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Senate bill could shift Camp Merrill to Army

POSTED: November 24, 2013 12:20 a.m.

The U.S. Senate is expected to begin debate this week on a defense spending bill that may, among other things, transfer control of Camp Frank D. Merrill in Dahlonega from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Defense.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, pushed for the Camp Merrill amendment during the House’s passage of the bill on June 14.

Spokeswoman Kelley McNabb said that Collins would reserve comment on the Senate’s consideration of the amendment “until we know (it’s) ruled in order.”

But on the issue in general, he has been vocal.

“We brought light on a subject that’s been going on for 20-something years,” Collins said in an August interview. “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.”

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.

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

And the Forest Service has said it believes the amendment isn’t needed.

“We continue to have very productive conversations with the Army,” Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests spokeswoman Judy Toppins said last week. “Based on our long history of cooperation, we are making good progress toward resolving any issues.”

Camp Merrill, which sits on 293 acres in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, is home to mountaineering training for the U.S. Army Ranger School.

The Army and Forest Service have tried six times to exchange government land, as early as 1992 and as recent as 2008, said Maj. Jason A. Henderson, executive officer for the 5th Ranger Training Battalion.

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.

“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: the Etowah and holiday darters.

The bill features another amendment, introduced by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., ensuring National Guard and Reserve members get the early retirement credit they have earned through active duty service.

While qualified active duty troops can receive retirement benefits immediately upon completion of service, most reservists must currently wait until they are 60 years old to begin receiving benefits.

The Gainesville armory, 153 Alta Vista Road, is the National Guard’s home to Charlie Company, 1-121st Infantry of the 48th Brigade.

A 2008 law allows the minimum retirement age for reservists to be moved up by three months for every 90 days of deployment overseas. However, under current law, those 90 days of deployment must occur within one fiscal year in order to be applied toward retirement, according to Chambliss’ office.

“Our guardsmen and reservists serve alongside all branches of the regular armed forces, and they should be recognized and compensated for the indispensable role they play in the defense of our nation,” said Chambliss, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Maj. Gen. Jim Butterworth, Georgia’s adjutant general, lauded the amendment.

“Anytime we can advocate for our team to get parity with the active-duty component, we’re going (to do that) the best way we possibly can,” he said in an interview last week.

Butterworth, a Habersham County native, believes the correction is merely the result of an oversight.

“There are occasions when we seek to do everything right, but there are unintended consequences,” he said.

As for other parts of the defense bill, Butterworth said he believes that “with the current (troop) draw-down phase we’re in, as far as post-Iraq and hopefully post-Afghanistan, there is no better time to look at the reserve component ... for growth opportunities.”


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