Concerned property owners and businesspeople from Vinton County and western Athens County personally registered their opposition Thursday afternoon to a plan to create All-Purpose Vehicle trails in Zaleski State Forest, which overlaps the borders of the two counties.
Around 10 of these concerned citizens met with representatives of the Ohio Division of National Resources (ODNR) Division of Forestry at the Athens ODNR facility to discuss the proposed APV trails in Zaleski State Forest and two other state forests in Ohio.
Their main concern is that noise and other negative aspects of an onslaught of APV riders in Zaleski forest will discourage other types of outdoor recreation that depend on solitude and quiet.
The draft 2018-2019 forest work plan for the Division of Forestry’s District 4, which contains Vinton Furnace State Forest in Vinton County and Zaleski State forest in Vinton and Athens counties, states that the only current APV area in District 4 is located in Perry State Forest. The draft proposes the creation of new APV areas. (APVs are sometimes referred to as “ATVs” – all-terrain vehicles.)
“Vinton Furnace and Zaleski state forests in District 4 have been identified as priorities,” the draft states. Shawnee State Forest in District 5, in southern Ohio’s Scioto and Adams counties, also has been made a priority for new APV trails, as noted in the District 5 draft plan.
At the meeting Thursday at the ODNR building in Athens, Division of Forestry chief Robert Boyles said the division is evaluating all possible options for new APV trails. The purpose of the meeting, according to Boyles, District 4 Administrator Stephen Rist and District 5 Administrator Nate Jester was to obtain feedback from property and business owners in Vinton County (and presumably western Athens County) to aid in the process of determining where best to locate the new trails. Meeting attendees had submitted questions in advance and the small group worked its way down the list answering those questions and many more.
Jester, who said he’s done a lot of work with the State Recreational Vehicle (SRV) fund – a fund dedicated to the maintenance and expansion of motorized vehicle recreation services – said he was involved with creating the proposal for more APV trails, an idea that was introduced in last year’s work plan.
The Division included draft maps for APV trails in Vinton Furnace and Zaleski state forests in this year’s draft plan (on pages 63 and 64 of the District 4 draft plan). This has sparked concern among many property owners and residents of areas adjoining and near Zaleski State Forest, at 28,000 acres the second-largest state forest in Ohio. Fifty-two miles of APV trails had originally been proposed for Zaleski (Jester said at the meeting that that number has since decreased in response to public comments).
“All we’ve done is looked at a map and drawn in some trails,” Jester said, emphasizing that the trail plans are still in the beginning stages. “We’re bringing the public along; we want your feedback.”
APV trails are sorely needed in Ohio, Jester maintained, a fact that resulted in the proposal for more APV trails. “We are looking at ways to serve an underserved recreation in the state,” Jester said, adding that no “substantially new” areas for APV riders have been created since the 1970s.
“There’s 50 miles of APV trail on state public land; there’s 116 miles on the Wayne National (Forest),” Jester said. “…That’s all these people have to exercise their passion.”
Currently, the division has $350,000 appropriated from the SRV fund each year to use on public lands across the state, according to ODNR officials. “This is the only form of recreation on the Division’s lands that has a funding source,” Jester said.
The fund is composed of APV registration and non-resident temporary permit fees, as well as taxes and fines collected in association with motorized recreation.
“The balance that ODNR has in that fund, at the end of fiscal year ’18 is $2.3 million,” Jester said. “So that’s a rider group that’s really interested in funding their recreational opportunities.”
While Jester said “there’s room for everybody” to recreate in the state forests, the business and property owners at the meeting didn’t agree.
“I don’t think there’s enough room for everybody,” said David McPherson, owner of Uncle Buck’s Riding Stable adjoining Zaleski State Forest and president of the Vinton County Convention and Visitors Bureau. McPherson said he opposes APV trails in Zaleski, specifically, because he fears such trails will hurt outdoor-tourist-oriented businesses in the area, including his own.
“I talk to over 3,000 people a year,” McPherson said. “All these people keep Lake Hope Lodge and the campgrounds, especially on weekends, pretty well booked solid. So where are you going to put these APV guys?” McPherson said he thinks APV users will push out other tourists. “You can’t put them all in that one spot,” McPherson said, arguing that other, larger businesses may also move in and push out local businesses.
McPherson said Vinton Furnace would be a “great” alternative option, a notion expressed by most of the group on Thursday.
Nick Rupert, a business owner who’s running for Vinton County Commissioner, argued against locating the proposed trails in Zaleski State Forest as they would be closer to Carbondale, in Waterloo Township in Athens County, than Vinton County. “If the trail head, so to speak, is in Carbondale, that means that our businesses in Vinton County are not going to be the premiere businesses,” Rupert said, arguing that tourists likely will travel “to either Athens or Logan, and our business people in Vinton County… they’re going to be left out.”
Some residents of Carbondale have separately registered their disapproval of potentially becoming a trailhead for new APV tracks in the area. Numerous cardboard signs have been posted in Carbondale and the general area with a symbol of an APV and rider crossed out followed by the words “in Zaleski” on some signs and “in our state forests” on others.
“Focus your effort on Vinton Furnace,” said Brian Blair, president of the Moonville Rail-Trail Association who also owns land in the area near Zaleski State Forest. “... You’ll have less opposition and less conflict with existing users,” rather than disturbing the way Zaleski and Shawnee have been used for the last 50 years, Blair said.
Noise pollution was the primary complaint of the group. Tamara Steed said she owns property in Zaleski near Lake Hope State Park (which is surrounded by Zaleski State Forest) with her husband Steven, who also attended the meeting. They argued that the trails would be close enough to their property that they would be disturbed by the noise of APV engines, and Tamara said the couple already can hear the gun range on Ohio Rt. 278 “clear as a bell” from their property.
“Where you’re proposing to put the trails is the next ridge over” from the gun range, Tamara Steed said. “That’s going to be so freaking loud.” Steed said many of her neighbors are not in the position financially to move elsewhere, and argued that tourists will be deterred. “They’re going to hear the sound loud and clear, and a lot of people that I’ve talked to will stop coming to Lake Hope,” Steed said.
Rick Rozzo, another property owner in the Zaleski area who is credited with “spearheading” the opposition and passing out opposition signs, argued that trespassing is a big problem. “I understand there’s law enforcement out there,” Rozzo said. “Not all day every day. They’re going to tiptoe off of these trails that you have in place and they’re going to end up on private land.”
The Division of Forestry’s Jester said the agency is still in the process of evaluating the public feedback it has gained so far at open houses and stakeholder meetings, “and we’re still collecting public input.” He added that the division is currently revising its draft maps in response to public feedback. In an email Friday, Jester confirmed that the revision of the draft map for trails in Zaleski State Forest has outdated the map in the draft plan.
“The intention is to move the proposed APV trails away from the backpack trails and horse trails in order to remove any impact on the hikers and horse riders,” Jester said in the email. The desire to locate trails in areas that do not conflict with other forms of recreation was a major talking point during Thursday’s meeting.
Trails would be “co-located as much as possible, with existing disturbances,” Jester said at the meeting. “… Most of it is going to be located where there’s already been a trail or path put in, either for land management or some other use.” Trails would not be co-located with horse riding, backpacking or multi-use trails, Jester said.
On problems with rules and enforcement, Boyles said the Division of Forestry manages four other APV areas and hasn’t had many problems with those areas. “Those people are there to recreate; they’re there to abide by the law,” Boyles said. “We have less problems there than any other state forest areas that we have.”
APV users also will have a slew of regulations to abide by, including decibel restrictions for the sound of the engine (99 decibels measured at 20 inches from the exhaust pipe), and only certain vehicles will be allowed on the trails (side-by-side vehicles, dirt bikes, dual-sport motorcycles and APVs with a width limit of 62 inches) based on legal definitions established by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
“You have to have a state sticker from the BMV that says that you’ve paid your way into the fund,” Jester said.
APV season would run from April through December, but law enforcement would operate full-time, year-round, Jester said, and money from the SRV fund could be used to hire necessary law-enforcement officers.
As far as the next steps are concerned, the Division of Forestry will continue to analyze feedback and modify its draft maps, the forestry officials said.
“This issue is not going to be resolved in the publishing of the October work plan,” Jester said.
Right now, the map is all they have, Boyles emphasized. “We have a whole process that we work through before we ever do it,” Boyles said. “... We’re gathering input from everybody, we’re going to analyze what the concerns are, and if we can make changes and address those concerns, then we’ll make changes. If it can’t fly, it can’t fly.”