El Dorado News

Monday
October 23, 2017
El Dorado News Times

Felsenthal residents complain about access to wildlife area

Town council to meet with Game and Fish Commission about issues

By Haley Smith
This article was published August 12, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

By Haley Smith

Staff Writer

Felsenthal residents took several complaints to town officials Thursday concerning access to the Beryl Anthony Wildlife Management Area.

During the town council meeting Thursday, Felsenthal residents Mike Morton, James Thomas, Janice Greer and Ronnie Greer came to discuss a long list of complaints about management of the wildlife area.

Complaints focused on issues such as the road leading to the lakes being closed more often, shutting down all ATV access trails to the lake, logging from the area and the lack of handicap accessibility.

“The people of this town have more than a vested interest in how it’s managed and how it is taken care of,” said Mayor Linda Newbury.

Felsenthal Public Works Supervisor Mikey Parker said that in the four years since the road had been completed linking First Street to the lakes in the area, it had been open to the public less than four months, mostly sitting with its gate closed.

“The lake access is what most people want,” said Councilman Ryan Eads.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website, the road is supposed to be closed part of the time, during the rainy season when water and lake levels are high, however residents reported the road being closed during summer.

Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Chief of Communications Keith Stephens said in an email that the road was open during the winter and early spring, “a time of year when typically it is flooded and closed anyway.” Stephens said because the road did not flood, the commission kept it open as long as possible, but traffic caused damage that made the road unsafe for vehicles.

“This year was not a typical year weather-wise as it has been an extremely wet late spring and summer, and certainly not dry in this part of the state,” Stephens said,

adding that storms caused trees to fall in the road. “The road was closed in order to remove the fallen trees and repair the road to make it safe for the public to pass. The road actually flooded for a brief period while it was closed. In order to get vehicles and tractors in to remove the trees, the road had to dry out enough to not cause further damage. We continue to experience great amounts of rain in August and will need it to dry out further before heavy equipment can get on the road to repair it.”

When the road was completed, residents said they were under the impression that all ATV trails would be left as they were. But not long after the roads were open, residents said all of the ATV trails were closed. The ATV trails had been used since the land was opened to the public and several residents said they were upset at the trails’ closure.

Stephens said the commission had always planned to close those trails once the access road was complete to prevent ATV trails from damaging the wildlife management area.

“Prior to constructing the road, (the commission) met with the City Council and mayor of Felsenthal at the time to discuss plans to construct this road and to receive approval from the City Council to place a gate and develop the road on undeveloped lots that the City of Felsenthal owned,” Stephens said. “It was open to the public, but only two members of the public were present. It was discussed that ATV trails would be eliminated when the road was officially open.”

Stephens added that the information also was discussed with anyone who called the commission about the road.

Janice Greer said she and Ronnie Greer used to maintain two trails and would drive off their property to clear debris that was on the trail so a four-wheeler could be driven on it.

With both the ATV trails and the road being closed, residents said they are concerned about a lack of handicap accessible areas from the Felsenthal side of the management area.

“The three of us (Thomas, Janice Greer and Ronnie Greer) have have handicap mobility stickers from the Arkansas Game and Fish (Commission) and we can’t use anything on the west side of the river,” said Janice Greer.

The Felsenthal area is predominately made up of people who enjoy outdoor activities, as well as retired people who have came to the area for quiet country living and hunting. Residents said many people are unable to make the four-mile hike to the lakes.

But Stephens said the road is closed now for everyone’s safety.

“The road is closed for the safety of all persons, not just handicapped or the elderly,” Stephens said. The commission “is working as fast as possible, given the wet conditions, to get the road repaired for public access. The River Road is still open and accessible to the public.”

While the road has been closed off to the public for the most part, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has had a select logging harvest where an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist selected trees to be removed. Eads voiced concerns of violations to the Clean Water Act after he looked at the state of the equipment from the logging company at the end of the work day and that the land was in after the job had been completed.

“The state it was left in looks worse than any tornado I have seen come through here,” Eads said. “They made all of these new logging roads through there and now our road is closed. Our ATV trails are closed and we cannot use their logging roads and cannot access 6,000 acres of public land that the man who gifted it to us went to his grave understanding that the land will always be able to be accessed.”

Morton, who had been present when the land was sold to the commission, said he thought there was a stipulation that the state could not have the land logged in any capacity.

Stephens said there have been no violations of the Clean Water Act as there has been no dredge material dumped in a waterway. He also noted that the commission follows “best management practices” when it comes to logging.

“The logging operations have not impeded the ability to manage the Clear Lake road in any way,” Stephens said. “As per a request from the mayor, log trucks avoided traveling through the town of Felsenthal and created a new haul route through private property. The log trucks have only had to cross the gravel road and have not driven down it. There are future logging operations planned to cut trees on the sides of the gravel road in order to allow sunlight to reach the ground and help dry the road out sooner.”

Stephens said the bottomland hardwood forest will be managed based on guidelines “created by the Lower Mississippi Joint Venture Recommendations for the Restoration, Management & Monitoring of Forest Resources in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.”

“By following these guidelines, tree health is promoted and a new generation of trees can be established,” Stephens said. “Without logging, tree health will continue to decline and a forest will not exist in generations to come.”

As for whether an agreement stipulates that logging can not occur on the property, Stephens said he would need more information before being able to provide an answer.

State Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, and state Rep. Sonia Barker, R-Smackover, were both in attendance at the meeting to hear resident concerns and they urged the citizens to write letters to the Arkansas Game and Fish commissioners voicing their concerns.

Representatives of the town, including Eads, will hold a public meeting with representatives from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The meeting will be set after both groups decide on an agreeable time and date.

If, after that meeting, residents have not received answers to their questions, Garner and Barker said they would contact the commission to get answers themselves.

The Beryl Anthony Wildlife Management Area is a 6,500 area of land that was sold to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to be used as a public hunting and fishing ground in 1975 and is adjacent to the Felsenthal.

Originally named Lower Ouachita Wildlife Area, it was later renamed in honor of Beryl Anthony Sr. who was a commissioner on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in the 1980s.

Haley Smith can be contacted at 870-862-6611 or hsmith@eldoradonews.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @hsmithEDNT.

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