Naturalists, bikers cope with inevitable loss of land
by Jason Bacaj
Star Staff Writer
Jun 13, 2011 | 4776 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A sign nailed to a tree marks the trail path to the Jacksonville State University Frog Pond, a site scientific value. Pulpwood workers have been clearing much of land near the pond, but so far have not invaded the pond area. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
A sign nailed to a tree marks the trail path to the Jacksonville State University Frog Pond, a site scientific value. Pulpwood workers have been clearing much of land near the pond, but so far have not invaded the pond area. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
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A corner of eastern Calhoun County carved out of the wilderness for education and recreation is being reclaimed by the Alabama Forestry Commission.

The swath of woods east of Bain’s Gap surrounding the Jacksonville State University Frog Pond is threaded with mountain biking trails and was grown as a timber farm by the state commission.

Recreators and educators knew this more than a decade ago when the two uses were designated, but those involved with the frog pond and local mountain biking were taken aback when the Forestry Commission’s logging operations impeded on what they had built.

A total of 15 miles of trails once wound through the area, said Preston York, head of mountain biking with the Northeast Alabama Bicycling Association. Eight miles of family-oriented biking trails were lost to clear cutting in 2010 and the remaining seven were lost earlier this spring to logging operations, he said.

About 100 yards of forest buffers the frog pond from the logging operations, said Renee Morrison, educational program coordinator for JSU’s field schools. She understands how logging can be necessary for forest management. Morrison can’t help but notice changes to the scenery surrounding the pond — visible “probably even from a Google Earth aspect,” she said — and wonder if they can preserve the frog pond’s fragile ecosystem.

“On a larger level, I know they (the Forestry Commission) need money for the budget,” Morrison said. “We’re not trying to fight for it, so to speak. But we’re trying to educate as many people as we can.”

The state forester responsible for the area was unavailable for comment Friday, as he was “on the fire line” of a large forest fire in western Jefferson County, said Coleen Vansant, wildland-urban interface coordinator with the commission.

What will transpire?

No one will know until next spring how or if the logging will affect the frog pond, which is filled with rainwater part of the year and a marshy wetland during the dry months.

The surrounding trees contribute to the health of the pond, Morrison explained, because leaf litter on the ground filters rainwater and roots keep dirt — which is acidic due to the presence of pine trees — from washing into the small basin. Without those trees and their fallen leaves and needles, the pond might become too harsh an environment for amphibians to survive.

The canopy and understory around the wetland serves as an incubator for amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, creating a gentle, prime habitat for the creatures. Last month, after all the frogs hatched, Morrison waded to the middle of the pond. The forest canopy forms an almost self-contained bubble with its own water cycle. Standing in the middle of it, she said, she could feel the trees transpire — the process by which plants release water vapor to the atmosphere.

“It’s almost like standing on the coast feeling the sea spray,” Morrison said. “It’s really cool.”

In the 16 years since the pond has been an outdoor education site associated with JSU, approximately 100,000 people have visited, Morrison estimated. And the pond will only become more important as the Talladega Mountain Natural Resource Center breaks ground next Friday in Cleburne County, she noted.

Pete Conroy, director of the university’s Environmental Policy and Information Center, hopes to set up a meeting with the state commission to make sure the buffer remains and the pond is protected.

A clear-cut operation actually created the area now occupied by the frog pond, he noted. After trees were removed, the land depressed slightly, allowing water to collect, Conroy said, commenting on the irony that the same circumstances now threaten the spot.

This logging operation may also turn out in the pond’s favor in the end, Conroy said. The Forestry Commission will re-populate the clear-cut area, he believes, with longleaf pines, a threatened species.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing in the long run,” Conroy said. “But in the short term, there have been some concerns.”

A peddling mess

The Northeast Alabama Bicycling Association had a good relationship with the state forester in Calhoun County about 15 years ago, said Mike Poe, the group’s spokesman.

The group started building trails, putting a lot of “sweat equity” into the land as a system of trails good enough to attract riders from around the region to eastern Calhoun County, he said. They knew it wouldn’t last forever, though.

“They were very accommodating but they made it very clear it was managed as a timber operation,” Poe said. “It’s disappointing and we hate to lose the trails, but they told us early on.”

Most of the 15 miles of lost trails were flowing single-track trails through woods with some easy climbing, Poe said.

It was suitable for kids under 10 and folks older than 60, York said. Someone looking for a family-oriented trail has to drive 30 or 40 minutes outside the town now, he said.

“We can’t ride in a clear-cut area, it’s too exposed to heat,” York said. “It takes away the beauty of mountain biking.”

York hopes to meet with the Forestry Commission to discuss possibly protecting the one remaining trail, Iron Legs. In an ideal world, he said, he hopes to add another 10 miles to the five- or six-mile ride to keep it going up and around the mountain, York said.

“We still have an opportunity here at Bain’s Gap to increase and even make better trails than we had,” York said.

Losing the county’s most accessible mountain biking trails simply places more emphasis on the Coldwater Mountain trail building project, Poe said. Trails on Coldwater, just west of downtown Anniston and Oxford, are the future of mountain biking in Calhoun County. Trails there will never be threatened from clear-cutting because Coldwater Mountain is state-protected Forever Wild property, he said.

Opening of the Coldwater trails is a ways off yet, however. And in the meantime, the county’s accessible mountain biking trails are severely depleted because of Forestry Commission’s logging operations.

“It’d be nice if they’d be empathetic,” Poe said.

Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546
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Naturalists, bikers cope with inevitable loss of land by Jason Bacaj
Star Staff Writer

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