Citing environmental concerns, officials with the Chattahoochee National Forest say they want to permanently close an area used by off-road vehicles.
The U.S. Forest Service has released a 70-page environmental assessment of the Anderson Creek OHV (off-highway vehicle) Trail System near Ellijay. Public comments on the proposal are being accepted until Jan. 30.
Though there are several areas in the Chattahoochee that can be used by ATVs (small all-terrain vehicles) and motorcycles, only two places in the forest are designated for full-size vehicles such as Jeeps and SUVs. One is Anderson Creek, which has been under temporary closure since 2003. The other is Beasley Knob, near Blairsville.
"Beasley Knob is currently the only public OHV area in all of Georgia, and it’s only 10.8 miles (of trail)," said Dave Logan, president of Friends of Anderson Creek, a coalition of OHV clubs.
He said if Anderson Creek were open, it would be more desirable than Beasley Knob because it’s closer to Atlanta, where many of the OHV enthusiasts live.
Anderson Creek started out in the 1980s as an OHV "area," meaning that people could ride their vehicles anywhere within its 14,000 acres. In 2001, the Forest Service declared that this approach was causing too much environmental damage, so a system of designated trails was created.
But the erosion problems continued, so in 2003 the Forest Service decided to temporarily close the area, allowing the habitat to rehabilitate.
"It’s improved dramatically since the trail system was closed," said Alan Polk, chief ranger for the Chattahoochee’s Blue Ridge district.
The new report notes that the national forests are under a federal mandate to protect soil and water quality, and though the Chattahoochee also has a goal to provide recreational opportunities to the public, it must be done on "an environmentally sustainable basis."
Three possible courses of action have been proposed for Anderson Creek. Alternative 1 is to leave the management strategy as it is. Alternative 2 is to permanently close the trails system. Alternative 3 would reopen Anderson Creek with redesigned trails, totalling 9 miles instead of the current 6.
The Forest Service’s preferred option is Alternative 2.
"That’s the one that best meets our objectives of reducing the impacts (of OHV use) on soil and water," said Polk.
The second option is also favored by Georgia ForestWatch, an environmental group based in Ellijay.
"We think closure is the right step," said ForestWatch director Wayne Jenkins. "Unfortunately, the topography of this forest doesn’t provide many places for off-roaders to do what they want to do. The steep slopes make it very difficult to keep soil out of streams, and protecting watersheds is one of the reasons the Forest Service was created."
Jenkins also thinks building more trails will be a waste of effort.
"Anderson Creek has a long history of problems," he said. "The Forest Service has never had much success getting people to stay on the designated trails. Why create a new trail system when they haven’t been able to control the ones they’ve had in the past?"
But Logan said Alternative 3, which the OHV groups prefer, could be beneficial for everyone.
"It would actually improve the area," he said. "It would correct the mistakes of the past. Our goal is to make it sustainable, through proper engineering and management."
Logan’s coalition, which encompasses groups such as the Georgia Bounty Runners, Southern Land Rover Society and Georgia 4X4 Club, has been working with the Forest Service since 2003 on trying to restore Anderson Creek.
Logan said he realizes the agency is on a tight budget, but financial issues should not be a deterrent to choosing Alternative 3.
"The Forest Service can apply for funding from the Recreational Trails Program, which gets money from the federal gas tax," he said. "(The grants) require a 20 percent match in volunteer labor, and that’s what Friends of Anderson Creek is for."
Logan said there are ways to design trails that would minimize the impact on the environment.
"The reason that trail miles in Anderson Creek would increase from 6 to 9 is that some trails are going to be rerouted away from streams," he said. "Also, the Forest Service wants to create looped trails, which are safer than out-and-back trails because there’s less risk of head-on collisions."
Polk said he appreciates the work the group has done.
"The volunteers have been outstanding and very supportive," he said. "But OHV trails require a tremendous amount of maintenance, beyond what volunteers can do. Sometimes you need heavy equipment."
But Polk said the bottom line is not about the cost of maintenance.
"It’s about protecting that watershed," he said.
He emphasized that no decision has been made yet.
"We’ll address all the public comments we get and we’ll probably make a decision by spring," Polk said.
Logan hopes that the OHV riders will receive the same consideration as any other group of forest users.
"We go out there for the same reason that hikers and equestrians do. This is just our preferred activity," he said. "We just want to get into the woods, get away from the stress of Atlanta, take our families out for picnics."
But Jenkins said off-road SUVs cause more damage to the environment than non-motorized users do, and that’s why they’re not welcome on most forested land in Georgia.
"There’s a reason why large private landowners don’t invite this type of activity," he said. "The impact is not the same as with a hiker or a horseback rider."