Will millions in new funds make trails more sustainable—or more sanitized?
Southern Appalachian trails are getting a much-needed facelift. Almost $9 million will be spent by the U.S. Forest over the next several months to clear brush, remove blowdowns, restore tread, decommission unsustainable trails, and in some cases, build brand new trail systems. It’s the most significant trail program to be undertaken in the Southern Appalachians in decades. The goal is to bring some of the South’s most beloved trails up to environmental standards while improving the forest experience for trail users of all kinds. So why are some mountain bikers worried that this massive trail rehabilitation may do more harm than good?
HARD WORK, EASY TRAILS
Deep inside Virginia’s Laurel Fork Roadless Area, a half-dozen young adults are carrying chainsaws, pick axes, and shovels down Buck Run Trail. Their goal today is to restore a section of trail tread and eliminate mud bogs. They’ll work for several hours, armoring the trail’s edge with stones and creating rolling dips to help divert water off the trail. Trees that have blown down across the path will be sawed.
This particular Student Conservation Association crew has been working for over four months on 26 miles of trail in the Laurel Fork area. There’s a similar scene going on in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, where contractors are working on the Turtletown Falls Trail. In Georgia, trail crews are rerouting the Jake and Bull trail system. This slow, back-breaking work is a comprehensive effort to make our most popular trail systems more sustainable.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” says Pete Irvine, the trails specialist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia, adding that the Southern Appalachians haven’t seen this sort of trail-based project since the late 1970s, when a comprehensive trail maintenance program was used to employ young adults across the country. “That was the last time we had a big program like this that enabled us to be proactive with our trail maintenance.”
While forest users are generally pleased to see their favorite trails get some attention, some members of the mountain bike and trail running community are worried that a few of the scheduled maintenance projects might lead to a more sterilized forest experience. The Southern Appalachians are known for brutally technical singletrack, full of off-camber roots, exposed rocks, and steep fall-line climbs and descents. Some of this challenging singletrack is due in part to the unsustainable construction of the trails themselves. Most of our trail systems are simply century-old logging roads that have reverted to singletrack. These roads were never designed with sustainability in mind, and they certainly weren’t built to handle constant use from thousands of bikers and hikers. After decades of use and weather, the trails have become more eroded and technical, which is part of the appeal, but not necessarily good for the forest.
The Glenwood Horse Trail in Virginia is a perfect example. This 80-mile long backcountry multiple-use path consists of a series of worn logging roads connected by hand-cut trails built in the ‘80s. These hand-cut portions of trail often climb directly up slope without switchbacks or water breaks; as a result they have narrowed and become rutted out over the years. A couple of low-key ultra marathons use the Glenwood because of the steep, technical climbs it offers, but the Forest Service has scheduled maintenance and redesign of the most brutal 26 miles of trail.
“It’s more of a rock scramble than a hike,” Pete Irvine says. “That trail is so rough, we haven’t been able to publicize it to the general public. We’re hoping that with this trail work, we’ll be able to attract more users to the trail.”
Virginia’s IMBA representative, Chris Scott, understands that the Glenwood Trail needs maintenance, but he is concerned about the type of trail maintenance that may occur on Glenwood and other national forest trails.
“The last thing we want to see is big machines on something like the Glenwood Horse Trail, which is really remote and primitive,” Scott says. After reading the plans for the various trail projects slated for Virginia’s national forests, IMBA filed an official complaint about the scope and methods of the trail work. While IMBA wants trails to receive some attention, it doesn’t want to see excessive machine use on the backcountry trails, which would widen the trail, and they don’t want to see log waterbars used for erosion control, which have proved unsuccessful in managing water on trails and also wreak havoc on bikers and equestrians.
Other beloved backcountry trails in the Southeast slated for renovation include Tsali trail network near the Nantahala, Kitsuma Trail near Black Mountain, and the Jake and Bull system in North Georgia.
Perhaps the most contentious trail project is at Squirrel Gap, a classic 7.5-mile stretch of singletrack in Pisgah National Forest, N.C. The skinny ribbon of dirt is widely regarded as one of the most primitive and most technical trails in the region. However, the Forest Service plans to use a 30” wide machine for the trail work, which bikers fear will turn the Squirrel into a 30” wide boulevard.
“Will this work change the character of the trail?” asks Woody Keen, a professional trail builder whose company, Trail Dynamics, is working on a number of projects for the forest service as a contractor. Keen, who rides Pisgah regularly, bid on the Squirrel Gap project, but in his bid stated that the work prescription was “overkill” and asked to do most of the work on Squirrel by hand. The Forest Service went with a lower bidder.
Randy Burgess, ranger for the Pisgah District, insists that the work on Squirrel Gap will not alter the technical nature of the trail. “People assume because we’re using a 30-inch wide machine, that the whole trail will be widened to 30 inches. That’s not the case,” he says, adding that the machine work will be relegated to the ends of the trail, where it is open to horse traffic, and in most need of work. The middle of the trail, which is open only to bikers and hikers, won’t see any machine use.
Keen, who analyzes the sustainability of trails for land managers of all kinds, claims Squirrel shouldn’t even be a maintenance priority for the Forest Service: “In the big scheme of things, Squirrel Gap is in good shape. We have hundreds of miles of trails in Pisgah that are damaging trout streams and are an absolute mess.”
How did the Forest Service determine which trails would be renovated? The Recovery Act was about creating jobs quickly, so any project a ranger hoped to get funded had to be “shovel ready.” As a result, some of the trails that are in the most need of maintenance aren’t seeing any work at all because it would require a formal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, a lengthy bureaucratic process. Meanwhile, some of the trails in our forests that are in relatively good shape are slated for massive overhauls.
“They picked the low-hanging fruit,” Keen says. “We have good money getting spent on questionable projects, while our worst trails aren’t getting worked on.”
But Burgess maintains that the planned trail renovations still have great value long-term, and at least one mountain biker agrees. Wes Dixon is a cross country racer who owns Sycamore Cycles in Brevard, on the edge of Pisgah National Forest.
“Squirrel Gap may lose some of its technical charms in the next year, but eventually, the trail work will settle in and the trail will be better for it in the long run,” he says.
“People want the trails to be exactly the same, but that can’t happen, because most of the trails in our forests aren’t sustainable,” adds Keen. “That’s the reality of an unsustainable trail system: it changes.” •
THE TWO WORST OFFENDERS
While many of the most troubled trail systems didn’t make it into the stimulus funding, these two projects were far enough along in the NEPA process to be included.
Upper Tellico OHV Area
Nantahala National Forest, N.C.
These 40 miles of off-road trails were shut down to all but foot traffic last winter because of severe resource damage to the adjacent streams and rivers. With stimulus funds, the least sustainable trails will be decommissioned and revegetated, while other roads in the area will be rehabbed and upgraded.
Jake and Bull Trail System
Chattahoochee National Forest, Ga.
Bikers fleeing Atlanta flock to Jake and Bull for good climbing and technical downhills. Equestrians also love the system, which is full of fall line trails that have become ditches over the years. Five miles of damaging trails will be decommissioned, and six new miles will be built in a more sustainable manner.
The bulk of stimulus funds are going to maintaining existing trails, but a couple of exciting new construction projects received funding because they were far enough along in the permitting process.
Dry Creek Trail System
Chattahoochee National Forest, Ga.
More than 25 miles of new singletrack will be built for equestrians, bikers, and hikers in the Conasauga District of the Chattahoochee. The new system will connect with the Pinhoti, which is already a popular mountain bike trail. A parking lot is already in place at the trailhead and construction is slated to begin this month.
Allegheny Highlands Trail System
Jefferson National Forest, Va.
This 57-mile trail network between Covington, Va. and Douthat State Park is receiving an additional six miles of interconnecting singletrack open to hikers, runners, bikers, and equestrians.