SWVA Residents Express Concern Over New Attempts to Remove Trail System from Environmental Oversight
Photo Caption: Sediment pours off of an excavated stream crossing along the Spearhead Trails network and above homes in Coeburn, Virginia in late December 2022. Newly-released documents show that Virginia Energy officials identified trail construction as the cause of stream damage at the site during a 2021 complaint inspection for Virginia DEQ.
WISE, VIRGINIA — Last month, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), pursuant to a public records request, released a new batch of public documents related to environmental concerns on the Spearhead Trails system, a 600-mile network of off-road vehicle trails funded by Virginia taxpayers and managed by the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority (SRRA).
Among these public documents was a September 2022 email to Governor Glenn Youngkin’s office from DEQ Director Michael Rolband, in which Rolband indicated that he had “heard that Senator Hackworth from Tazewell Co is going to ask the OAG [Office of Attorney General] for an AG Opinion to remove any oversight of The Southwest Regional Recreational Authority, aka Spearhead Trails from DEQ.”
A draft letter to Attorney General Jason Miyares, which DEQ also released, claims that Senator Travis Hackworth (R - Tazewell County), Spearhead Trails, and Virginia DEQ believe that the application of environmental statutes and regulations to the taxpayer-funded motorized trail effort “may not be required, needed, or even proper under the law.” Hackworth has previously told the press that the trails should “learn to coexist with…environmental concerns,” while Spearhead Trails previously agreed to “ensure compliance” with multiple state laws under DEQ’s authority as part of a 2021 Memorandum of Agreement signed with the agency.
Over the past several years, there has been widespread environmental damage from the construction, maintenance, and use of the Spearhead Trails network. DEQ inspectors have confirmed "significant impacts" to public waterways from improper ATV trail development, including evidence of unpermitted in-stream construction activities. Despite these findings, DEQ officials have not formally required SRRA to undertake any corrective action to repair environmental damage, opting instead for a "path of encouragement" in the hope that SRRA will voluntarily change its operating practices.
The Clinch Coalition (TCC) remains deeply concerned about conditions on the trail system, where numerous trail segments identified as problematic by DEQ inspectors remain open to continued damage. The organization is also alarmed by recent revelations that point to a continued effort to leverage political influence to shield the taxpayer-funded trail authority from accountability for damage to natural resources shared by all Virginians.
Spearhead Trails’ parent authority, SRRA, is run by a public board of appointees from seven county governments in far Southwest Virginia and the City of Norton. SRRA develops and operates the trail network using more than $1M in public funds provided annually from the General Assembly, along with additional financial support in the form of grants and loans from the Virginia Coalfield Economy Development Authority, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, and other state and federal agencies.
In light of the new information released by Virginia DEQ, The Clinch Coalition reiterates its past calls for DEQ to take meaningful, transparent action to hold Spearhead Trails accountable for the environmental damage DEQ’s inspectors have documented to Southwest Virginia's wetlands and waterways. The agency should also ensure consistency and accuracy in its communications with all stakeholders regarding the applicability of environmental regulations to the trail effort.
"Spearhead Trails has recently made public promises that it has started a ‘new day’ by improving its practices and following state and federal laws during trail development," said Sharon Fisher, TCC President. "This makes it especially disturbing to learn about renewed behind-the-scenes efforts to game the political system and write the trails out of those very laws."
A separate batch of public records released by Virginia DEQ in 2021 revealed a failed 2019 effort by Spearhead Trails to lobby Governor Ralph Northam's office to write the trails out of state environmental regulations. In addition, Senator Hackworth also sent then DEQ Director David Paylor a separate April 2021 proposal to exempt the trail network from environmental oversight, according to reporting by the Virginia Mercury. Both requests came in the midst of a DEQ investigation of Southwest Virginia residents’ complaints about possible state and federal regulatory violations on the trails.
The documents obtained most recently from the December 2022 FOIA request included a draft letter purportedly from Senator Hackworth to Attorney General Miyares, stating the view that DEQ does not have jurisdiction over Spearhead Trails and requesting a formal opinion from the Attorney General as to DEQ’s authority. The draft document further indicates that instructors leading environmental trainings have told trail officials that Spearhead Trails is "not under the purview" of DEQ and that DEQ staff have privately claimed that the agency has "no guidelines for trails." DEQ officials have previously maintained to the public, however, that environmental issues uncovered on the trails were legitimate, and DEQ has stated in public documents that "each (trail) project...must be in compliance" with state laws. A 2019 memo sent from DEQ to Spearhead Trails and multiple county government officials set out in detail how a number of state laws apply to recreational trails.
We do not know from the records released by DEQ last month if in fact a letter from Senator Hackworth has been sent to Miyares requesting a formal opinion, although DEQ did withhold one memo related to the trails, citing executive branch exemptions to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
“DEQ’s internal correspondence and inspection memos make it clear that the agency has documented significant impacts to Virginia’s waterways from the trails,” said Wally Smith, TCC Vice President. “Southwest Virginians deserve to have such serious impacts to their communities objectively addressed by regulators without interference from elected officials.”
Additional documents released last month include memos sent to DEQ by Spearhead Trails, confirming TCC and regional residents’ complaints that numerous trail segments may be damaging public waterways. Problematic trail segments identified in DEQ’s documents include more than ten locations in or near the Southwest Virginia communities of St. Paul, Coeburn, Haysi, Pocahontas, and Richlands, with many located on The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project. The documents also contrast sharply with Spearhead Trails’ recent public assurances about the trail network. Per reporting by the Kingsport Times-News, Spearhead Trails maintained as recently as last July that only “one or two” unbridged stream crossings existed on the trail network.
While the documents show that Spearhead Trails has closed several of the trail segments in response to public complaints, multiple locations identified in DEQ’s records appear to remain open to continued use and damage by ATVs. This includes locations where inspectors from external agencies, such as the Virginia Department of Energy, have independently confirmed citizen complaints of stream damage occurring as a result of trail construction in their reports to DEQ.
The environmental regulations under Virginia DEQ's authority are part of bedrock laws protecting not only Virginia's natural resources but also downstream residents from erosion, flooding, and stream pollution. The Spearhead Trails system has been built in some of the most at-risk watersheds in the nation for aquatic life and, several of the impacted waterways identified in DEQ’s reports are located in some of Virginia's most economically disadvantaged communities.
TCC calls on Spearhead Trails to live up to its recent promises to improve its operating practices by adhering to environmental regulations. The organization and elected officials acting on its behalf should also abandon any efforts to remove the trails from laws protecting Southwest Virginia communities from environmental damage, especially given trail officials’ assurances that they have begun a "new day" for responsible trail development in Southwest Virginia.
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 at https://www.clinchcoalition.org/leave-a-tip.