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Timber cutting in Roland prompts probe; trees on its land, water utility says

by William Sanders | May 24, 2021 at 7:26 a.m.
Trees along the Ouachita Trail stand bare with their branches cut off and dropped to the floor below. Nearby resident and founder of FamilyLife Dennis Rainey is under investigation by the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office for criminal mischief in the damaging of the forest. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/William Sanders)

Pulaski County authorities are investigating a resident near Lake Maumelle in Roland after several trees were topped, debranched or cut down on Central Arkansas Water land.

Investigators cite in a report that a "concerned citizen" contacted Central Arkansas Water on May 12 about witnessing a crew cutting down trees on behalf of the property owner.

According to nearby resident Rhonda Patton, she was the concerned citizen walking along the Ouachita Trail when she discovered the trees being cut.

"I live right off of the Ouachita trail," Patton said. "We could walk right out of our back door and within two minutes we're on the [Ouachita trail]."

Patton hikes the trail regularly, so when trees appeared to be cut down along a section she normally hikes, she became concerned.

"I was taking my hike between 11 and 12 in the morning, and I can hear the chainsaws and stuff that's happening," Patton said. "As I start to come up the trail, I start to notice that there are a bunch of limbs, cut limbs, lining the side of the trail. And I knew that was wrong."

She said she did not realize at the time the extent of the damage to the area.

"I thought someone had just dragged a bunch of limbs down," Patton said.

Patton said when she returned in the early evening with her husband to see the damage, she began to realize the magnitude of the amount of trees cut.

"At that time, we observe 5-6 men with chainsaws and ropes," Patton said. "We didn't see anybody actually cut a tree, but we saw them dragging limbs across the Ouachita trail. I was mad. My husband was shocked."

Central Arkansas Water estimates between 75 and 100 trees were affected by the crews working on the utility's land along the Ouachita trail, varying in severity from trees being debranched to completely chopped down.

A disturbed Patton asked the crew who they were working for. They told her they were working for Dennis Rainey, she said.

Rainey, along with his wife, co-founded FamilyLife, a Christian organization dedicated to building healthy marriages and families, and has helped 3 million couples around the globe, according to its website.

Now retired, he lives at the end of Spill Way Road, to the northeast of the trail and the lake.

Rainey is listed in the report as being investigated in connection with a complaint of first-degree criminal mischief with damages that are over $25,000, but the narrative by detective Da'Vonti Armant said a more exact estimate for damages is still unknown.

Rainey has not responded to a request for comment about the issue.

Patton said she contacted Raven Lawson, watershed protection manager with Central Arkansas Water.

Lawson sent out an inspector the next day to assess what on utility land had been affected.

"They're a mix of hardwoods and pines," Lawson said. "They are mature trees. They are near the spillway on the National Ouachita Recreation Trail, and they are on CAW-owned property that is leased to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission through a 99-year lease agreement for a wildlife management area."

According to Lawson, finding the exact number of trees affected is difficult because of the unknown number of trees that were completely removed.

"There's at least 75 that are still standing, and we know there are stumps underneath the tops that were laid on the ground, so we expect that there's several more," Lawson said.

The exact cuts made to the trees removed the tops and many of the branches attached, according to Lawson.

"Everything that was green was cut off of most of them," Lawson said. "There's a few branches on some. They look like telephone poles sticking up out of the landscape."

The trees that have taken years to grow to the heights of around 20 feet in the air are in danger of withering away.

"There's a good chance that a portion of them could die," Lawson said. "Some of them may regrow, but they're going to be permanently stunted. They're not going to regrow their crowns like they were."

Lawson said the pine trees will likely all die as a harsh weather event or infection will be likely to kill them.

"They're really susceptible to any weather or any type of damaging event," Lawson said. "So if we have a small drought or a hard freeze before they can regrow some tops or an insect comes in, there's a very good chance that they're all going to die."

Central Arkansas Water and other interested groups are also looking into whether the integrity of Lake Maumelle as a reservoir has been impacted.

The damage done to the area has left residents, avid hikers and organizations like the Friends of the Ouachita Trail asking why the damage was done in the first place.

Patton said she may have an answer to that: The cuts may give Rainey a good view of Lake Maumelle and Pinnacle Mountain.

"It's crystal clear that it's his property because he's the only one who benefited from this cutting," Patton said. "When you look at his property, it is clear that he now has a view of Pinnacle Mountain that he didn't have before."

According to Patton, activism is unlike anything she has ever done. She described herself as boring."

"Here I am almost 60 years old," Patton said. "I fly under the radar. I am the most boring person you will ever meet, and now all of a sudden I am an activist."

While being outside of her element, Patton said she loves the forest along the trail enough to "practically get weeping" when talking about it.

"These forests are my religion," Patton said. "It's where I go when I need to clear my head. It's where I go to get peace. It's where I go to have discussions with like-minded individuals. I'm really very introverted, but when I get on the trail it's like a different feeling."

According to Lawson and Pulaski County authorities no criminal or civil action has yet been taken and the investigation will continue into the tree cutting.

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