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This land is your land
National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest hands-on volunteer project
Joe O'Loughlin and Elizabeth Scott

SET IN THE MIDST of Savannah’s urban hustle and bustle is a dense wilderness.

The Bacon Park Forest is home to marbled salamanders, yellow-rumped warblers and the devil’s walkingstick. Huge trees spread their limbs far overhead.

“Once you go in there a ways, you don’t hear anything,” says Adrienn Mendonca, communications director for the Savannah Tree Foundation. “It’s a place for introspection, quiet and reflection. It’s a really good stress killer.”

Unfortunately, this natural wonder has been invaded by aliens. Non-native invasive plant species, especially Boston ivy, Chinese privet and Japanese privet, have taken root in the forest and are trying to take over the natural forest floor, which would decimate native plant and tree populations.

“Birds are a big culprit,” Mendonca says. “They eat berries, then fly and deposit the seeds. The forest is a hospitable environment for different species. You end up with huge tracts of land covered with non-native plants.”

Mendonca is hopeful that at least 50 volunteers turn out Sept. 29 as part of National Public Lands Day to help remove those nonnative plants. National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest hands-on volunteer effort to improve and enhance public lands, whether they’re owned by federal, state or local governments.

Since one-third of the land in America is publicly owned, that’s a big project. An estimated 100,000 volunteers nationwide participate by pulling weeds, removing trash or making repairs.

At the Fort Pulaski National Monument, workers will participate in a variety of projects. Superintendent Charles E. Fenwick says the day will be a clean-up day, as well as a work day.

“Because we’re a cultural park, we’ll do cultural jobs,” Fenwick says. “We’re going to sweep out the fort and being work to finish the last mile of the hiker-biker trail.”

Fort Pulaski is the beneficiary of a Unilever 2007 Recycling at Work Sustainable Grant Program. It is providing 1,000 linear feet of sustainable lumber and picnic table and bench kits, which will be installed as part of the day’s activities.

Vegetation will be cleared, the marsh will be cleaned up, doors will be painted and land-bridges will be installed along the Cockspur Lighthouse Overlook Trail. “That is the closest place on land that you can get to the Cockspur Island Lighthouse,” Fenwick says.

For Fenwick, the highlight of the day will be the work on the McQueen’s Island Rails to Trails trail from the park entrance east towards Battery Park on Tybee Island. Bikers, walkers and runners currently use six miles of trail on the abandoned Central of Georgia Railway that once connected Savannah to Tybee Island.

“It’s very significant because when it’s done, people will be able to hike or bike to the ocean,” Fenwick says. Participants will be rewarded with breakfast during registration, and a free lunch after the cleanup. T-shirt will be available.

Registration begins at 7 a.m. and the cleanup will be from 8 a.m. to noon. At 1 p.m., rangers will present living history demonstrations inside the fort, including cannon firings and musket demonstrations.

The National Public Lands Day activities at Bacon Park Forest will include recognition of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The event will be held from 9-11 a.m.. Wear long pants and sturdy shoes. Refershments will be provided.

In the 1930s, the CCC was formed to provide work for 3 million Americans who were affected by the Great Depression. Across the nation, CCC workers planted more than 3 billion trees, built 800 state parks and fought forest fires.

On Sept. 29, 2001, the CCC passed the torch of national resource management and tree stewardship to National Public Lands Day. In Savannah, CCC alumni have been invited to gather for a 75th anniversary celebration.

Locally, the CCC was headquartered at Bacon Park Camp No. 460, which was near the Bacon Park Forest. “It was the most successful youth program in the history of this country,” says Elizabeth Scott, director of the Bacon Park Neighborhood Association. “It put young men back to work and supported the families they left behind.”

Ruel Boyette was one of those young men. Today at 87, he remembers his time in the CCC with fondness. “I was in it for about two years,” he says.

During the Depression, not only were there no jobs, there was no money to pay workers. The CCC provided a steady income and three square meals a day.

“I made the whole amount of $30 a month,” Boyette says. “I kept $5 and $25 was sent to my family.”

Boyette says the valuable lessons he learned in the CCC have helped him throughout his life. “We need something like it today,” he says. “There are a lot of handouts right now. If you have a young man who’s got a family that needs fed, why not give them something to do?”

In 1938, Boyette spent two weeks at the Bacon Park camp. “We were building trails for the golf course,” he says. “We were cutting down trees, lots of sweet gum trees.”

Boyette had the idea to create a chair from the stump of a tree. “We didn’t have chain saws then,” he says, but his chair was still a hit with his supervisor, Gus Carter.

The CCC was particularly helpful for poor farm kids, Boyette says. “I came from a sharecrop,” he says. “My daddy didn’t own land. That little bit of money I sent home was a Godsend.

“I used what I learned the rest of my life,” Boyette says. “I cut all the rafters for my house. I still do woodworking, even at this age I still go out and turn a bowl.

“We had a good time,” he says. “I know I look at it as a great help when help was needed.”

Dale Thorpe has lived in Bacon Park her whole life, and is writing a paper about it. Savannah has another connection to the CCC through Robert Fechner, who was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to head the CCC. “Robert Fechner was a Savannahian,” Thorpe says.

Thorpe says Fechner considered the Bacon Forest camp his favorite of all the CCC camps. “He lived in Macon, but came to Savannah whenever he could,” she says.

Today, the Savannah Tree Foundation is an advocate for the Bacon Park Forest. “It’s only about a 100-year-old forest, but there are a lot of big trees in there that are probably older than 100 years,” she says.

Joe O’Loughlin is a former member of the Bacon Park Committee who served for 30 years. He was a boy when the CCC opened the camp at Bacon Park. “They brought in a couple hundred people to work,” he says. “People were hungry then.”

O’Loughlin recalls a beautiful lake that once was located at Bacon Park. The lake was destroyed when developers filled it with construction debris.

“That’s a beautiful forest out there,” O’Loughlin says. “It would be a shame if it was destroyed. I have a feeling for the land that’s out there. It’s a wonderful asset for all the people, and some cities would pay $1 billion to have something like it.”

For the Ft. Pulaski cleanup, registration begins at 7 a.m. and the cleanup is 8 a.m.-noon. At 1 p.m., rangers will present living history demonstrations.

The National Public Lands Day activities at Bacon Park Forest are 9-11 a.m. Take Skidaway Road south to Bonna Bella Road at the light between Derenne and Eisenhower. Turn east on Bonna Bella and look for signs.