Saturday, September 18, 2010

Logging Lake Guntersville State Park

Loading large hardwood logs, Lake Guntersville State Park, September 16, 2010

On September 16, 2010 I visited Lake Guntersville State Park in Marshall County, Alabama to see firsthand the logging and herbiciding that I'd been told was taking place on the park's mixed hardwood slopes. I understand a similar logging project has recently been completed at Cathedral Caverns State Park as well. The people of Alabama perceive their state parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not what they receive. The Department of Conservation operates several of its parks primarily as resorts and convention centers, and revenues from these help subsidize the smaller parks. At Guntersville, for example, ADCNR recently spent $26 million on lodge and golf course renovations. By comparison, natural resource stewardship is a lot farther down the priority list.

According to ADCNR's own
State Wildlife Action Plan (page 63), a
high priority conservation action is for managers of mesic hardwood forests "to favor mature and old-growth hardwood stands (because these are most often in shortest supply on a landscape scale)." This plan evidently was not consulted in the management decisions at Guntersville and Cathedral Caverns.

In a recent interview with a local newspaper, the State Parks Division's forester said, "The work we're doing will create a park full of big, mature trees with open areas underneath that provide more habitat for more wildlife and more opportunities for visitors to see the wildlife." That's a forester talking, not a biologist. I rather doubt wildflowers, ferns, mushrooms, warblers, salamanders, and box turtles are the kind of wildlife he's speaking of. I know what he's saying--you really can get bigger trees faster if you thin some of them out. But who decides which species to shift the tree community composition toward? And has the cost of disturbance been fully weighed? Through soil disturbance you make the forest highly vulnerable to noxious invasive species, such as Nepalese browntop and Chinese privet, which are already established in portions of the park.

Careful cutting of trees in a park is often necessary to remove invasive species, maintain fire lanes, reduce hazards to hikers/campers, etc. But what I saw was a large-scale and in my opinion misguided removal of oaks, hickories, maples, and other trees, large and small. Part of the justification behind this, as a contact in Parks has told me, was that there was a desire to create an open forest experience that was more aesthetically pleasing to the park visitor. I was assured that this was not economically-driven, and that the cost of the specialized low impact equipment, cut-to-length logging practices, mulching, and herbicides would make this at best a break-even deal for ADCNR.
I guess at least the loggers are making a profit.

This is what ADCNR State Parks is "improving." Blue paint and ribbons indicate trees to be cut. The flagged tree in the right background is a 16" diameter white oak.

This area has already been logged through, and a log is being transported to one of many cleared loading decks.

Another "thinned" and mulched area.

To achieve this, however, heavy machinery has crisscrossed much of the forest floor, resulting in untold impacts to soils, plants, and ground-dwelling animals. No pre-logging inventory of sensitive plants or natural communities was conducted. No such inventory has ever been conducted in the park, although the state can find millions to upgrade its infrastructure. [9/22 edit: Dan Spaulding's 1995 JSU thesis was on the flora of the park, and 30 imperiled or critically imperiled species were reported, but few specific locations are mapped.] New forest roads were gouged into the slopes, decreasing the size of roadless areas and further fragmenting the forest. Contract loggers were allowed to work unsupervised, with no park personnel present, on an "operator-select" basis, meaning some of the most mature and economically valuable trees are being removed. Large portions of the park have been all but sanitized, with dead standing trees (snags) removed, along with naturally fallen trees. The woods have been further "cleaned up" following the logging, with virtually all woody debris mulched by yet another heavy machine. My contact in the Parks Division tells me that that this was done in the name of aesthetics, safety, wildlife, and forest health.

In addition to the logging is herbiciding of vegetation that might obscure a motorists' view into the unnaturally thinned forest. I was stunned to see perennial and annual wildflowers and shrubs dead for up to 50 feet out into the woods while the opposite shoulder of the road had thriving stands of the exotic invasive Chinese privet, the only plant in sight that actually
needed killing.

A large stand of herbicide-sprayed fall-flowering Silphium between the road and the golf course. The logic here seems to be that visitors would rather look at a golf course than native wildflowers.

The invasive privet across the road apparently was not sprayed because no visibility into the woods would be gained due to the slope.

This new logging road cuts deep into what had been a mostly unfragmented block of forest.

The upslope part of the road cut is about three feet deep.

It leads to this.

This Facebook group has been set up by concerned citizens, and contains more photographs and links.

I was told yesterday by my contact in the Parks Division that due to the public outcry, the logging has been stopped, at least temporarily, and whether it continues will be up to Representative Jeff McLaughlin (27th District) and others of the legislative delegation. If you find this kind of management of your parks objectionable, below are some people who may need to hear from you.

Jeff McLaughlin,
Representative, 27th District

Barnett Lawley, ADCNR Commissioner

Mark Easterwood, ADCNR State Parks Director

Addendum, 9/19/10
Here is my email to the gentlemen above:
Commissioner Lawley, Mr. Easterwood, and Representative McLaughlin:

The people of Alabama perceive their parks as special places deserving of and afforded the highest protections, but unfortunately this is not always the case. I recently visited Lake Guntersville State Park and was greatly disappointed by the impacts of the logging, new road construction, and excessive herbiciding that has unfortunately been permitted to occur. Detailed comments and photos are posted at my blog here. I am not necessarily saying that some vegetation management is not needed, but now that these practices are at least temporarily on hold, I urge you to enact a policy of no logging or herbiciding of native vegetation in any state park prior to 1.) development and multi-agency/stakeholder approval of a comprehensive plan for all State Parks, similar to the statewide Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy (Wildlife Action Plan) developed in 2005 by the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the statewide Forest Assessment and Resource Strategy developed this year by the Alabama Forestry Commission, and 2.) a thorough inventory of each park’s biological diversity. Spending $26 million on infrastructure and virtually nothing on inventorying the park’s natural treasures before logging it simply makes no sense. In the words of Aldo Leopold, to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

Please take a moment to look at one or two of these detailed park management plans developed by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Park Planning. If Alabama’s State Parks have anything similar, other than this one (not available through ADCNR’s website) for Oak Mountain, I am unaware of it, but the need is great. If I may be of any assistance, please don’t hesitate to call on me.


Mark Bailey
Conservation Biologist
Conservation Southeast, Inc.
Andalusia, AL


Ann said...

Thanks to your work and others the logging is stopped, but unless there is a plan for our parks, it will continue.
Unlike other states, we have no forest plan for our parks. That has to be our next step.

Jennie's Musings said...

It has been my opinion for awhile, what with charging for admission, doing "controlled" fires and clear-cutting for "views" that big money interest wants to turn our parks into gianr country clubs. I'm sick of it.

Mark Bailey said...

Jennie: While I too have a problem with cutting trees for views, I won't begrudge them of user fees if it goes to responsible park maintenance. As for controlled fire, there's a place for that when done responsibly, especially in the pine-dominated forests at Oak Mountain and Gulf State Parks. Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and without it, many fire-adapted species, some already quite rare, would vanish. I'm on the steering committee of the Alabama Prescribed Fire Council. Check it out at

MaxShelby said...

Happened across your blog and really appreciate you putting this information out there, very important to know and you are a good steward--thank you for what you do.

Am curious about the politics behind this. Who makes up the board who decides to do these things? You mention the 27th district Rep., but is the state government involved in this?

We run an environmental injustice site and go after the political corruption involved with environmental issues and this sounds as if it is something our readers would be interested in.

More exposure equals more people talking and pressure on the decision makers.

Like to hear from you.


Mark Bailey said...


I don't know to what extent politics is a factor, but ultimately the buck stops with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. I'm not suggesting political corruption here; just extremely poor management by an agency that really ought to have higher standards for its conservation lands. said...

I got your gist on the ineffectiveness of an agency, and did not see that you were suggesting PC, but often the two go hand in hand.

That's my opinion.

Good work on this.

Mark Bailey said...

Not sure I know what you mean by PC. Press Conference? Planning Commission?