Environment rules won't change at Camp Merrill
August 21, 2013
FORT BENNING, Ga., (Aug. 21, 2013) -- More than 50 years of demonstrated good stewardship of the environment at the Army's Camp Frank D. Merrill training site, located within the Chattahoochee National Forest near Dahlonega, Ga., won't change regardless of whether or not legislation now being considered by Congress passes.
That legislation, the 2013-14 spending bill that is also known as the National Defense Authorization Act was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives June 14. It is currently in the U.S. Senate for consideration.
The focus of recent local public concern relates to oversight of the 282.2-acre Camp Merrill site that is operated by the U.S. Army's 5th Ranger Training Battalion and serves as the training location for the Mountain Phase of Fort Benning's Ranger School.
If passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President, the legislation as written in the House version of the bill would transfer the land at Camp Merrill from U.S. Forest Service control to Army control in order to streamline business procedures and save money that could then be re-invested in the camp and in the local area.
"External to Camp Merrill, local 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.
Local area residents would continue to have the same access to the land, the Etowah River and area roads as they have now. Most important, the Army's concern for the environment will not change.
The Army and the Forest Service are both governed by the same environmental requirements.
"This will not change, because environmental law is the law," Jones said.
The Army's current use of this National Forest Land is governed by an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Army that dates from July of 1951. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Departments (Agriculture and Army) was established in 1972, which governs the use of the Chattahoochee National Forest by the Army. In addition, a Special Use Permit was granted to the Army for the use the land now known as Camp Frank D. Merrill. This long-standing agreement is scheduled to expire/renew later this year. As a result, Army and Forest Service personnel are currently reviewing it with the goal of negotiating a new agreement to continue the decades-old, successful partnership between the Army and the Forest Service in the Dahlonega area.
During the past 20 years, the Army and the Forest Service have discussed the possibility of the two federal departments (Army and Agriculture, which is the parent department of the Forest Service) swapping the land Camp Merrill occupies for other land the Army owns elsewhere.
To date, though, those discussions have not resulted in an agreement that would benefit both sides.
Camp Merrill now contains about 50 structures, including buildings dedicated to general classroom instruction; company and battalion headquarters buildings; transient, student and permanent party unaccompanied housing; plus dining facility, a 24/7 fire station, medical clinic, post exchange, commissary, and vehicle maintenance facilities.
The camp also includes the Lower Mountain training facility that features a 30-foot vertical climbing wall and 60-foot cliff for Soldiers to use in mountaineering training.
Also, within the camp's footprint are two privately held parcels of land: The Mount Zion Church, located southeast of the Main Entrance, and a small family cemetery located south of the existing Motor Pool.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q1. What is Camp Merrill?
A1. Camp Frank D. Merrill is a small (less than 300 acres) Army facility located near Dahlonega, Ga. The Army has leased the property from the U.S. Forest Service/Department of Agriculture for more than 50 years and also uses the surrounding forest to train Ranger students, during one of the three phases of Ranger School.
Q2. What does the Army do there?
A2. The Army conducts "mountain phase" Ranger training at Camp Merrill, which is the second of three phases of the Ranger School. The students learn mountaineering techniques and conduct patrolling exercises at Camp Merrill and in the surrounding area.
The first phase of Ranger School is conducted at Camp Rogers (inside Fort Benning), and the third phase, known as the "swamp phase," is taught at Camp Rudder (inside Eglin Air Force Base, Florida).
Q3. What is the importance of this training?
A3. The Rangers are an elite force. Their role in the Army is expanding as the Army evolves and more focus is placed on equipping small groups of Soldiers (squads) to overmatch the Nation's enemies. The phase of training taught at Camp Merrill is especially important, because it helps prepare Army leaders to deploy with units that conduct operations in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.
Q4. How many Soldiers work and train at Camp Merrill?
A4. There are more than 200 permanent party Soldiers assigned to the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Merrill. Each training cycle can bring anywhere from 150-300 additional Ranger School students to the Camp to learn mountaineering skills.
Q5. How many Soldiers live at Camp Merrill/in Dahlonega in support of Ranger School?
A5. There are more than 200 permanent party Soldiers assigned to the 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Merrill. There are also about 50 civilian employees who work at the Camp. In addition, each training cycle can bring anywhere from 150-300 additional Ranger School students to the Camp to learn mountaineering skills.
Q6. What is the current agreement between the Army and the Forest Service, pertaining to the operation of Camp Merrill?
A6. The Army's current use of this National Forest Land is governed by an agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the Army that dates from 1994. That agreement is scheduled to expire/renew later this year. As a result, Army and Forest Service personnel are currently reviewing it with the goal of negotiating a new agreement to continue the decades-old, successful partnership between the Army and the Forest Service in the Dahlonega area.
Q7. Why is it important for the Army to "own" Camp Merrill instead of leaving it under Forest Service control?
A7. The short answer is that it will save both money and time. At present, Camp Merrill has two layers of business rules and operating procedures -- one Forest Service layer and one Army layer. This duplicate layer of oversight causes unintended but inevitable delay and extra cost to the day-to-day operation of the camp. The Army's goal is to increase efficiency and save tax dollars. If the Army were to "own" Camp Merrill at some point in the future, it could manage tax dollars required to maintain and improve its infrastructure much more efficiently. Said another way, a single layer of business rules and procedures is cheaper to operate than the two current layers at Camp Merrill. 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.
For example, a few years ago, trees around a small field used for helicopter take-offs and landings started to overgrow and caused a safety hazard. Because of the existing lengthy approval processes currently in place, it took nearly two years to get approval to trim trees within an acre and a half area, and the cost nearly doubled.
In addition, the last nine projects the Army built at Camp Merrill cost $674,980
more, because of the extended contract start dates and performance periods associated with a secondary level of reviews and procedures that would not be necessary if the Army maintained sole jurisdiction on the land at Camp Merrill.
Q8. Why is it necessary to do any construction at Camp Merrill?
A8. Many of the facilities at Camp Merrill were built as temporary structures more than 50 years ago. At the time, the camp was intended to be a temporary training location. As such, the temporary structures had a design life of five to seven years. They lack proper bathroom facilities, and they are also insufficiently insulated. The lack of proper insulation makes the structures very inefficient to heat and cool. Thus, they cost more money to operate than they should.
Q9. What is the Forest Service's role at Camp Merrill? Why can't the Forest Service make building improvements?
A9. The Army has operated Camp Merrill via an agreement with the Forest Service for more than 50 years. In a sense, the Forest Service has been our "landlord."
Because of the Army's mission, and the mission of the Ranger School, the Army has very specific requirements when it comes to building standards -- oftentimes our requirements to build or improve infrastructure at Camp Merrill calls for exemptions to regulatory guidance. The Army has approved courses of action for these exemptions.
Since the Forest Service does not share our mission, it does not operate under the same exemptions as the Army. This means that each time a project is planned, although the Army consults the Forest Service during the design phase, plans still must go through two separate vetting processes -- the Army's and that of the Forest Service. Because the Forest Service does not have the same level of exceptions for projects, it often requires full environmental assessments, which cost thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars more.
That being said, both the Army and the Forest Service are governed by the same environmental requirements. This will not change. The Army has been, and will continue to be, a good steward of the land, forest and water resources at and around Camp Merrill. The Army has maintained a good environmental track record for more than 50 years, while training Rangers at Camp Merrill. That will not change regardless of who owns the land.
Q10. What assurances can you make to ensure there will be no degradation to the Etowah River if the easement to the Etowah River is reduced by 50 feet?
A10. Our future development plan focuses on moving facilities away from the
Etowah River. All of the Camp's occupied buildings that are within the 100-foot buffer will be eliminated. It's also important to note that the Army and the Forest Service both have to comply with U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations when it comes to the easement along the Etowah River.
Q11. Why the sudden interest in "owning" the property that Camp Merrill is on?
A11. It's not really all that sudden. The Army and the Forest Service have been working on a proposed land swap for more than 20 years. During recent negotiations with the Forest Service, they proposed to add 213 acres to Camp Merrill in return for 10 acres of waterfront property on Lake Lanier and $6 million. Because of the current budget climate the Army was unable to obtain the additional funding. The Army and the Forest Service have discussed the possibility of the two federal departments (Army and Agriculture, which is the parent department of the Forest Service) swapping the land Camp Merrill occupies for other land the Army owns elsewhere (to be determined). To date, though, those discussions have not resulted in an agreement that would benefit both sides.
Q12. How will civilian access to Camp Merrill be affected if the Forest Service is no longer in control of the land?
A12. It won't change. In fact, as the Army improves the camp over time, new roads will improve access.
One thing that you can be sure of is that the Army wants to continue to be a good steward of the environment at Camp Merrill and its surrounding forest areas. Many of the planned improvements to Camp Merrill will not just improve conditions for the Ranger students training there, but they will help us better safeguard the environment as well.
For example, a proposed sewage treatment plant will eventually eliminate the current system that is comprised of an approximately 4-acre waste water lagoon (also known locally as "lake"). Doing away with the current system and building a modern sewage treatment plant will allow the Army to continue to safeguard the Etowah River but at an even higher level.
Q13. How would this transfer affect the Dahlonega community?
A13. Camp Merrill's cadre and their families live in the community. That won't change. The Army does a lot of business with the local community with an estimated economic impact of $9,235,266 annually. That won't change.
Our Soldiers at Camp Merrill have enjoyed a good relationship with the civilian community for more than 50 years, and we intend to maintain that relationship. After all, our Soldiers are part of the Dahlonega community too. As such, they donate more than $6,000 to local community causes each year. What is good for Camp Merrill is very good for Dahlonega and the environment in the area.
We also share resources with our neighbors in Dahlonega like the Camp's Army fire department and emergency (air MEDEVAC) response teams that support incidents in the surrounding community too. The Army has also restored the bridge over the Etowah, which is a now a popular fish stocking and fishing point.
In addition, the Army regularly responds to requests to remove downed trees from Forest Service roads outside the Camp. Among the roads the Army maintains is a 2.7-mile stretch of Spring Mountain Road, which is heavily used by the surrounding civilian community and hikers from across the country who use it to gain access to the starting point of the Appalachian Trail. The road was severely muddy and rutted. As a result, the Forest Service received many complaints until the Army took over to maintain the road as part of our ongoing partnership with the Forest Service and our neighbors in surrounding area.