The debate rolls on

US Forest Service hears objections regarding Tracy Ridge trail plans

Local activists and Allegheny National Forest officials interact with U.S. Forest Service regional staff in Milwaukee, Wi. via video feed during a objection hearing held at ANF headquarters on Tuesday over the decision to potentially open some of the trails on Tracy Ridge to mountain bikes.

“There is probably a lot of common ground if people would just leave Tracy Ridge alone and other proposed wilderness areas and inventoried roadless areas.”

That was part of the message that Friends of Allegheny Wilderness Executive Director Kirk Johnson brought to an objection meeting held at Allegheny National Forest headquarters on the potential decision to open up roughly 12.5 miles of trails at the Tracy Ridge National Recreation Area for mountain bike use.

Roughly 30 people from multiple agencies – Forest Service, FAW, Northern Allegheny Mountain Bike Association (NAMBA), the ANF Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, Allegheny Defense Project and the Pitt Environmental Law Clinic – participated in the videoconference that ran for over three hours.

Johnson and FAW requested the meeting as part of their objection to a draft decision that would open up the trails to mountain bikers.

Deputy Regional Forester Mary Beth Borst, based at the Forest Service regional office in Milwaukee, Wi., is the reviewing officer for the objection made to Forest Supervisor’s Sherry Tune draft decision.

Regional Environmental Coordinator Tony Erba, also based in Milwaukee, started the session by saying that it is a result of Johnson’s request.

“This meeting is primarily a meeting between Kirk (Johnson) and Mary Beth (Borst), though we are allowing for other people… to have the opportunity to speak,” Erba said.

Regional USFS officials summarized Johnson’s objections into six separate issues that were individually discussed on Tuesday.

Issue: Failure to sufficiently consider the cumulative impacts of the project.

Erba said that regional officials determined the “cumulative effects analysis” in the ANF’s environmental assessment “is sufficient.”

“The impacts to the Tracy Ridge trail system wouldn’t be limited to the 12.5 miles that are being proposed for mountain biking,” Johnson said. “Not everyone is going to limit themselves to 12.5 miles.”

Trespsass onto the North Country Trail was raised as a concern.

Johnson said there is supposed to be signage but said “we find that uncompelling as to preventing mountain bike trespass on the rest of the trail system. Therefore, the best course of action for the entire Tracy Ridge trail system is that (there) not be any mountain biking on any of it. Once you open that can of worms, there’s no stopping the trespass occurring though the system.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we would be ok with the project if we could limit mountain biking to just the 12.5 miles. The entire area should be designated wilderness.”

Bill Belitskus with the Allegheny Defense Project alleged that federal officials segmented the project to avoid additional environmental scrutiny.

“The resounding message is that mountain bikers will come out in numbers to help reutilize an underutilized area,” Andy Georgakis with NAMBA said.

On the trespass issues, he added that mountain bikers are “very good at self-policing ourselves.”

“For the record, our group flatly rejects the assertion that the Tracy Ridge hiking system is underutilized by hikers,” Johnson added. “That premise is all false.”

Issue: Intensity of impacts from the project on the proposed Tracy Ridge Wilderness Area not considered. Opening the trails to mountain biking will impact the proposed Tracy Ridge Wilderness Area’s candidacy.

Erba said here that officials determined that “Forest Service policy does prohibit mountain bike use in those areas to be considered for wilderness” and concluded that there are wilderness areas where bike use is permitted.

Johnson said allowing bikes would “enormously complicate” a wilderness initiative.

He further raised concerns regarding ebikes, or motorized bicycles,.

“There is no motorized recreation allowed in a national recreation area as it stands now. Once you’ve acknowledged that ebikes are in use. Once you’ve acknowledged that you can’t tell the difference between ebikes and regular bikes… that’s the end of the story. (You) can’t allow any mountain bikes in the area because anyone of them could be a motorized vehicle and you would never know the difference.”

He added that it is the agency’s responsibility to implement wilderness wherever appropriate and “enthusiastically put forward” areas for wilderness.

Georgakis pointed out that the current designation of Tracy Ridge as a national recreation area provides many of the protections of wilderness except limiting human powered travel.

He also pointed out that ebikes can be cost prohibitive.

Issue: The ecological impacts of mountain biking, including threats to endangered species, were not fully considered.

Erba concluded that the environmental assessment did disclose the effects that was an “appropriate analysis conducted for the level of impact associated with this particular project.”

After anti-mountain biking comments were made by a California man, Georgakis said that “many of us seek that backcountry experience. Some chose to do it by foot. Some of us by two wheels. We’re all conservationists.”

Issue: The public safety impacts of opening the trails were not fully considered.

Erba said officials determined that the existing trail conditions can accommodate mountain bikes given wide trail tread and good sight lines.

“The Forest Service has determined that the use pattern in Tracy Ridge is low,” he added, noting they also concluded the ANF’s assessment of potential health and safety from user conflicts to be “appropriate.”

Johnson countered by saying that “putting mountain bikes on trails increases the potential for user conflicts and public safety concerns that will happen. Just dismissing the possibility of ‘that is not very likely’ or ‘will happen too infrequently that it doesn’t really matter’ is not compelling.”

Erba acknowledged that the current forest plan is 10 years old but said that it’s important to acknowledge that “how we humans look at the land… (the) value of the land, does shift with time. It is completely conceivable to know whatever we were thinking in 2007… could be different (or) could be the same.”

“I think those are the type of human values that have to be managed when you look at projects,” he added. “Some values (have been) held strongly that have not changed at all. (It) all has to be balanced.”

He said that what was said in the session is “helping Mary Beth (Borst) as reviewing officer.”

Ryan Talbott, executive director of the ADP, cited a line in the environmental assessment that acknowledged introducing another user group would “undoubtedly increase the possibility for user conflict.”

“Does the Forest Service stand by that,” he asked.

“It’s just one small segment of an entire paragraph,” Tune said.

Issue: The amendment must be based on a new assessment, a monitoring report, or other documentation of new information, changed conditions or changed circumstances.

Erba said that a statement to express a need for change from ANF officials “was not formed” and that the “record does not validate mountain biking is becoming more popular.”

Johnson presented a 1994 decision that prohibited mountain bikes and equestrian use on the trails at Tracy Ridge and said he agreed with an issue paper prepared by regional officials that concluded there was “not a need for change expressed to change the plan prohibition on mountain bike use.”

Talbott asked what rationale the draft decision was based on.

“There is an opportunity here to improve the trail condition,” Acting Deputy Forest Supervisor Rich Hatfield said. “The forest has limited opportunities for this type of mountain bike experience. Mountain bikers are also looking for (a) natural environment to recreate in. I’m still waiting for someone to show me why those trails were closed in 1994 in terms of specifics other than the language that is in there.”

Talbott responded by asking how trails closed as unsuitable for decades is “miraculously suitable.”

“(There is) nothing in the record stating that Tracy Ridge is unsuitable for biking use. (I have) not seen a single substantive reason why” the trails were closed, Hatfield said. He added that the decision was “rolled over” in the 2007 plan but that he has “yet to see a rationale. I wait for that.”

“I couldn’t believe some of the statements I’m hearing from the Forest Service,” Belitskus said. “You approved the 2007 forest plan after roughly five years of input from the public (and) turn around now saying, ‘Well, the forest plan in 2007 was wrong. We didn’t really mean that in 2007. Is that what I’m hearing?”

“We are not saying the 2007 forest plan was wrong,” Borst said. “What I heard Rich (Hatfield) say, conditions have changed since 2007 and we have to consider that. (I am) not backing away from the 2007 plan in any way, shape or form.”

Issue: An EIS (environmental impact statement) is required because the proposal substantially alters the undeveloped character of an inventoried roadless area or potential wilderness area.

“Information on the prohibition is scant but it is sufficient to address the situation that is being proposed,” Erba said officials recommended.

Johnson said that stating that the areas is not now wilderness or a wilderness study area “is kind of a cop out because we know it should be a wilderness area.”

“You need to actually broaden the scope of your analysis,” Belitskus said.

“I think I have the information I need to inform the next step,” Borst concluded.

Hatfield detailed the process moving forward to the Times Observer after the meeting.

“After the objection period closes, the agency has an initial 45 days to resolve the objection. The agency can extend the review period, if circumstances warrant. The review period was extended to accommodate the meeting today,” he said, as the objection period closed in September.

He said that the next step would be for Borst “to issue her instruction/recommendation to the Forest. I have not yet heard a definitive time frame for the instruction/recommendation from our Regional Office.”

Hatfield said that Tuesday’s meeting is “one step closer to the issuance of that documentation.”

In the interim, however, Tune wanted to be clear that the trails at Tracy Ridge remain closed to mountain bikes.