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Debate stirred over proposed Camp Merrill move from Forest Service

POSTED: September 7, 2013 11:17 p.m.

Major Jason Henderson prepares to enter the Camp Frank D. Merrill museum which sits on the base inside an original style Army hooch.

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DAHLONEGA — More than 60 years ago, while America was fighting a war in Korea, the U.S. Department of Defense turned to the North Georgia mountains to start a training phase for one of its most elite units, the Army Rangers.

Tucked away amid Georgia pines, curvy roads and the Etowah River headwaters, Camp Frank D. Merrill still carries out that role in a 293.2-acre corner of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. It’s hard to reach, several miles outside of Dahlonega in Lumpkin County, but not unreachable, as attested to by hikers and other outdoor lovers who roam the area.

“It’s not just that we take care of the environment, but we take care of the folks up there,” said Maj. Jason A. Henderson, executive officer for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion. “I’d say that once a quarter, there’s a (rescue) incident up there, and about every couple of weeks, there’s an incident where a civilian will ask a Ranger instructor (for directions).”

The camp, which serves as mountaineering training for the U.S. Army Ranger School, figures into the proposed National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014, with an amendment by U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, calling for transferring control of the land from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Defense.

It’s an issue that has raised some hackles in the public, as well as from the U.S. Forest Service, which falls under USDA.

Land feud

The amendment was included “without consideration” from the Forest Service, states the website for Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.

Also, critics have charged that public hearings should have been held before the amendment was introduced.
The freshman congressman said he is trying to resolve an issue that has lingered too long.

“We brought light on a subject that’s been going on for 20-something years,” Collins said in an August interview at his Gainesville office. “People are tired of government not working ... and we’re talking about two government entities that just can’t talk. They almost got it settled, then one agency decided to back out and hold out for more.”

The Forest Service believes the amendment isn’t needed.

The agency “is confident that through active, ongoing discussions with Army officials, we are addressing and resolving any issues associated with operations at (Merrill),” said Judy Toppins, spokeswoman for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.

The Army and Forest Service have tried six times to exchange government land, as early as 1992 and as recent as 2008, Henderson said.

An Aug. 16 news release from the Army states that “more than 50 years of demonstrated good stewardship of the environment ... won’t change regardless” of what happens with the defense bill, which has moved to the Senate after its June 14 passage in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Residents in the area will notice very little change if this legislation is passed,” said Gary A. Jones, director of public affairs for the Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning near Columbus.

They “would continue to have the same access to the land, the Etowah River and area roads as they have now,” states the Army.

Collins’ amendment does call for the ongoing protection of two endangered species of fish in the Chattahoochee National Forest: the Etowah and holiday darters.

Forest Hilyer, chairman of the Lumpkin Coalition, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, issue-based organization to facilitate projects that benefit North Georgia,” has said he fears, if the bill passes as is, that the transfer would reduce watershed oversight.

“I think the Forest Service does a pretty good job of overseeing some of those protections,” he said.

Collins, a U.S. Air Force reservist, has said he also believes the move would “remove a layer of unnecessary government intervention and save millions of dollars in the (defense) budget.”

The Army states the same in its press release.

“At present, Camp Merrill has two layers of business rules and operating procedures — one Forest Service layer and one Army layer,” the Army says. “This duplicate layer of oversight causes unintended but inevitable delay and extra cost to the day-to-day operation of the camp.

“There isn’t anything wrong with the way the Forest Service has managed the property, but historically the extra layer of management has meant certain projects take longer to complete, and therefore can add additional costs to a project.”

Aging infrastructure

Merrill’s history dates to 1951, when the Army started the mountaineering phase in the area.

“It was kind of throughout the North Georgia mountains and settled in (its current location),” Henderson said.

Buildings were first put up in 1960 and the average age of the buildings on base are 45 years old. The base was officially designated as Camp Merrill in 1972.

“The camp was intended to be a temporary training location,” according to the Army. “As such, the temporary structures had a design life of five to seven years.”

Lt. Col. Michael A. Scarpulla, 5th Ranger Training Battalion commander, said, “For years, our ability to do construction was limited because buildings were coded as (temporary).”

Some modernization has taken place on campus — and there is a master plan laying out upgrades across Merrill — but work still needs to be done.

For example, Merrill has the second oldest dining hall in the Army, with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., having the oldest.

“We’ve recently gotten a few upgrades,” Scarpulla said of the building during a recent tour of the base.

A pond that serves as the setting for an outdated sewer treatment facility, dubbed as the “lagoon” by those at the camp, also could be the site for future improvements, including new pipes and a plant, costing more than $1 million.

“This has been an eyesore pretty much since the camp has been here,” Scarpulla said. “Are we in compliance? Yes. Is this something that needs to be improved with modern technology? Absolutely.”

“The bottom line is we’ve got 4 acres of sewage 300 yards away from the headwaters of the Etowah River,” Henderson said.

The levy had a minor breach in the early 2000s, releasing some 400,000 gallons, he said.

“It was stopped prior to reaching the Etowah, but you can imagine if it had not been,” Henderson said.

Scarpulla said he believes the land transfer would help speed up improvements at the camp.

“We don’t own this, so we’re kind of like a renter and we have to ask the landlord permission to do (improvements),” which delays a project from getting approved, he said.

And with delays, “you have the potential for increased costs,” Scarpulla said.

Sharing space

Toppins said, “Army use of national forest land in Georgia and throughout the southeastern United States is cost-effective and in the public interest.

“The Forest Service works effectively with the Army to ensure forest resources are protected and provides land management expertise and assistance to ensure any environmental impacts from the Army’s training activities are mitigated and minimized.”

Merrill “is unique in that it is transected by about a mile of the Etowah River, which provides habitat to two endangered fish species and flows on to form Lake Allatoona, providing drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Georgians. ... As land managers, we understand the importance of this site to the public.”

The Army believes that upgrades at Merrill, which is home to 200 soldiers year-round and an additional 150-300 Ranger students per 21-day training cycle, “will not just improve conditions for the Ranger students training there, but they will help us better safeguard the environment as well.”

The camp, estimated to have an annual $9.2 million economic impact on the area, also interacts with area agencies — such as during mountain rescues.

Kate Maine, spokeswoman for the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, said the school’s incoming cadets train there one day in fall and one day in spring. Also, its National Leadership Challenge class, a group of high school students interested in joining the Corps of Cadets assembled each semester, visits Merrill.

Likewise, UNG provides some services and facilities to military personnel stationed at Merrill, such as the university pool for training sessions.

Overall, UNG “has a very positive relationship” with Merrill, Maine said.

The Army says its soldiers at Merrill “have enjoyed a good relationship with the civilian community for more than 50 years, and we intend to maintain that relationship.”


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