Southwest Virginia Residents Continue Calls for Immediate Action to Address Environmental Damage
Updated: Jan 3
Southwest Virginia Residents Continue Calls for Immediate Action to
Address Environmental Damage on the Spearhead Trails Network Following
Release of Public Documents from Regulators
WISE, VIRGINIA — Southwest Virginia's The Clinch Coalition is calling on regulators to take
increased action to address environmental issues on the Spearhead Trails network, following a public release of inspection reports, emails, and other internal documents by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) earlier this month. The state-funded
Southwest Regional Recreation Authority (SRRA) manages more than 600 miles of off-road
vehicle trails on the Spearhead Trails network across Virginia's Lee, Wise, Dickenson,
Buchanan, and Tazewell Counties.
Virginia DEQ and SRRA announced a voluntary agreement in May 2021 to address
environmental issues on the Spearhead Trails network, following more than three years of
complaints from local residents about erosion, stormwater runoff, and damage to public
waterways across several regional counties. The internal documents released this month,
however, show that DEQ officials discovered more serious and widespread problems on the trail system than have previously been disclosed to the public, with nearly 50 pages of inspection logs documenting significant erosion and sedimentation along the trails and several public waterways converted into ATV travel routes.
Agency officials had previously not released the full inspection reports for public review, with
the documents only being released following a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.
Some of the newly-disclosed problems noted by DEQ inspectors involved trails depositing
stormwater and sediment across private driveways and onto adjacent properties above private homes.
The documents also show that state inspectors' findings led DEQ officials to privately notify Spearhead Trails that they had discovered “significant stream impacts” and that "violations to the Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Act and attendant regulations, the Virginia Stormwater Management Act and attendant regulations, as well as the federal Clean Water Act...are actively occurring" on the trail system.
By contrast, DEQ officials' public response to local residents' complaints during the same time period stated only that they found "new construction as well as trail use that may be adversely affecting nearby streams" without reference to state and federal law violations or specific details about the scope and severity of the agency's findings.
The Clinch Coalition is grateful to DEQ officials for their efforts to address environmental
problems on the trail network and to Spearhead Trails for their efforts to alter operations in
response to state officials’ findings. However, the Clinch Coalition is concerned about the
discrepancy between the agency’s internal reports shared with trail officials and its public reports to regional residents, as well as a general lack of public notices from both DEQ and Spearhead Trails about findings on the trail system, current trail closures, and ongoing efforts to address locations of concern.
"The latest documents released by Virginia DEQ confirm what we and many of our neighbors have suspected for years: that improper trail development has been causing significant and widespread environmental damage across the 600-mile Spearhead Trails network," said Clinch Coalition President Sharon Fisher. "However, we are disappointed to learn that DEQ originally shared the specific details of these findings only with trail officials and not the broader public, even as local residents continued to report complaints and many problematic trail segments remained open to vehicles."
The documents released by Virginia DEQ also show that regulatory officials considered formal enforcement action to address the widespread problems on the Spearhead Trails system before opting instead for its voluntary agreement with the trail authority in May of this year.
Meanwhile, several of the problematic trail segments reported by DEQ inspectors have remained open to continued use and damage by ATVs for nearly 18 months following their initial discovery by the agency.
The Clinch Coalition supports responsible outdoor recreation development as an economic tool for Southwest Virginia and believes that DEQ's efforts to encourage proper management of the Spearhead Trails network is an important first step in preventing new environmental liabilities.
But the organization believes that these existing steps are not enough to fully remedy the
environmental damage on existing trails, which inspectors' findings show is significant in both its severity and scope.
“The Spearhead Trails system has been developed using funding from Virginia taxpayers, and those taxpayers deserve to be informed about and involved in work to address environmental issues on the trails,” Fisher says. “It should not take Freedom of Information Act requests for the public to learn about serious environmental issues that are affecting natural resources that belong to all Southwest Virginians.”
The Clinch Coalition encourages DEQ, Spearhead Trails, and the trail system’s host landowners to step up their efforts to notify the public about work to address environmental issues on the trail system, including timely public notices detailing the location of trail closures, the rationale for those trail closures, and proposed environmental remedies. The organization also believes that formal mechanisms for public comment are urgently needed to allow all interested parties – including impacted residents, trail users, and other regional stakeholders – to meaningfully inform efforts to address locations of ongoing concern and work to remediate trails that have previously been closed by Spearhead Trails or their landowners due to resource damage.
Local residents encountering any issues of environmental concern in Southwest Virginia can
report those concerns to TCC anonymously using the organization’s “Leave a Tip” tool