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David Rainer: Camden community helps Roland Cooper State Park

What do you do when you need to plant 3,500 oak tree saplings in a hurry? For Alabama State Parks, the solution was to invite the community surrounding Roland Cooper State Park near Camden to lend a hand, actually many hands.

As part of an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, State Parks was tasked with converting the old golf course at Roland Cooper into a Wounded Warrior/mobility impaired hunting area by establishing mast-producing habitat for wildlife.

“The Corps and I had a discussion, and their plan was to plant 3,500 oak trees that would provide good food for deer, turkeys and other wildlife,” said Tasha Simon, State Parks’ Natural Resource Supervisor. “Loblolly pines had taken over the area and were regenerating themselves. In order to provide quality habitat for the wildlife, the Corps wanted us to plant the oak trees, which will eventually produce a mast crop of acorns for a variety of animals.”

Donald Carter, Central Wilcox agriscience teacher, helps a student plant a sapling. (ADCNR)

Numerous oak varieties were selected for planting – swamp chestnut, white oak, sawtooth oak and nutall oak. Sawtooth oaks are the quickest to produce acorns at about five years, and they are the first to drop acorns in the fall. White oak acorns are one of the mast crops preferred by deer and drop the nuts a little later in the fall. Swamp chestnuts produce larger acorns and are known to attract deer. Nutall oaks are the last to drop nuts in the fall. The combination of oaks provides food for wildlife for a longer period after the browse plants have become unpalatable.

With that many trees to be planted, State Parks asked for volunteers in the Camden area. Simon contacted Pam Swanner at Alabama Black Belt Adventures to get the word out and was a guest on the “Gettin’ Outdoors with Big Daddy Lawler” podcast. Simon worked with Dylan Taylor at the Wilcox County Extension Office to produce and distribute a flyer about the project on social media.

“We had to prep the area. It was a lot of work,” Simon said. “We bushhogged the area to get it prepped. We got assistance from all the Parks from the South and Gulf Coast districts.

“We wanted to get the community involved to help State Parks staff. Some of the volunteers came from the Central Wilcox High School. Their ag teacher, Donald Carter, came out. On March 5, we had volunteers from 10 years old to adults. The Bama Kids organization also came out to help us plant trees that morning. Alabama Black Belt Adventures and the Camden Chamber of Commerce sponsored our lunch, and the Chamber president (Shelia Dortch) came out. State Parks Director Greg Lein was there as well as Deputy Director Matthew Capps, Lamar Pendergrass (South Region Operations Supervisor) and O’Dell Banks (District Superintendent). They also brought their families.”

The planting area was divided into zones, and the 36-inch saplings were distributed to get ready for the planting with a dibble, a tree-planting implement. Kelly Reetz, the naturalist at Gulf State Park, instructed volunteers on how to use the dibble.

“We got started about 8 in the morning with sign-in and wrapped up about 1:30 or so,” Simon said. “That’s a lot of trees. We planted five of the six zones that day. We had some of the maintenance crew from Gulf State Park come back in and plant the other zone.

“The big takeaway was getting those youngsters out there. A lot of them had never been to Roland Cooper much less learned how to plant trees. They were very excited to be a part of a project like that. They just wanted to participate. Kelly Reetz explained why we were planting those trees. They had a good time.”

Director Lein said he appreciates the chance to work with partners on projects that will improve the wildlife habitat and provide additional recreational activities.

“We were excited about the opportunity to partner with the Corps of Engineers to enhance the habitat for the Wounded Warrior project, where we are trying to make the area more suitable for special hunting activities,” Lein said. “The repurposing of the old golf course was a great team-building day for managers from the whole region to come together to help with the manpower and get the trees planted. We were all happy to lend our labor to help Tasha with this project.

“We also got help from the Cooperative Extension System, the Camden Chamber of Commerce and Alabama Black Belt Adventures. We just felt like we could team up on this and knock it out. It was neat.”

Roland Cooper State Park, located on the Alabama River’s Dannelly Reservoir (better known as Millers Ferry), boasts access to some of the best freshwater fishing in the state with anglers catching largemouth bass, crappie, catfish and several species of bream.

In 2021, a T-shaped pier was constructed that is 160 feet long and 128 feet wide that significantly expanded the dock area for anglers and recreational boaters. It is also the park’s first handicap-accessible dock.  The Bridgeport Landing, next to the park, was renovated in 2021 with new boat ramps and parking.

Central Wilcox High School students separate oak tree saplings to prepare for planting at Roland Cooper State Park. (ADCNR)

For those who plan an overnight trip to Roland Cooper, the park has five two-bedroom cabins as well as six “tiny house” cabins. The park has 47 improved camping sites and 13 sites for primitive camping. Visit https://alapark.com/parks/roland-cooper-state-park for more information about Roland Cooper.

Other than the tree-planting project, Simon’s section is tasked with managing the State Parks’ forest programs, wildlife programs and fisheries program throughout the 50,000 acres in the Alabama State Parks System.

“One of the major projects we’ve been working on is at Frank Jackson State Park (near Opp),” she said. “It is a longleaf pine reforestation project. We have clearcut a portion of the park for timber sales. With the proceeds from the timber sale, we will reforest that area in the longleaf pine that is historically in that area. We have about 180 acres. We’re doing the work in a couple of waves. The first wave will be finished in May. We plan to have those longleafs replanted in the whole area by winter.

“A major portion of my job is prescribed fire. We’re working on plans for habitat and forest management at Gulf State Park, Frank Jackson, Lakepoint, Wind Creek and Oak Mountain. Last year, we stocked catfish at Frank Jackson. We’re doing lake management at Oak Mountain, and we installed fish attractors at Lake Lurleen. There’s a lot going on to enhance habitat and wildlife at Alabama State Parks.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.


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