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Sharp Farm’s tree removal leaves debris in North Skunk River

Published: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 12:20 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Dec. 7, 2012 12:29 p.m. CDT

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An area of the North Skunk River immediately adjacent to the Lynnville exit on Interstate Highway 80 was once densely populated by trees, mainly cottonwood and sugar maple. But the farmer who owns the land recently had the land cleared, which has prompted some concerns over the manner in which it was done.

Legally, Sharp Farms — owned by Todd Sharp — was well within its rights as the property owner to clear the land. But when loggers cut down the trees, tons of debris was knocked into the river stream and never cleaned up.

Tree removal was done as far upstream as Kellogg with debris left in the stream bed all along the way.

Iowa law allows only a maximum of 3 percent of any stream bed to be blocked by native vegetation without a permit. Visual evidence suggests more than half of the steam bed has been blocked, and no permit was obtained before the work was done.

That has prompted concern from both Jasper County Conservation director Keri Van Zante and State Sen. Dennis Black regarding both the environmental impact and the threat of damage downstream.

“It’s unbelievable. I have never seen that amount of slash in a stream bed,” Black said. “The potential of flood waters with a big rain storm or winter snow melt endangers that bridge. We are working with [Iowa Department of Natural Resources] to see what can be done.”

Slash is a term used in the logging industry to describe debris left over from the logging process. Several of the limbs left in the river stream appear to weigh hundreds of pounds. Black said that could spell disaster for Wagaman Mill, built in 1846 and recently restored by Jasper County at a cost of $100,000, which lies downstream.

“I’ve worked with the logging industry and the U.S. Forest Service in the past,” he added. “I know they could have done the work in such a way as to avoid all of that slash going into the river.”

Van Zante believes the reason for the removal of the trees was based on economics. Corn prices have increased more than 22.5 percent in the past year. And real estate agents locally have seen an increase in farmland sales with land prices on the rise.

In addition to debris damage, Van Zante is concerned with the environmental impact removing the trees will have long term. Without the trees in place, the potential for agricultural runoff into the river will increase substantially, she said.

“Since it’s private land, there is nothing we can do,” she said. “But, if there is river damage, we can act.”

Van Zante and Black reported the situation to Bill Gross, a senior environmental specialist with the DNR’s Field Office 5 in Des Moines, nearly a month ago to get the issue resolved. Black said while the land is owned by Sharp Farms, the river is owned by the state and DNR has jurisdiction over it.

Gross said he spoke with Sharp about getting the stream cleaned up and was assured it would be done. He said concerns like this are not routine, but are raised from time to time, amounting to about a “handful” of cases each year.

He was surprised to learn the river had not yet been cleaned up as of this week. He admitted he had not been to the river site to inspect it himself, and said he had not received any follow-up calls to alert him to a continued problem along the North Skunk.

That didn’t sit well with Black, who represents the area directly impacted by the logging. He continues to serve as vice-chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

“DNR is in control. The state owns the river,” he said. “It’s in their hands now, and they had better perform on their end, or there are going to be some very serious questions asked once the Legislature is back in session in January.”

Repeated efforts to contact Sharp or representatives of Sharp Farms have been unsuccessful.

Matthew Shepard can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 425 or via email at mshepard@newtondailynews.com.

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