The challenges of maintaining grounds at a state park

Since the early 1970s, Lake Guntersville Resort State Park has been welcoming visitors to this pristine site in northern Alabama. Located atop Taylor Mountain, the Guntersville Reservoir and surrounding mountains cover 69,000 acres. Although the cabins, chalets, RV park and golf course have remained open, the massive resort inn, restaurant and convention complex reopened in January 2008 after a complete restoration project.

Adjacent to the Lake Guntersville reservoir shoreline, a campground and RV park consists of 321 improved campsites ranging from primitive to those complete with utilities. Near the lodge, 15 lakeside cottages and 20 mountaintop chalets provide a lakefront view.

“With much of the park in pine and hardwoods, keeping the landscape free of winter leaves is always a problem,” says Mark Jackson, assistant superintendent of the park. “Leaves are one of our biggest challenges. They are something you can’t ignore—they have to be dealt with.”

Hickories, maples, sweet gum trees and others begin dropping leaves in November. The oak holds on to some of its leaves until early spring. Pine needles fall throughout the year. Around the front of the lodge and main buildings, pine needles and leaves are removed daily.

Clearing fall and winter leaves is a daily task for the landscape maintenance personnel. If left on the steps and walkways, wet leaves become a hazard and cause a liability for the park. Steps leading up to the cabins and chalets are especially dangerous for guests if leaves are not removed. When leaves are dry, employees use Stihl backpack blowers.

“Of course, blowing the leaves off the steps and walkways is only the first step to removing [them],” says Jackson. “Within the park are locations for leaf deposit without interfering with water runoff. However, they must be kept out of low places and drainage areas. Using mowers, leaves can also be chopped and used for mulch.”

Cabins and chalets are located among hardwoods andpines. Leaf removal is a daily task at Lake GuntersvilleResort State Park. The lodge, restaurant and conference rooms were renovated and reopened in January 2008. Private contractors are hired for some of the maintenance work.

“Another challenge of dealing with harsh winter weather is keeping maintenance personnel on premises during periods of ice and snow,” reports Bobby Miller, general manager. “If severe winter weather is forecast, personnel may be asked to stay over and sleep in the lodge so they will be available to work the following morning. If they drive home, they may not be able to return up [the] steep, winding mountain road leading into the park.” Ice and snow are not a common problem in northern Alabama, but it does happen.

Usually arriving in November and spending the winter, the bald eagles bring many visitors to the park. Birding expeditions bring tour buses of guests. With so many visitors coming to view the eagles, it’s a busy time of year for keeping the landscape attractive.

For years, maintenance personnel spread salt on the walkways and steps when ice formed and temperatures dropped below the freezing point. “We know now there is a better way,” says Ricky Silas, maintenance supervisor. “Salt deteriorates wood and rubber mats on decks. When runoff occurs, nearby plants are affected. Now, we rely on a liquid ice melt. This is environmentally friendly and is not toxic to plants or animals.”

Another job of the maintenance personnel is to keep numerous feeders filled with food for wildlife. There are feeders throughout the park so the animals do not eat from only one station, helping reduce disease throughout the herd.

“Throughout the winter, situations develop that need immediate attention,” relates Silas. “For example, a broken water pipe. We have four full-time maintenance personnel to take care of the lodge, cabins and chalets. Other maintenance employees work in the park.” When an emergency develops, everyone pitches in to solve the problem. It’s also essential that equipment is available, serviced and in good working order when needed.

Instead of hiring additional maintenance personnel, outside contractors are used for some projects. The contractors are hired on a state bid system. They are hired for a three-year period, then they must re-bid. This system keeps personnel down and frees those working at the resort to take care of other needs around the park. One advantage to this is contractors provide their own equipment. Presently, the park uses Pope & Sons in Marshall County, Ala., as an outside contractor.

As with any business, community support helps build a positive relationship among people. Therefore, hiring local employees trained in lawn and landscape maintenance from the area not only helps the economy, but also pays dividends in other ways. Students from nearby colleges find summer employment at the resort.

The workers also have to keep the grounds maintained without interfering with the peace and quiet that guests expect. “Many workers come in about 3 p.m. and work until 9 or 10 in the evening,” says Silas. “The front of the lodge is well-lighted, and work can continue even after dark. This is especially true of contractors who work several sites. I’m not aware of any complaints from guests.”

Maintenance personnel blow leaves from the outside deckprior to a wedding at the park. Keeping the ground free of limbs and leaves in the 321campsites requires hours of maintenance work each week.

Maintaining park trails

At least 19 known trails are kept open at Lake Guntersville for hikers and horseback riders. The Tom Bevill Trail covers 3 miles, encircles Ellenburg Mountain and offers views of old home sites. The Waterfall Trail goes by a small waterfall (present if rainfall is sufficient); along the way, wild azaleas and moss-covered cliffs provide a picturesque setting for lodge guests. There are numerous other trails, ranging from short walks to all-day treks.

Upkeep of trails presents a challenge to landscape personnel. This means keeping fallen trees and logs off the trails. Trees that are down, either from wind damage or disease and decay, are used as firewood. Park maintenance employees cut the limbs into lengths suitable for burning in the chalets and the campfires in the RV park.

Guests who come to Lake Guntersville Resort State Park often comment on how well-maintained the grounds appear.

The author is a freelance writer from Jackson, Tenn., focusing on the lawn care and landscape industry.