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SUVs have one less trail to ride

POSTED: June 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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Officials have decided to permanently close one of the few places in the Chattahoochee National Forest where Jeeps and other full-size off-road vehicles are allowed to ride.

Anderson Creek OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) trail system, located near Ellijay, was initially closed in 2003. The U.S. Forest Service spent a year studying environmental damage in the area, then decided to obliterate illegal trails and maintain 6 miles of authorized trails there.

But Anderson Creek has remained closed since 2004 as the Forest Service re-evaluated its nationwide policy on off-road vehicles, placing a greater emphasis on preventing erosion.

Alan Polk, chief ranger for the Chattahoochee’s Blue Ridge District, said ultimately he concluded there was no way to keep silt out of streams in the Anderson Creek area unless SUVs were banned.

"The decision was based on input from the public along with the environmental analysis that was done," he said. "The underlying thing was to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality."

In January, the Forest Service proposed three options for Anderson Creek: take no action; close all the OHV trails permanently; or reopen the area and expand the system to 9 miles of authorized trails. Polk recommended Alternative 2 as the preferred option.

"Alternative 3 would have crossed seven streams feeding into designated trout waters," he said.

Groups of SUV enthusiasts pushed for Alternative 3 and offered to mitigate any environmental damage by doing volunteer cleanup projects.

But Polk felt that adding more trails would increase the number of users in the area, making the erosion problem worse.

Many people seemed to agree with that assessment. Polk said he received 365 responses during the public comment period, "and about 80 percent supported the Forest Service’s proposal to close the trail system."

Wayne Jenkins, director of the environmental group Georgia ForestWatch, applauds Polk’s decision. "I think the agency has done the right thing, and for the right reasons: to protect soil and water," he said.

Jenkins said ForestWatch had been working on the Anderson Creek issue for more than eight years, conducting its own study on pollution in trout streams.

"We supported the temporary closure (in 2003)," he said. "(The Forest Service) spent a good deal of money to stabilize the situation, but there continued to be illegal (SUV) activity. It was obvious that the area was totally out of control. It was a circus."

Jenkins suspects the permanent closure will make some people unhappy.

"It’s certainly a political hot potato," he said. "OHV riders don’t have many other places to go, and motorized recreation is an accepted use (of national forest land). The question is, where is it appropriate, where is it inappropriate?"

Winder resident Ben Greene, a member of the Georgia Trail Riders off-road club, said it’s getting more and more difficult to find places to ride.

"(Closing trails) is becoming a trend, from here to California," he said. "The environmentalists are everywhere."

Greene said SUV riders are unfairly characterized as irresponsible people who are oblivious to the damage they cause.

"We try to take care of the land because we really do care about it. We do cleanups," he said. "This is our hobby. We’re not rednecks trying to trash the place. We’re just guys who like to be outdoors."

There are other ways to enjoy the outdoors, such as hiking, that have less environmental impact. Greene said it’s hard for some people to understand why he and his friends choose to explore the forest in their SUVs.

"It’s a bit of an adrenaline rush," he explained. "You see these big obstacles and you try to get over them. It’s a challenge to see what your vehicle can do."

Polk said SUV riders will still be able to enjoy their hobby at Beasley Knob OHV area near Blairsville, which has 12 miles of authorized trails. The Forest Service has no plans to close that area.

But why would off-road vehicles be environmentally safe at Beasley Knob if they’re considered too damaging at Anderson Creek?

"It all has to do with location to water and the number of stream crossings," Polk said. "Beasley is more dry ridges, so it doesn’t have the same issues as Anderson Creek."

Greene believes the threat to Anderson Creek has been exaggerated. "Sediment gets into rivers anyway when it rains, so I don’t think sediment in a stream is a reason to shut (a trail system) down," he said.

A 45-day appeals period on the Anderson Creek decision began May 28. "If no one appeals, we can implement our restoration plan," Polk said.

The Forest Service has already erased evidence of 15 miles of illegal trails at Anderson Creek. Soon, Polk hopes to get rid of the remaining 6 miles of trails and revegetate the area.

"We don’t have an estimate on the cost of rehabilitation yet," he said. "We know it’s going to be very expensive."



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