Zaleski forest horseback riders

Some critics charge that creating all-terrain vehicle trails on state forests will ruin the recreational experience of other users such as horseback riders. Photo taken in Zaleski State Forest by Sarah Holm.

A draft plan to allow the expansion and creation of all-purpose vehicle (APV) trails in Ohio state forests, including Zaleski in western Athens County, have stirred up environmental concerns locally and beyond.

For APV enthusiasts, however, the draft plan presents an opportunity for increased recreational trails in Ohio, a state where they say APV-permissible areas are limited.

The draft forest plan for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources 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 APV area in district 4 is located in Perry State Forest. The draft proposes the creation of new APV areas elsewhere as well.

“All existing state forests will continue to be evaluated for potential new APV area establishment,” the draft states. “Vinton Furnace and Zaleski state forests in District 4 have been identified as priorities.” The draft also notes the intent of placing new trails “in areas that will minimize other user conflicts.” 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.

Loraine McCosker of Athens, co-chair of the forest and public lands committee of the Ohio Sierra Club, said Tuesday that the big concern for now is that forests are already stressed due to climate change, and the presence of APV trails could further stress forest environments.

“All three of those forests (Zaleski, Shawnee and Vinton Furnace) are really important habitats for those species and also for people use,” McCosker said. She added that the public comment period for the draft plan has been very short – the last day to submit public comments, according to the Division is this Saturday (though a spokesperson said that comments will be accepted after that day). “Most people don’t know about” the issue at all, McCosker said.

OU professor Dorothy Sack, chair of the university’s Department of Geography, said she has conducted and overseen “a fair amount” of research on the impact of APVs (also known as all-terrain vehicles or ATVs), and considers the impact of off-road vehicles on landscape as one of her research specialties.

In a comment sent to the ODNR, Sack expressed concerns over the negative environmental impacts of APVs in the forests. “It has been well established that unpaved roads of any kind lead to altered, unnatural and increased surface runoff, sediment erosion and sedimentation,” Sack stated. “Large amounts of eroded sediment typically end up in surface water bodies –streams, ponds/lakes and wetlands. Many organisms that live in these environments, including fish, cannot tolerate the changes that this sedimentation creates. Ecological changes will result, sometimes at a considerable distance from the roads.”

Additionally, Sack stated that “vehicles driving on unpaved roads augment those trends and also kick up additional sediment by the action of their tires.” APVs traveling on Wayne National Forest trails in southern Ohio, she said, “throw huge amounts of sediment onto neighboring tree trunks and slopes, especially when the road conditions are wet.”

Potential impacts to local wildlife are another concern, Sack stated. “Traffic noise, the de-vegetated road and sedimentation of road-adjacent areas can damage wildlife hearing and will disrupt burrows and other homes, reproduction, migration routes and ranges of all sorts of wildlife,” Sack said. “Vehicle emissions and even inadvertent leaks of oil, brake fluid and other vehicle fluids add to the environment toxic chemicals harmful to organisms. Increased usage of the forest region will bring more trash as well, including harmful plastics.”

McCosker charged that ODNR officials have “really taken it upon themselves to do a lot of extraction… logging, uncontrolled burns” and other things that strain forest resources. Plans to allow mining in Perry State Forest and logging in several forests are also included in draft forest plans.

“We don’t have a lot of public lands for people to visit,” McCosker said, emphasizing the need to protect resources.

Another concern is that the proposed APV trail mapped out in the draft for Zaleski State Forest would intersect with backpacking trails in two locations. “Here you’re backpacking along, and all of a sudden there’s these motorized vehicles speeding around you,” McCosker said.

Sack noted in her comment that typically backpackers “seek quiet and refuge from busy, noisy and traffic-laden daily lives,” and that APV trails would “mar the outdoor experience for those seeking relaxation, solitude, bird and wildlife viewing, and a sanctuary in nature.” She cited noise pollution and viewshed pollution as contributors to such degradation.

 

SOME APV ADVOCATES, ON THE other hand, argue that the trails are needed in Ohio. Bill Kaeppner, president of the Ohio Motorized Trails Association, said in a phone interview Tuesday that motorized recreation has been a part of Zaleski and Vinton Furnace forests since the 1960s.

Proper trail design, Kaeppner said, should address environmental concerns. Sustainability and ways to control the flow of runoff and sedimentation should all factor in when designing the trails, he said.

“I want stable, usable trails, and proper design and layout gives you that,” Kaeppner said, adding that every trail use leaves an impact, whether it’s from people on foot, horses or APVs. “A bad trail is a bad trail,” he noted.

Kaeppner said the costs associated with motorized recreation have been keeping recreational trails afloat in Vinton County. “One of the biggest supplies of funding for the trails comes from” motorized recreation, Kaeppner said, explaining that registration fees and trail-use fees for APVs go directly toward trail maintenance, in addition to Ohio tax dollars.

“If the money were being distributed evenly… nobody else would have trails,” Kaeppner said.

The proximity of APVs to pedestrians shouldn’t be a problem with thousands of acres of space, Kaeppner said in response to concerns over APV trails intersecting with backpacking trails. “Not everybody in the woods is going to be at that intersection” all at once, he said. “...People are scattered over 20,000 acres. It’s not going to be bad.” (Zaleski State Forest covers over 26,000 acres).

Ohio currently has less than 50 miles worth of APV trails, Kaeppner said, with only four areas throughout the state. Many motorists go elsewhere, destinations such as Pennsylvania or West Virginia, to ride. Kaeppner said more Ohioans are paying to ride their APVs in West Virginia than there are West Virginia residents doing the same.

“All those people (Ohio APV riders) would be spending their money here instead of there” if the trails were created in Zaleski and Vinton Furnace, Kaeppner argued.

From that perspective, the new trails could benefit Vinton and Athens counties, among the poorest counties in the state, by attracting tourist dollars. Beyond that, however, Kaeppner said motorists already pay to have access to motorized recreation and to the forest trails.

“A backpacker pays nothing to use the trails,” Kaeppner said. “…If I can share my tax money with them to let them have a campground… then surely I can have the recreation I like also.”

Kaeppner also said he hopes the trails will be well-designed to account for environmental issues. “We have all the same concerns… we care about the place,” Kaeppner said, adding, “We just have a different sport.”

COMMENTS ON THE APV PLAN can be emailed to forestry.comments@dnr.state.oh.us.

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