The Clinch Coalition Releases Report on the Environmental Impacts of Southwest Virginia's Trail Economy
WISE, VIRGINIA — Southwest Virginia environmental nonprofit The Clinch Coalition (TCC) has released a comprehensive report detailing environmental impacts from state-funded trail development in the region, including a roadmap for moving current and future trails in a more sustainable direction.
The 20-page report, On the Wrong Track: Moving Towards a Responsible Trail Economy in Southwest Virginia, comes on the heels of more than four years of work by TCC to address environmental damage occurring on recreational trails in several local counties.
Since 2018, TCC has become a clearinghouse for public complaints of environmental damage on the Spearhead Trails system, a 600-mile network of off-road vehicle trails across multiple Southwest Virginia counties managed by the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority and funded annually by the Virginia General Assembly. Complaints have included streams and wetlands in the Clinch, Russell Fork, and New River watersheds being developed into ATV play areas, as well as erosion and runoff concerns by local residents living downstream of the trails. Most of the complaints have come from locations within or near underrepresented environmental justice communities throughout Virginia's coalfield counties, with numerous complaints from trails on properties included in The Nature Conservancy's Cumberland Forest Project.
"TCC supports recreational development as a tool to improve the quality of life and economy of Southwest Virginia's communities, but that development should proceed in a way that respects and protects our natural resources," said Sharon Fisher, TCC President. "The damage that has occurred on the Spearhead Trails system is a disappointing failure of responsible recreation development, especially considering that it has occurred using taxpayer funding, in some of our most vulnerable communities, and on properties that are being promoted as flagship examples of effective resource conservation in action."
In 2020, regulatory officials investigating complaints forwarded by TCC confirmed widespread environmental damage and potential regulatory violations on portions of the trail system, citing "significant stream impacts" and providing trail officials with a list of more than 15 regulatory provisions that were potentially being violated on the trails. Among the issues cited by Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) inspectors were a lack of state and federal stream and wetland disturbance permits, improper erosion and sediment control feature installation, and allowing sediment and runoff from the trails to be deposited onto downstream properties.
Despite those findings, DEQ has yet to undertake enforcement action to formally require repairs to problem areas on the trail network. Instead, the agency opted for a voluntary agreement with trail officials in 2021 to address problems on the trail network after two state legislators contacted then DEQ Director David Paylor to intervene in DEQ's investigation, as was reported by The Virginia Mercury earlier this year. Since that time, numerous locations on the trail network highlighted in state inspectors' reports have remained open to continued damage, while others have been voluntarily closed to new ATV use but with no repairs required by DEQ. Meanwhile, both TCC and DEQ have continued to receive a large number of new complaints from the public about continued environmental damage on the trails.
"Virginia DEQ made it abundantly clear in their own inspection reports and communications with trail officials that serious environmental damage is occurring on the trails," Fisher says. "There is no excuse for locations highlighted by state inspectors to remain open to new damage from ATVs for nearly two years since their discovery, especially since closing these particular trail segments and repairing the damage they have caused would not require shutting down the entire Spearhead Trails network. We feel it is time to make a public call for reform to ensure that local residents' concerns get addressed and that unnecessary damage from future taxpayer-funded trail development can be prevented."
TCC's report details the situation occurring on Southwest Virginia's public trail systems, discusses existing research on the environmental impacts from trail development, and provides a roadmap for reform to address ongoing environmental issues on the region's trails. Among the organization's recommendations are clarifications to public funding agencies' regulatory requirements for economic development projects and reforms to Virginia DEQ's handling of public complaints related to recreational trails. The report also includes several environmental best practices and steps towards greater public engagement that can enhance the sustainability and transparency of state-funded trail management organizations. Steps that individual citizens can take to monitor local trails and advocate for more responsible trail management are additionally included in the report.