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Lawsuit filed to halt tree harvest at Cypress Lake
Riverkeeper sues Corps for granting of permit
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A drained Cypress Lake is shown earlier this year.
    STATESBORO — Environmentalists have sued to halt logging of cypress and other trees growing in a privately owned lake, arguing the Army Corps of Engineers wrongly determined no permit was required.
    The lawsuit, filed Monday on behalf of the Ogeechee-Canoochee Riverkeeper, says the Army Corps failed to enforce the Clean Water Act by granting a permit exemption to landowners of Cypress Lake near Statesboro.
    There’s more at stake than just the 60 acres of cypress, swamp blackgum and water tupelo trees Cypress Lake’s owners want to harvest for pulpwood and mulch, said Chandra Brown, executive director of the riverkeeper group.
    ‘‘If this decision by the Corps goes through that says this type of timber operation is exempt, we would be facing the loss of thousands of acres of habitat that make up the Ogeechee basin,’’ Brown said.
    Harvesting the trees would destroy habitat used by wood storks, beavers and indigo snakes and hamper the forested lake’s ability to function as a wetland by filtering pollutants from water and absorbing floodwaters, Brown said.
    Billy Birdwell, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he could not comment on the lawsuit.
    But he said the Corps consulted with the Georgia Forestry Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before concluding that the federal Clean Water Act provided for ‘‘normal timber harvesting operations’’ at Cypress Lake.
    ‘‘We did not do this in a vacuum,’’ Birdwell said.
    He also said the Corps did not have jurisdiction over Cypress Lake under the federal Rivers and Harbors Act because the lake is not a navigable water.
    The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Statesboro, asks a judge to halt the logging proposal and send it back to the Army Corps’ Savannah District for permitting.
    The Corps shouldn’t have exempted the landowners because they failed to show a reasonable assurance the trees would grow back, the lawsuit says.
    The Army Corps notified the landowners, Cypress Lake Inc., on Oct. 25 that they could cut trees from the lake without a permit, citing the Clean Water Act’s exemption for ‘‘normal’’ farming and timber harvesting.
    Attorneys for the riverkeeper argue the trees in Cypress Lake, created 60 years ago through damming of a creek off the Canoochee River, pose a special case.
    Unlike in regular swamps, the manmade lake has no natural cycle of dry spells to allow seeds to take root. Brown’s attorneys say the lake would have to be drained up to four years to give saplings time to grow above the lake’s high-water level.
    Brown said thousands more acres of hardwoods grow in standing water from dammed tributaries in the Ogeechee basin. She fears the Army Corps could allow cutting of those trees with little chance of regrowth.
    Bucky Wagner, CEO of Cypress Lake Inc., declined to comment on the lawsuit. He said owners of the 350-acre lake want to harvest the trees to pay for repairs to the spillway that regulates the lake’s water level.
    He also said they wanted to clear some of the trees to make the water more accessible for more than 40 lakeside homeowners who use the lake for boating and fishing.
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