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Soldiers help keep Chattahoochee National Forest clean
Camp Merrill soldiers trained to pick up trash in program
Specialists Shane Martin, left, Tim Comer, center, and Nicholas Ciranni pick up beer bottles found near Two Run Creek in the Chattahoochee National Forest where they regularly conduct training exercises. - photo by JACOB DEMMIT

Good soldiers know to cover their tracks — and that's not just on the battlefield.

The Fifth Ranger Battalion, which trains in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Lumpkin County, has invested more than 400 man-hours to picking up trash and minimizing their ecological impact over the last two weeks.

The soldiers at Camp Merrill have signed an agreement with national forest officials to pick up after themselves in exchange for being able to use the protected area to carry out training exercises.

"It's more important than just the paper. It's the trust that we have between the two agencies that makes it work," said Andy Baker, a district ranger for the national forest. "This is a perfect example of what it takes to keep our forest clean."

Cpt. Randal Waters said 68 personnel visited 60 locations throughout the forest, not only picking up their own trash, but that left behind by civilians as well.

Of the 60 pounds of collected litter, Waters said about 90 percent was left by campers and hikers. Beer bottles were the most common form, but they also recovered large items like tires.

"I think the good news story is the amount of trash found across the forest was pretty minimal," Waters said. "We're pretty good about everyday picking up after ourselves. And I would say the vast majority of the civilian population is equally good about taking care of the trash they bring to the area."

But even if most people are doing their part, Baker said a few bad apples can make a mess.

Litter tends to accumulate around campsites and hiking trails, but forest officials encourage visitors to "leave no trace."

Baker said this is an attitude the rangers have adopted.

"This kind of volunteer effort is what we look for everyday," he said. "We're excited to see these guys doing this and it's a big help to us."

But this is far from the first time the rangers have lent a helping hand to keeping the forest clean.

Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Wessling said they always teach students to pick up trash they see during training exercises. In addition to daily upkeep, the rangers have organized these large clean-up efforts twice a year, every year for as long as anyone can remember.

But they don't do it just to help the forest, but for their own benefit as well.

"It's not just about continuing to be allowed to use the national forest, but it doesn't do us any good to train in a landfill," Waters said. "We want to train in an environment that better replicates what we'll see down range."

He also said it helps stay on good terms with the community.

"We want to have a good relationship with them," he said. "They don't interfere with us, we don't interfere with them and everyone can use the national forest for their own purposes."