See the NFS status report on the Desoto National Forest


 Thursday, October 13, 2005
Forest heavily damaged


MATTHEW BUSH | Hattiesburg American

Michael McGregor, orchard manager at Ash Lake, points at snapped off pine trees on a trail in the De Soto National Forest. The forest suffered major tree damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged more than half of De Soto National Forest and officials are taking one project at a time to restore what was destroyed.

The USDA Forest Service, which manages National Forests in Mississippi, released a report Wednesday that said about 278,000 of the forest's 532,000 acres were destroyed when Katrina struck on Aug. 29.

Officials said they first must remove hazardous debris.

"Right now, we're in the recovery process," said Mary Bell Lunsford, information officer for the National Forests in Mississippi. "We're getting the damaged timber out off the roads and off of the fire lines."

The storm damage, which includes uprooted and broken trees and large amounts of pine needles and limbs, increased the risk of fire in the forest, the report says.

Lunsford said what the USDA Forest Service is going to do next is uncertain.

"I'm not sure what the plans are," Lunsford said. "The Forest Service wants to remove the (debris) before fire season to decrease the chances of wild fires."

Lunsford said she does not know the amount of time or cost for the cleanup.

"The impact is just tremendous," Lunsford said.

Davis Mounger, member of Friends of the Mississippi Public Lands, a non-profit organization comprised of outdoorsmen and land owners seeking protection for Mississippi public land, said he would like to see the forest restored with more native plants.

"The Forest Service should use the recovery as an opportunity to restore the ecosystem with native plants - the long leaf pine ecosystem evolved with hurricanes and fires, that's what's supposed to be at De Soto," said Mounger, who also is a member of the National Forest Protection Alliance.

The alliance is an advocacy group that works to increase community awareness and lobby politicians to better preserve the nation's public forests. This week the group named Mississippi National Forests one of 12 most endangered forests in the country.

Lunsford said plans for restoring the forest will get under way once the cleanup is complete.

Earlier this year the forest service began work to revise plans for the state's national forests because of new regulations, but the adjustments will be made to the process to accommodate the hurricane damage.

Public input will be sought, and could begin as early as December or January.

De Soto National Forest covers 11 counties, including Forrest, Jones, Wayne, Greene, Perry, Stone, George, Harrison, Pearl River and Jackson counties.

The forest offers recreational facilities for hundreds of visitors and a variety of outdoor activities including hiking, bicycling, camping, canoeing, all-terrain vehicle riding, horse riding, hunting and fishing. All recreational areas are closed until the debris is cleared.