News: Project Phoenix returned Lillydale Campground from war zone to popular getaway spot
Story by Leon Roberts
ALLONS, Tenn. – Lillydale Campground on the shores of Dale Hollow Lake features beautiful waterfront campsites and is a favorite getaway spot for thousands of campers every year. With its breathtaking wide-open views, it’s hard to imagine that just over a decade ago it looked more like a war zone than a favorite camping destination.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District closed the campground for the entire 2001 recreation season when an army of southern pine beetles infested 1,200 mature loblolly pine trees that provided plush shade for visitors. Another 300 pines were also removed from nearby Willow Grove Campground, but it remained open.
“It basically devastated 90 percent of loblolly pine coverage of the (Lillydale) campground,” said Dale Hollow Lake Park Ranger and Environmental Protection Specialist Sondra Carmen. “So in 2001 the Army Corps of Engineers at Dale Hollow had to close the campground in order to remove the dead trees, reestablish the campsite, provide for public safety, and open up an opportunity for better camping than before.”
The beetle epidemic ravaged pine forests across Tennessee and Kentucky in 2000 and the U.S. Forest Service estimates 90 percent of all loblolly pines succumbed to the infestation. Dale Hollow Lake Conservation Biologist Gregg Nivens explained that the pine beetles basically bored into the tree bark and the females constructed long, winding, S-shaped tunnels that girdled the trees and starved the trees of water and nutrients.
The small bugs literally brought down these large and majestic loblolly pine trees, and “it was like restarting over again,” Nivens said.
Through the ensuing recovery effort, Project Phoenix would be born. It took its name from the American Indian legend of the mighty thunderbird believed to replenish the Earth. The public jumped at the opportunity to join in the restoration and rebirth of Lillydale Campground with cash donations and volunteer service.
There were two goals, Carmen said. The first involved replacing the pines with the reforestation of native hardwoods. The second would be to reopen the campground in time for the 2002 recreation season.
The Nashville District cut down and removed the pines, and witnesses said the campground looked desolate and like a war zone. Larry Brown and Dennis Pealer voluntarily assumed leadership roles and coordinated the removal of pine trees, slash and debris cleanup, campground repairs and restoration.
Nivens coordinated the purchase, selection, and planting of a mixture of native hardwood trees paid for with $6,000 in donations, including $4,000 from Kentucky and Tennessee chapters of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“In addition, we also planted about 450 switches (saplings) of various oak species of which about 150 were placed in protective tube containers donated to us from the local Overton County Long Beard chapter through the efforts of Project Oak with David Gore, NWTF president,” Nivens said. “We have planted close to a total of 1,000 ball and burlap and container stock of one-to three-inch caliper trees for both parks during this period. Of those, 300 were paid for as restitution from a tree vandalism case.”
Nivens said the Corps of Engineers recently planted more drought tolerant native species of trees in the drier rockier segments of the parks at Dale Hollow Lake.
“The different, varied species replanted is an effort to duplicate the adjacent canopy species and to prevent a total wipe out of a monoculture species that we experienced with the loblolly pine,” Nivens said. “By planting varied compatible native species, the odds will be in our favor to never recreate a disaster such as this from happening again when disease or infestation occurs.”
Not a single tax payer dollar paid for new trees 10 years ago. Kim Passarreti of the NWTF Dale Hollow Chapter served as the coordinator of Project Phoenix, and with her husband Bob and fellow member Jackie Pickens they spearheaded the purchase of 210 hardwood trees.
Other community contributors included Friends of Dale Hollow Lake, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of lake resources and support for the Corps of Engineers. President Vada Kirby spent many hours collecting donations and administering the Volunteer Cash Donation Program.
Elizabeth Hitchcock of the Bank of Putnam County and Wanda Krantz of the Overton County Bank also raised $500 for the recovery. Still, other organizations stepped up and went the extra mile to ensure the campground would open on time in 2002.
Boy Scouts from Troop 156 at St. Michaels Episcopal Church in Cookeville, Tenn., embraced the community project and planted the first 30 trees at Lillydale, Oct. 27, 2001. And Future Farmers of America of Upperman High School in Baxter, Tenn., constructed and erected bluebird nesting boxes at both Lillydale and Willow Grove Campgrounds.
Larry Edmonson, coordinator at the time of the Upper Cumberland District Boy Scouts Service to America Program, who still lives in Cookeville, Tenn., said the Boy Scouts historically have performed a lot of volunteer service for the Corps like lakeshore cleanups. So it was natural for them to plant the trees and assist with the cleanup effort, he said.
“I talked to them that morning before we went out and did the trees, and I told them, ‘you’re doing something that’s going to impact people in generations from now,’” Edmonson said.
He had a chance recently to visit Lillydale Campground and to see the growth of the trees the kids planted more than 10 years ago and to look at current camping conditions.
“It makes me feel good to see it’s coming back,” Edmonson said. “I camped there for years when the pine trees were still there. And when they were destroyed we went over there by boat right after they removed the dead trees before any of the damage was repaired, and we couldn’t even identify where campsites were. And you talk about feeling sad, but the start of it feeling better was getting those trees planted. We’ve been watching the trees grow you know and getting excited about it… but the place is beautiful and it’s coming back, and the trees are going to be there to shade everybody. That’s going to be very good.”
Community support of Project Phoenix ensured the success of restoring Lillydale Campground in time for the 2002 recreation season. Campground repairs and restoration efforts were complete by Memorial Day weekend.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony reopening the campground May 23, 2002, Dale Hollow Lake Resource Manager Ronnie Smith said opening the campground would not have been possible without a public partnership.
“All we could do was watch with broken hearts as the trees died,” Smith said. During the past year, our partners in Project Phoenix, public donors and numerous volunteers have raised over $6,000 for tree plantings. A total of 510 hardwoods of various species have been planted at Lillydale and Willow Grove, 210 of those coming directly from Project Phoenix.”
Restoration efforts continued even after the ceremony and reopening. Later that same year 1,000 bald cypress seedlings were planted in mud flats to provide vegetative cover, and another 150 additional hardwoods were planted in remote natural areas around Dale Hollow Lake.
The Tennessee Recreation and Parks Association recognized Project Phoenix with its Four-Star Award for a Renovated Facility at an awards banquet, Nov. 16, 2002. Smith accepted the award on behalf of the contributing partners and donors who made the restoration a success.
As Lillydale Campground opens for the 2012 recreation season on the 10th anniversary of Project Phoenix, it’s fitting to look back and remember how everyone in the community responded, Carmen said.
“It is now one of the most beautiful campgrounds with a 180-degree view of the lake, some of the most beautiful lakefront camping that we offer,” Carmen said.