Forest Service Proposes Closing Lake Chinnabee Campground to Overnight Camping

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Lake Chinnabee in Autumn: Kenny Walters

By Glynn Wilson

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing to permanently close down one of the best campgrounds in Alabama and the country and reopen the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area only for “day use” after a 100-year-flood stranded campers back in May.

According to a press release seeking public comment sent out via e-mail near the end of business on Friday — along with an attached PDF map of the area — the acting forest supervisor said “no overnight camping will be allowed at Lake Chinnabee.”

Members of the Sierra Club and other outdoor enthusiasts plan to fight the plan, however, and a letter is in the works to counter the federal government’s proposal.

“The current camping area will be converted to a day use area for picnicking and group activities and the entire recreation area would be open year round from sunrise to sunset,” the Forest Service letter says. The agency also plans to remove the lantern posts, fire rings and the camping area fee tube and install new informational signs “to enhance public safety.”

This proposed action for the long-term future management of Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area is based on “new information and changed circumstances,” including the following major factors.

“We now have better data on the flood susceptibility of the camping area based on mapping by URS Corporation,” the agency claims, although the data has not yet been released and photos included in the letter sent out Friday were too small to be republished on the Web.

“Day use recreation poses a much lower risk from flash flooding than overnight camping,” according to the Forest Service in Alabama, although roads and campgrounds are closed due to weather related events in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Grand Canyon National Park and other national forests and parks on a routine basis.

The three mains reasons cited are that, one, most people are awake and aware of their surroundings when enjoying recreation areas during the daylight hours, and they tend to have a much higher level of awareness of changing weather conditions and rising water. Two, this proposal claims, it is easier and safer for people to move to higher ground during daylight hours. And three, the heavy rains that precede flash flood events typically discourage day use activities, making it less likely that the areas will be crowded should a flood occur.

“This reduces the number of people at risk and also facilitates any evacuations or other emergency responses that may be necessary,” the Forest Service says, even though the area is covered by the crack team of emergency rescue personnel with the Clay County Rescue Squad, which helped evacuate campers during the flood event in May.

The Forest Service claims to have considered and rejected several alternatives, including group camping by reservation, installing a flood warning system and constructing a new campground at a higher elevation.

The Forest Service decided against group camping by reservation “because it is not possible to eliminate the high risk of harm to the public and their property should a flash flood occur. During a flood event, the campground access road becomes impassible. This prohibits visitors from safely evacuating the campground and limits access to emergency personnel entering the camping area. The terrain of the area makes the feasibility of constructing a new access road difficult and cost prohibitive.”

After what they claim is a “thorough review” that did not include input from stakeholders, the Forest Service has concluded that “flood warning systems are not a viable approach to alleviate the risk of flash flooding since they could fail at critical times.”

There is a Forest Service national policy on the books, according to the agency’s manual, that says: “Do not install or manage a flash flood warning system.”

Constructing a new campground at a higher elevation was not considered in further analysis “due to the practicability and cost associated with new campground construction. The Forest Service is focusing allocated funds to maintain existing facilities.”

Due to the minor structural changes needed to convert to day use only, the Forest Service anticipate that the project will be categorically excluded from documentation in an environmental assessment (EA) or an environmental impact statement (EIS), although opponents are expected to argue with this conclusion.

Background

Lake Chinnabee is located about 17 miles northeast of Talladega, Alabama.  The location is designated a concentrated recreation zone in the 2004 Revised Forest Land and Resource Management Plan, which says that high risk site conditions that develop during the use season should be identified to protect the public and mitigated — or the site is closed.

A flash flood event occurred on May 18, 2013 in the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area, during which five of the eight campsites in the camping area were discovered to within the floodplain although there is no record of them ever being flooded before. Approximately 20 campers were stranded in the campground as a result of the flood waters and had to be evacuated by boat. The five campsites were flooded with one to three feet of water which created a high risk to campers and the access road into the campground was covered with about six feet of water, making the road impassible and a hazard for campers and other visitors.

The Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area has been closed to the public since the May flood occurred. The water almost covered one vehicle during high flood stage. Photos included in the letter show minor damages in the camping area where several tents washed away and property was lost and shows the campground road covered with about a foot of water (see below).

Another photo shows a minor landslide across the river from the boat ramp along Lakeshore Trail. Another photo shows Cheaha Creek flooding the day use pavilion.

The agency will accept public comments until December 20, 2013 in written form, by facsimile, hand-delivered, oral or electronically by e-mail. Comments should be sent to Gloria Nielsen, District Ranger, Talladega National Forest, 1001 North Street, Talladega, AL 35160. You can call 256-362-2909 or fax comments to this number: 256-362-0823. Oral or hand-delivered comments may be delivered within our normal business hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. They say comments may be mailed electronically in a common digital format on the Web at comments-southern-alabama-talladega@fs.fed.us, but this address leads users to a phishing scam warning and doesn’t work when linked on the Web.

If you have any concerns relating to this proposal, please notify the team leader, Lesley Hodge at (256) 463-2272, ext. 116, and The Locust Fork News-Journal editor and publisher Glynn Wilson at fast2write@gmail.com.

The letter was signed by Gloria R. Nielsen, District Ranger of the Talladega Ranger District.

The area was at the heart of a recent proposal put forward and withdrawn by Forest Supervisor Steve Lohr to allow natural gas drilling and possibly fracking.

Fracking Leases Proposed for National Forests White Washed at ‘Public Meeting’

On a recent camping and hiking trip into the Lake Chinnabee Area, we discovered that the campground appears fine and should be open now during the autumn leaf color tourist season. The federal government is losing money now by keeping it closed.

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The Lake Chinnabee Campground, closed? In leaf season? Why?

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Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area and Campground, Closed: Glynn Wilson

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Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area and Campground, Closed: Glynn Wilson

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Lake Chinnabee in the Talladega National Forest, Autumn 2013: Glynn Wilson

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GPS Map of the Chinnabee Trail Area: A Locust Fork News-Journal Graphic

Forest Service Photos Showing Flood Damage in May

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© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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