Tellico trails: Opponents of four-wheeling force Forest Service to study off-road policies

Recreation at a four-wheel drive and ATV playground in the Nantahala National Forest could be curtailed after environmental and outdoor groups have forced the forest service to address ecological impacts of the sport.

The Tellico Off-Road Vehicle area attracts off-road fans from across the Eastern United States to test their skills against the reputed mountain terrain. The heavy use, combined with the nature of the sport itself, is causing severe erosion, however, muddying creeks and the Tellico River to the detriment of aquatic life.

After years of asking the forest service to rein in damaging four-wheeling in Tellico, a coalition of environmental groups filed an “intent to sue” with the forest service in late July, claiming the forest service has abrogated its mandate to protect natural resources by allowing detrimental four-wheel use to continue unchecked.

The forest service has since developed a plan to address the concerns. The plan primarily consists of surveying, studying and evaluating the effects of four-wheel drive use in Tellico. It also includes plans to reroute trails that are too close to creeks and fix some of the worst areas, but there is currently no funding in the forest service’s budget to do so.

Plans to study the problem, or implement fixes with money that doesn’t yet exist, is not a solution, said DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Asheville. Gerken spent several days camping in the rain at Tellico documenting muddy washes leading from the trails into the nearest creek. About 40 miles of trails are open to off-road vehicles in Tellico.

Some trails are hardly trails anymore. Tires have eroded giant trenches into the ground — six feet wide and six feet deep in places. They turn into a canal when it rains, carrying a stream of mud into the nearest creek. The mud often doesn’t have far to go. About seven miles of four-wheel trails are within 100 feet of creeks.

While studies and evaluations are fine, allowing the status quo to continue in the meantime is unacceptable, Gerken said.

“We are definitely pressing the forest service to take some form of immediate action,” Gerken said. The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing Trout Unlimited, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Gerken said the forest service should shut down the trails immediately to halt the damage, then proceed with its in-depth environmental assessment.

It turns out the forest service is considering just that. It will decide over the next couple of months whether to enact a temporary closure of the trails — or at least the worst culprits — while evaluating the problem and developing a long-term solution. (The forest service will accept public comment on the temporary trail closure. Watch future issues to find out when.)

Chris Joyell with the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project said he is tired of spinning his wheels with the forest service.

“If the river is still loaded with sediment and trout are dying, we haven’t solved the problem yet,” Joyell said.

Aquatic monitoring in the Tellico River shows trout reproduction has dropped dramatically, even halted altogether in some sections, Joyell said.

A bottomless pit?

Heather Spivey, a spokesperson for the Southern Four Wheel Drive Association, said environmental groups are exaggerating the problem. The Southern Four Wheel Drive Association has invested $100,000 in manpower and materials on trail work in Tellico over the past two years, Spivey said. The group often touts what it gives back to Tellico, but wear-and-tear from the four-wheelers is outstripping their efforts to keep erosion in check.

“I applaud them for their efforts to try to address the problems they’ve contributed to,” Joyell said. “I think it is fantastic they have done that. Unfortunately it is just not enough.”

Spivey admitted that four-wheel drive recreation, as with any land-disturbing activity, will cause erosion. But proper trail maintenance will keep the erosion in check, she argued.

“There are things that can be done to minimize and sometimes alleviate any kind of erosion issue you may have,” Spivey said.

Spivey said it would take more money and commitment by the forest service, however. That’s something everyone seems to agree on.

“There is a good bit of deferred maintenance out there,” said Tina Tilley, the district forest service ranger over the Tellico area. “If we had more dollars could we do more work, sure.”

Tilley also admitted that there are erosion problems as a result of four-wheel drive use.

“I think anyone could walk out there and see there are some issues that need to be addressed,” Tilley said. “Anytime you have an open road or open trail there will be some amount of sedimentation. Our goal is to limit the amount that does go in the creeks.”

Tilley said the forest service currently lacks the funds and resources to do what’s needed. She hopes that will change soon. As a result of the “intent to sue” by the environmental groups, the forest service has made the Tellico problem a priority. The regional forest supervisor said he would funnel money from other districts into Tellico, Tilley said.

“He has committed to helping us find funding,” Tilley said.

The environmental groups are not optimistic that the money will materialize at the level it needs to, however. There’re simply too many trails with too much use for the forest service to tackle.

“Without a great deal more resources the forest service can’t manage this recreational use without impairing water quality,” Gerken said. “If the only solution is to close trails to get the system back to a size they can maintain, then that’s what they have to do.”

Competing uses

Off-road vehicle groups say they won’t stand for a reduction in trails, and are raising money for a legal battle their own.

“Trail closures are not acceptable to us,” Spivey said. “We are not willing to give up ground.”

Spivey said reducing the number of trails will only make things worse.

“When you start concentrating a whole lot of people in one area, that area becomes heavier use,” Spivey said. Instead, Spivey suggests opening up more area to off-road vehicles to disperse the impacts. Spivey said her organization would not object to problem trails being rerouted, but will not accept a net loss in trails.

Spivey questioned whether the issue is not solely about the environment, but a values clash.

“I think this is a conflict of multi-use areas on public lands,” Spivey said.

But Gerken said the organizations are not out to stop four-wheeling.

“We are not after this recreational use by any means,” Gerken said.

“My effort is not to shut down this recreational use. If they can make changes to improve the water quality my clients and I will be happy.”

Off-road vehicle use is considered an acceptable form of recreation in the national forest, Tilley said.

“We just have to make sure it is in the appropriate locations,” she said. “We are going to do our best to come up with a collaborative answer.”

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