A federal defense spending bill’s call for the transfer of Camp Frank D. Merrill near Dahlonega to the U.S. Department of Army is causing a stir among environmental groups, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which controls the land.
“The big issue is there’s not been a public process” concerning the transfer, said Betty Mathews, forest supervisor for the Gainesville-based Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests.
The U.S. Forest Service falls under the USDA.
“This is not just an issue for Georgia,” said Mary Topa, executive director of Ellijay-based Georgia ForestWatch. “If this passes through the Senate, it’s going to set a dangerous precedent that could result in loss of public land and access all over the country.”
The Forest Service also states as much on its website, citing the Interchange Act, “a longstanding process in place” between it and the Defense Department.
The law “ensures that the public interest is protected by requiring both agencies to find an exchange that is mutually beneficial and provides for public disclosure.”
The U.S. House approved the 2013-14 spending bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, on June 14. The bill now is in the U.S. Senate.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, introduced the amendment concerning the 283.2-acre Camp Merrill, which is part of the U.S. Army’s 5th Ranger Training Battalion and serves as the mountain phase of Fort Benning’s Ranger School.
“Not only did we find a way to increase protection for the brave soldiers serving our nation’s interests at Camp Merrill,” said Collins, a U.S. Air Force reservist, in a June 14 press release, “but we were also able to remove a layer of unnecessary government intervention and save millions of dollars in the (defense) budget.”
Asked about criticism of the amendment, Collins’ spokeswoman, Loree Anne Thompson, said in a Tuesday email that “it’s not surprising to hear the U.S. Forest Service opposes this land transfer.
“After all, it would take away their control and the subsequent increased bureaucracy at the camp. Of the past nine maintenance projects completed at the facility, the U.S. Forest Service has added $3 million in taxpayer dollars due to unnecessary delays and administrative burdens.”
Mathews said some delays were necessary because projects weren’t ready to start, and, in that instance, “we’re not going to award contracts.”
The 283 acres include the camp’s buildings and infrastructure, such as a sewer treatment plant and an airfield. Mathews said.
The Etowah River cuts through the camp, which sits near the junction of Hightower Church and Camp Wahsega roads.
Forest Hilyer, chairman of the Lumpkin Coalition, said that if the bill passes with the transfer intact, Congress would be “taking a treasure away from the folks here who have grown up with it and (from the) people who come here.
“This is a destination area,” he said. “It’s a treasure spot.”
Hilyer added: “I like for there to be oversight on the watersheds, and I feel like this (transfer) would reduce that. I think the Forest Service does a pretty good job of overseeing some of those protections.”
Collins’ office said the transfer would give the Army authority to remove unprotected access points to the facility.
The move “finally brings Camp Merrill into compliance with Department of Defense standards and reflects the chief role of the federal government — to protect the national security interests of its people.”
Mathews said “the military has never approached us with wanting to close off the access” and that “we would work with them if they were concerned with security of the soldiers training there.”
Thompson said Collins’ amendment does work to maintain the conservation efforts of the Forest Service through the protection of two endangered species of fish in the Chattahoochee National Forest: the Etowah and holiday darters.
The defense bill is now in the Senate, where it has passed the Armed Services Committee but “still needs to come to the Senate floor for a vote,” said Lauren Claffey, spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie.
Asked for his opinion on the amendment, she said, “Sen. Chambliss will review this issue if it comes before the Senate.”