A network of popular off-roading trails through Southwest Virginia has been wracked by two years of contentious fights over drainage problems between state regulators, trail officials and citizen activists.
The Spearhead Trails are four months into new leadership, and a little more than half a year into a binding agreement that outlines its responsibilities to control stormwater at new and existing trails. Yet the Clinch Coalition — a local group that’s complained about the issues for nearly three years — says that drainage problems are still happening. Last month, the group released a trove of emails obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests that it said shows state regulators have been aware of the issues but failed to adequately enforce clean water rules and keep the public informed.
The Spearhead Trails are Virginia’s counterpart to West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trails. Virginia legislation passed in 2008 created the board that oversees it, the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority, and enabled the creation of the trail network largely from pre-existing roads originally built for logging, coal mining and other purposes. Spearhead’s trails attract visitors from around the world and are a major driver of a growing tourism industry that’s helping provide an economic lifeline to depressed coal communities.
For three years, however, a local citizens group called the Clinch Coalition has flagged a steady stream of problems with erosion and sediment control. The activists document what they identify as state and federal clean water violations, then log complaints with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Emails between Spearhead Trail officials and DEQ staffers over that time show that the Clinch Coalition’s many complaints triggered a push and pull between the two state entities that eventually wrapped in two state senators. Last summer, the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority signed an agreement with the DEQ to better manage its erosion troubles; since then its leadership has turned over, and DEQ officials say the new team is making good progress.
In December, though, the Clinch Coalition issued a news release “calling on regulators to take increased action to address environmental issues on the Spearhead Trails network.” Included were nine attachments with emails and documents obtained through open government requests that showed the DEQ’s awareness of drainage issues.
The Clinch Coalition criticized both the DEQ and Spearhead for not better communicating “findings on the trail system, current trail closures and ongoing efforts to address locations of concern.” It also complained that the DEQ’s internal reports reflect more concern than what had been shared publicly with regional residents.
“We do not want to be combative,” said Clinch Coalition President Sharon Fisher. “We want to be cooperative, and we want to work for the same…