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Incumbent Freddie Powell Sims, Albany firefighter Tracy Taylor face off in Senate race

Freddie Powell Sims

Editor’s Note: First in a series on southwest Georgia political races that will be decided during the Nov. 3 election.

ALBANY — Freddie Powell Sims has been representing southwest Georgia under the Gold Dome in Atlanta for 16 years. To Sims, that is a plus; but for her opponent, Tracy Taylor, it is not such a good thing.

“That’s why people should vote for me,” said Taylor, an Albany firefighter. “This senator has been in office since 2008, and to be frank, I haven’t seen a single change since 2008.”

Taylor, an Albany Republican, previously has been a candidate for the Dougherty County Commission, in 2013; Albany mayor, in 2015 and 2019, and the Georgia House of Representatives, in 2018. Sims served in the House of Representatives from 2005 through 2009 before being elected to the Senate.

For Sims, a Dawson Democrat, 2020 was a year in which she and other members of the southwest Georgia delegation almost literally built a bridge — or at least secured funding to fix one.

During a session in which spending was cut initially due to a drop in revenue and then slashed to deal with the impact of COVID-19, the Georgia Legislature approved a grant of $1.5 million for the Dougherty County Commission. The funds will be used to renovate the bridge located where Skywater Creek flows into the Flint River and is part of a trail network that starts at the former nearby golf course.

Sims, a retired educator, could use that as a metaphor for the bridges of communication she has built during her tenure, a development she said serves residents well.

“This is how southwest Georgia receives appropriations, by building relationships with people in government who can help us, and especially (with) appropriations,” said Sims, who serves on the Appropriations Committee as well as the Agricultural and Consumer Affairs and Natural Resource and Environment Committees and is secretary of the Education and Youth Committee. “That is important because you get a seat at the table; you build relationships with people.”

While the Skywater Bridge seemed an unlikely candidate for funding as a pure recreation project, to the state it meant more.

“What they told us in Appropriations is it’s an economic development project as well,” Sims said. “It’s going to work with tourism as well as recreation. Essentially, it’s going to have an economic piece to it that’s going to be good for the community.”

The Radium Springs area was ravaged by flooding in 1994 and 1998 and by a 2017 tornado.

“Albany has been rebuilding infrastructure, and we reminded them of the storms we have experienced,” Sims said. “Our needs are very dire.”

Georgia, like the rest of the nation, has been hard hit by the novel coronavirus and the state’s farmers are struggling, as are school systems looking to return to classes or continue online instruction. The move to online learning has made the region’s lack of broadband internet access even more apparent, Sims said. Internet access is one of the big infrastructure needs of the area. Health care is another key concern of the region.

The state was unable to keep a hospital in Cuthbert open because the aging building needed a replacement that would have cost millions of dollars, Sims said. Where the state can help is by building and staffing clinics and making sure local governments have resources needed to stabilize patients for transfer to regional facilities.

COVID-19 also has made evident the need for additional spending on health care. That’s also the case for education.

Many of the jobs lost during the pandemic are not coming back, Sims said, and that means more people will seek training for new skills at Albany State University, Albany Technical College, Andrew College and Georgia Southwestern State University.

“It’s not only K through 12 education, it’s post-secondary level,” she said. “Our colleges, universities, technical colleges. That is our work force development.

“My thing is, is it a quality education? Does it address the needs of our Georgia children? That’s what we’re working on right now. Right now we need it more than ever, because of COVID.”

Having quality educational institutions in the region also helps residents learn at home and makes them more likely to remain in the region after completing their education, Sims said.

“We need to train and keep as much educational capital in southwest Georgia as we possibly can,” she said.

Taylor’s chief criticism of Sims involves education, specifically a bill introduced in 2019 that would have removed the state’s three historically black colleges and universities — Albany State, Fort Valley State and Savannah State — from the umbrella of the University System of Georgia.

Sims has said she was unaware of changes to the original intent of the committee to improve the three universities and did not support the legislation.

“I’m running because Sen. Sims wanted to merge the three colleges,” Taylor said. “With that merger, it would have been devastating. As a resident in Dougherty County that would have been detrimental to the people who have graduated from Albany State and who attend Albany State. It would have been bad for the community.”

Taylor also said that more should have been done to keep the hospital in Cuthbert open. The hospital’s announcement it was closing its doors in October brings home the critical need for more resources for rural health care, he said.

“As a state senator, I would be able to talk to the governor and talk about a health care plan designed to bring in doctors from all across the state, especially in rural parts of the state and (ask) for state money for private clinics in rural Georgia,” Taylor said. “Rural Georgia is being hit bad.’

As a senator, Taylor said, he would be able to work to secure federal funding for rural health care.

There are other critical infrastructure needs in District 12, Taylor added, and as the chairman of the Dougherty County Republican Party, Taylor said he is in a position to work with the Republican majority in Atlanta.

“I want to bring back jobs,” said Taylor, who pointed to success in Bainbridge and Valdosta as opposed to the Albany area. “I know we can bring manufacturing jobs to Dawson and Albany.

“They say things a lot of the time about Albany being in the running, but those projects went to other districts that should have gone to the 12th.”

Taylor knows that one of his proposals — the decriminalization of marijuana — may not seem a natural for support in a city like Albany, where voters have yet to approve package beer sales on Sunday. However, he said that such a move could be a boost to the economy and give farmers another crop to grow.

Georgia allowed farmers this year to begin growing marijuana’s relative, hemp (actually the same plant grown using different methods of harvesting). Taylor pointed to the Pretoria Fields Collective hemp operation as a success story that will benefit the state through tax revenues and jobs.

The company, which operates a downtown brewery, distilled the first hemp oil in the state earlier this year and is manufacturing CBD and hemp products for medicinal use.

Taylor said he would like to create an opportunity for farmers, at least for growing marjiuana for use in medications used to treat seizures and cancer patients, if full decriminalization does not have sufficient support currently.

He said he has heard of no ill effects in states where marijuana has been legalized and pointed to the tax money generated for those states.

“I believe we can decriminalize it and tax it and bring in more revenue so more revenue is coming in for health care,” he said. “I believe in growing revenue, not raising taxes.

“Georgia is a big agriculture state, so it will allow our farmers to come into the revenue as well.”

Ocilla human rights protest

Protesters — and counter-protesters — from throughout the country came to Ocilla on Saturday after reports surfaced of alleged inhumane treatment of detainees held at the detention center in the small southwest Georgia community.

Southwest Georgia dodges bullet as initial flooding predictions revised downward

ALBANY — For emergency management officials, the motto is always “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

This week the latter was the outcome: An anticipated significant flooding of southwest Georgia waterways did not become reality as early predictions were revised downward.

Tropical Storm Sally brought more than 8 inches of rainfall to Lee County and dropped 6.5 inches of precipitation in Albany. A Thursday prediction that the Flint River was going to crest at 33 feet over the weekend has been revised to a crest 23.1 feet, a significant decrease. On Friday afternoon, the river was at 10.64 feet.

“I think we’re going to be just fine,” said Rubin Jordan, assistant chief with the Albany Fire Department.

If the initial projection had held, he said, there would have been significant water covering land in several locations in Albany, including the area behind the Albany Civic Center.

Operators at Lake Blackshear and Georgia Power also adjusted the water flow to limit the rise of water here, Jordan said.

The Muckalee Creek was expected to crest at 14.1 feet near Leesburg Saturday, creating minor flooding, and the Kinchafoonee at 14.2 feet Sunday morning at Pinewood Road in Lee County.

“Thankfully, no homes should be impacted,” Jordan said. “It’s a great sigh of relief.”

Emergency management officials will keep an eye on other storms that could impact the area.

For only the second time, the named tropical systems in a hurricane season have run through the alphabet. On Friday Tropical Storm Beta formed in the Gulf of Mexico and was expected to become a hurricane.

“We’re coming off the peak of the season,” Jordan said. “There are still some disturbances out there. We’ll be monitoring the tropics.”

In Lee County, the Muckalee Creek’s crest of 14.2 feet was not expected to cause damage to structures, Lee County Emergency Management Director Cole Williams said.

“I don’t see any significant impact, from talking to the residents,” he said. “They say it takes about 15 feet for it to affect any of their homes.

“(From) the overall impact, we came out quite well. The only thing we had was a lot of rain, but no long-term effects by any means.”

On Thursday, when predictions were for much higher levels of water moving through the creeks, Lee County officials went door-to-door alerting residents and distributed sand bags for residents’ use to protect homes.

“It’s not a bad thing to be over-prepared,” Williams said. “Especially when it was (predicted the crest) was going to be 19.5 feet. The good thing is that didn’t happen.”

Southern wildfire management practices not as widely used on West Coast

ALBANY – As wildfires continue to rage in California, Oregon and Washington, the impact of climate change is considered by many to be the pivotal factor. Nevertheless, the impact of Japanese mini submarines, balloons, an anthropomorphic bear, unintended consequences, and human actions should not be ignored.

California fire officials said this week more than 3.4 million acres have burned, destroying thousands of homes and structures and taking at least 35 lives. To date, there have been 7,900 separate fires reported.

In Oregon more than 500,000 people have been evacuated, and dozens are missing with fires there devouring in excess of 950,000 acres. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee reported a week ago fire had burned approximately 627,000 acres.

In the 1880s, the United States Army was put in charge of administering Yellowstone National Park. When wildfires in 1910 burned millions of acres in Idaho and Montana, the concept of “fighting” fires was born. It would evolve into a policy of putting out all fires. Native Americans and private landowners could be fined for burning on their own land.

People living in forested areas have always had a realization of how devastating a wildfire can be. However, those on the West Coast have an unusual historical perspective ingrained in their psyche. Just as baby boomers have memories of sheltering under their desks in case of nuclear attack, residents of the West Coast have shared memories of preparing for potential firestorms ignited by Japanese attack.

On Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese minisub fired from 16 to 25 rounds from its deck gun at the Ellwood Oil Field west of Santa Barbara, Calif., initiating the first attack on the North American mainland. Little damage was done. However, the repercussions in California were massive, adding to the fear of a coastal invasion. Two days later this fear intensified during the “Battle of Los Angeles” when air raid sirens sounded at 2:25 a.m,. leading to more than 1,400 anti-aircraft shells being fired at “reported” aircraft. No aircraft was evident. Unfortunately, during the more than two-hour “attack,” five civilians died: three in car accidents during the chaos and two from heart attacks.

These two events culminated in President Roosevelt interring 110,000 people of Japanese heritage, 11,000 of German ancestry, and 3,000 with Italian ancestry until the order was rescinded in 1945.

A release by Japanese naval forces of more than 9,000 fire balloons created an intense fear of wildfires along the coast. In an effort to offset the demoralizing effect of these threats, the USDA Fire Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program (CFFP) in 1942. Civilians were mobilized in an effort to protect trees. Lumber was a valued wartime commodity.

At the time, the animated Disney character “Bambi” was extremely popular and had been used for anti-fire poster. This poster was such a success that another animal was determined to be the best ambassador for a fire prevention campaign. On Aug. 2, 1944, a bear was introduced to fill this role. “Smokey Bear” would become synonymous with forest fire prevention.

Unfortunately, Smokey may have done his job too well. The idea of fire suppression was so strong that for many, all fire was equated with being bad for the forest. This led in many instances to the prevention of fire fulfilling it’s needed role in the forest.

IN 1931 Herbert Lee Stoddard published, “The Bobwhite Quail: Its Habits, Preservation, and Increase.” Stoddard argued that successful wildlife management required more than setting seasons and regulations. It required active management of natural processes, the most controversial being the use of fire to maintain the longleaf pine forests in the Red Hill region of Georgia. This ran against the practices of the day when foresters felt that fire would be detrimental to reforestation if reintroduced into the areas that had been destroyed by the logging practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. State and federal agencies of the day developed policies of strict fire suppression.

Stoddard was among the first to call them out on the practice, arguing fire should be harnessed as a tool in ecological management. When he presented his initial studies, his peers literally laughed at him.

Today, Stoddard’s philosophy of fire as a necessary tool in the forest has been widely accepted in the Southeastern states with the region taking on a leadership role in the practice. In 1958 he and others who believed in this philosophy founded Tall Timbers Research Station near Tallahassee, Fla. It was the first research center in the nation focused on fire ecology. Fire-based ecology uses prescribed, or control burns, to reduce wildfire hazards by reducing fuel loads on the ground as well as clearing downed and dead trees.

In the early 1970s, Tall Timbers began to focus on the issue of using a fire regime in the western United States. They observed the rebounding of forests after wildfires and determined through experiments that prescribed burns would be a safe and effective management tool. For a variety of reasons, though, the practice has not been broadly embraced there. Data show that the federal government has continued to spend more money on fire suppression than prescribed burns. Data from the National Interagency Fire Center indicates that the Forest Service has averaged using prescribed burns on an average of only 2.2 million acres a year, or 11% of the land managed by the agency.

In California, the impact of these policies is evident and key, considering that the Federal government owns 57 percent of the land in the state. California owns only 3 percent, with the other 40 percent in private ownership.

This does not absolve the state from being part of the overall problem, however. Fires create smoke, and the control of smoke is an integral part of any prescribed burn plan. California state regulations related to air quality make it difficult to effectively burn where fire is most needed and would be an effective deterrent.

State regulations restricting timber harvesting have made it extremely difficult to manage the state’s forests. President Clinton was successful in restricting the development of new roads in the national forests, making it difficult to access potential timber for harvest.

Thomas McClintock represents the 4th Congressional District in northern California, encompassing Yosemite National Park.

“Time and again, we see vivid boundaries between the young, healthy, growing forests managed by the state and private landowners, and the choked, dying, or burned federal lands,” McClintock said. “There’s an old adage that the excess timber comes out of the forest one way or another. It’s either carried out, or it burns out.” McClintock has expressed support of the Resilient Federal Forest Act, a bill that would stop the practice of taking fire prevention funding and using it instead for fire suppression.

Ironically, the use of fire suppression in California has resulted in creating a larger carbon footprint. It is estimated that each forest fire releases 5.2 metric tons of greenhouse gases, or the equivalent of 1.1 million passenger cars annually.

In 2018 President Trump issued Executive Order 13855, directing the Department of Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote active management of America’s forests to reduce wildfire risk with specific targets for actions.

Interior officials were required to:

♦ Treat 750,000 acres of public land to reduce fuel loads (controlled burns);

♦ Treat 500,000 acres of public lands to protect water quality and mitigate severe flooding and erosion risk arising from forest fires;

♦ Reduce vegetation through forest health treatments by offering for sale 600 million board feet of timber from public lands.

In California this accounted for reducing the fuel load on 38,837 acres and improved the water quality and erosion risk on 4,125 acres. Approximately 16 million board feet of timber were sold. It also resulted in 1,157 miles of roads being improved for access in forest areas. In Georgia, this accounted for reducing the fuel load on 8,741 acres and 326 miles of road improvement.

Although it is encouraging to see this step toward the utilization of a fire-based system of management, the scope of the problem remains daunting. The impact of EO 13855 in California impacted .002 percent of the land under control by the DOI.

In 2019, wildfire activity was significantly less than prior years and the 10-year annual average, as there were 48,484 wildfires that burned 4.57 million acres. The 10-year annual average has been approximately 60,000 wildfires burning 6.7 million acres, but in 2018, more than 52,000 wildfires burned 8.5 million acres of federal, state, tribal and private lands.

With the 2020 fire season is off to a dramatic start, it is not surprising that the raging wildfires have taken on significant political overtones. Visiting California Monday, President Trump blamed poor management practices, downplaying the impact of climate change. Former Vice President Joe Biden responded later, “If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would we be surprised that we have an America ablaze?”