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Wednesday, 11 March 2009 20:00

Environmental groups poised to win long battle

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Following a prolonged debate, the national forest service wants to close a system of four-wheel drive trails in the Tellico Off-Road Vehicle area outside Andrews.

The playground is famous among four-wheel drive enthusiasts, but rutting of the trails by tires has led to serious erosion problems, polluting creeks and rivers with muddy runoff. The cost of fixing the eroded trails is out of reach for the forest service.

“Our analysis indicates that on-the-ground conditions are worse than we first thought,” said Marisue Hilliard, supervisor of National Forests in North Carolina. “The trail system has extensive damage and contributes unacceptable levels of sediment into the Tellico River and its tributaries.”

After years of turning a blind eye to the problem, the forest service was spurred into action two years ago under threat of a lawsuit by environmental groups.

“It’s clear the upper Tellico watershed is the wrong place for an off-road vehicle area,” said DJ Gerken, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental law Center. “After years of discussion, we are glad the agency ultimately took a hard, honest look at this problem. It’s not surprising that, faced with the mounting evidence of dirt and mud polluting streams throughout the watershed, the agency concluded the best way to meet the standards and protect water quality now and in the future is to close the system.”

Given the steep terrain, high rainfall and proximity to creeks, Hilliard said it would be “extremely difficult” for an off-road vehicle playground to exist at Tellico without causing sediment. Hilliard said the trail system is in violation of both state water quality standards and national forest standards, with sediment visibly running off trails and into the river in hundreds of places.

The forest service engaged in study of the issue over the past two years to weigh the pros and cons of possible solutions. In the meantime, emergency measures closed the worst of the trails, and suspended use during winter when the freeze-thaw cycle combined with heavy rain exacerbates the erosion.

The forest service got 1,500 public comments on the issue. Five other alternatives were considered. The forest service has proposed the most extreme measure of closing the trail system altogether.

Environmental groups are likely surprised by their success in the matter.

“Our goal was never to shut down the trail system but simply to have the agency follow the law and protect the resource,” said Ben Prater, Conservation Director with WildSouth. “The Forest Service has made the responsible choice to close down the system to do that.”

Trout Unlimited, in particular, has been calling on the Forest Service for years to invest the resources needed to maintain water quality in the Tellico River.

“We believe the forest service is right to be concerned about its ability to remediate and maintain this trail system in the long run,” said Squeak Smith, spokesman for the North Carolina Council of Trout Unlimited.

Under the proposal, about 10 miles of forest service roads in the area would remain open. The decision is not yet final. The forest service is accepting another round of public comment first.

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