Southwest Virginia Residents Applaud Recent Trail Closures on the Spearhead Trails Network
Full Title: Southwest Virginia Residents Applaud Recent Trail Closures on the Spearhead Trails Network in St. Paul
Press Release from The Clinch Coalition
For Immediate Release
Sharon Fisher, TCC President; firstname.lastname@example.org
Wally Smith, TCC Vice President; email@example.com
Photo caption: An overhead view shows severe erosion and tire rutting in a wetland along Nancy Ridge at Spearhead Trails’ Mountain View ATV Trails in St. Paul, Virginia during a Clinch Coalition site visit in July 2023.
WISE, VIRGINIA — Southwest Virginia environmental organization The Clinch Coalition (TCC) is applauding the recent closure of public off-road vehicle trails that have for years been damaging wetlands near St. Paul, Virginia. The trail segments, which were maintained by the taxpayer-funded Southwest Regional Recreation Authority (SRRA), were part of the Mountain View ATV Trails and SRRA's larger Spearhead Trails network.
Southwest Virginia residents first reported concerns about trail segments near St. Paul to regulators with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2018. According to DEQ inspection reports released to the public last year, state inspectors accompanied SRRA staff on a site visit to the trails in June of 2022, confirming public complaints that trails were impacting forested wetlands on Nancy Ridge above the Honey Branch area outside of St. Paul. At the time, an internal DEQ memo stated, SRRA agreed to close the impacted area as a resolution to the ongoing damage, converting it into a foot-travel only "nature area." The trail was later removed from the official Spearhead Trails user map.
However, a site visit by TCC in July 2023—more than one year after DEQ's inspection—found the trails still marked with official Spearhead Trails signage and open to ATVs. Ongoing physical damage to wetland areas along the trails was apparent, with some wetland amphibians attempting to breed in pools damaged by recent tire rutting.
Environmental issues have been a point of contention in recent years for the state-funded Spearhead Trails effort. A 2022 Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism report documented years of disputes between SRRA, Southwest Virginia residents living near several trail systems, and state regulators involving damage to streams and wetlands along the trails. Sediment and runoff from SRRA’s Mountain View ATV Trails in St. Paul drain into tributaries of the Clinch River, which is widely considered to be one of the most at-risk waterways in North America for rare aquatic wildlife.
Following its recent site visit, TCC contacted The Nature Conservancy, who manages properties hosting a large portion of the trail system as part of its Cumberland Forest Project, to share documentation of ongoing wetland damage and ask that the trail closures highlighted by DEQ last year be completed. Conservancy officials responded on August 29th, stating that several trails in the area were being permanently closed and that future efforts would explore replacing the closed trail segments with alternative, environmentally-sustainable routes. A similar announcement was posted to the Spearhead Trails website this week.
Wetlands are critical habitats for Appalachian wildlife and provide important services to Southwest Virginia communities. Studies by Virginia Tech researchers have found that isolated wetlands on former surface mines like those found along the Mountain View ATV Trail system provide important wildlife habitat, mitigate flood severity, and improve the health of nearby forests recovering from surface mining.
Damage to such wetlands from repeated ATV use can kill wetland wildlife, harm water quality, and limit wetlands' ability to buffer against flooding for downstream residents. A 2021 study by UVA-Wise researchers published in the Virginia Journal of Science found that wetland damage on portions of the Spearhead Trails network, such as soil erosion and the crushing of wetland vegetation, was so severe that it could be detected from space by European Space Agency satellites.
Trail managers can easily prevent wetland impacts while still providing an enjoyable experience for trail users by routing trails around—not through—wetland areas and using signage and physical barriers to keep vehicles out of nearby wetlands and streams.
"It's unfortunate that it has taken years of sustained advocacy from local residents to get Spearhead Trails and The Nature Conservancy to act on this closure, but both groups deserve credit for finally taking steps to improve the situation on St. Paul's trail system," said Wally Smith, TCC Vice President. "Our position on the Spearhead Trails effort remains simple: taxpayer funding should not be used to support trails that do not follow the off-road industry's own best practices for working around wetlands and streams. This is a common-sense resolution to nearly a decade of preventable damage that will still allow users to enjoy other portions of the trail system that were developed responsibly."
TCC encourages anyone with concerns about environmental practices on the Spearhead Trails network to report those concerns to Virginia DEQ at https://portal.deq.virginia.gov/v2/prep/createReport and to TCC's "Leave a Tip" tool at https://www.clinchcoalition.org/leave-a-tip.
About The Clinch Coalition
Founded in 1998, the mission of The Clinch Coalition is to “protect and preserve the forest, wildlife, and watersheds of our National Forest and surrounding communities for present and future generations.”
Our focus is the High Knob Massif, a 4,223-foot mountain mass that spans the three westernmost counties in far southwestern Virginia. High Knob is in the Clinch Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in the heart of the Clinch Valley Bioreserve. The Bioreserve is a 2,200 square mile area designated by The Nature Conservancy as one of the Last Great Places in the World. TCC is committed to creating a welcoming, inclusive, and equitable community. Undergirding this commitment is the conviction that all human beings are interconnected, not just with one another, but with all of nature.