantation. After they were freed, they took up residence on top of Recovery Hill and were later buried there. Their graves were unmarked for some time but recently given headstones by descendants.

The meeting concluded a little over an hour later with a compromise reached.

The Corps decided not to cut any of the timber on the side of the hill, in hopes of preventing more erosion and to set up a 100-yard boundary around the gravesites.

The residents were not completely satisfied, saying that any cutting on Recovery Hill would damage the land, causing it to look devastated.

The Corps assured them that this would be beneficial to the land, and everything will come back greener. They stated that it would not be pretty while the project was in action, but like a controlled burn, it will produce a healthier forest. Smallwood also told the locals not to expect immediate results—that this is a long term project.

The timber clearing will not begin until spring 2010 at the earliest. This came as a relief to Wingate, who will be hosting a 50th anniversary of Wingate’s Lunker Lodge in December 2009 and is inviting the Mi-Chi Native American tribe from Enterprise, Ala., to attend.