Commissioner responds to logging complaint

by Steven Jones

Down a dirt road in Coosa County, an elderly man lives alone.

Once a week his son delivers his mail and checks in, to make sure everything is ok.

The past few weeks, Ben Hughes' son hasn't been able to check on his father.

The road Hughes lives on is lopsided, rutted and chewed to pieces.

According to Commission Chairman Bobby Davis, Hughes's problem isn't uncommon enough.

Loggers, harvesting timber off County Road 29-past Double Bridges-have decimated the road.

Roughly a month ago, an unknown tree harvesting contractor started hauling timber out of the area, and since then the roads are filled with ruts and valleys.

The ditches lining the sides are filled with soft spongy mud, and the stream along the side of the road has overrun the road, with rivulets springing up across its 20 foot span.

Davis said, "We're going to have to do something in Coosa County."

Logging, or pulp-wooding as its sometimes called, has historically been one of the largest agricultural activities in the county. Since the early days of settlement, large scale agricultural production has been defined by the hilly countryside, all but limiting it to timber production.

At one time, an individual could purchase a used truck, buy chain-saws and hire friends and relatives and turn a profit at timber harvesting.

Now, because local mills don't accept the shorter logs turned out by such harvesters, contractors have moved in, complete with skidder, loader and cutters.

Sometimes, the contractors own their own trucks and hire drivers. In other cases contractors sub-contract the hauling of timber.

Because of overloaded trucks, and what some believe to be poorly constructed roads, the logging in the county is in the process of destroying Coosa roads.

The damage done on County Road 29 is expected to cost more than $30,000 of county money to repair.

It's only been a year since the last time the road was resurfaced.

Davis said, " destroying...public property. Just like if you took a rock and busted out a window in the Courthouse."

Dirt roads aren't the only problems. Paved roads throughout the county are cracked and broken at the edges, creating hazards for drivers. Potholes are created by the weight of overloaded trucks entering the road and pushing the asphalt down.

The state requires all large trucks to keep the gross weight of trucks under approximately 88,000 pounds, or 44 tons.

Drivers, pressured by contractual delivery deadlines are known to take the risk of fines for delivering more wood faster to timber mills throughout the area.

According to Forestry Consultant Douglass McConnell, owner of Forest Owner Consultants, drivers are known to haul loads weighing 120,000 pounds, nearly double the legal limit.

McConnell, who has a PhD in Forestry from the University of Idaho, said, "Especially with fuel prices as high as they are, loggers are always trying to maximize what they (can) deliver per truckload. I've seen log trucks loaded so heavily, one of the metal wheels actually sheared off."

McConnell also blames the condition of the road on poor planning. "The county-decades ago-should have been...building roads...way back then to accommodate (logging which) was providing a major tax base to the county. Maybe that would have set... a precedent for future...commissioners to continue to maintain roads at a good standard."

No matter the reason, Davis believes that something should be done. "It's (the damage is) everyday. I believe it's gotten worse in the last year or so."

Davis is also concerned the damage is caused by out of county loggers and drivers.

With investments requiring millions of dollars to get involved in the logging business today, it seems evident that many of the loggers are out of town businesses.

McConnell said, "Your small scale provider has just basically faded out."

Davis is currently looking into enacting some sort of local legislation to cover the cost of repairing the roads.

In the past, commissioners have attempted to charge a surtax on every cord of wood cut in the county. Davis doesn't feel a direct tax is necessary.

He is looking into forcing loggers to pay a bond or a mileage rate to operate on county roads.

McConnell doesn't believe any sort of tax is the answer. "I think that would be a type of double tax. There are county taxes on fuel. That, in effect, is to pay for the use of the road."

McConnell believes the answer lies in increase law enforcement. "It would be best to look at improved enforcement (of weight standards), rather than attempt any additional taxation on timber harvesters or their contracted drivers. Those guys work hard enough."

No matter the solution, with the county short on funding and scheduled to begin road construction elsewhere during the summer, it looks like the son of Ben Hughes may check on his father with an off-road vehicle for some time to come.

copyright Coosa Communications, 2003