Virginia’s growing statewide trail network needs more effective environmental oversight

Virginia has been pumping millions of dollars into trail development projects in recent decades, largely without a unified set of rules tailored towards the unique environmental challenges that accompany linear trails.

May 12, 2023 12:08 am

According to the Clinch Coalition, an isolated wetland damaged by ATV use along Spearhead Trails’ Mountain View Trail System on The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project property in St. Paul. (Photo by Wally Smith)

By Wally Smith

Last month, Virginia’s State Trails Advisory Committee met in Harrisonburg. The Committee’s slate of business included the applicability of environmental laws to the Commonwealth’s recreational trails, with officials hosting discussions about how various water quality regulations apply to trail projects.

That discussion has been a long time coming. Trails may not seem high on the list of Virginia’s environmental woes, particularly in the face of hot-button issues like climate change and the development of energy infrastructure. It’s also tempting to view recreational development as solely beneficial to environmental objectives, improving public access to the outdoors and enhancing existing public lands set aside for conservation.

But trail development initiatives are ultimately construction projects at their heart, and Virginia has been pumping millions of dollars into such projects in recent decades, largely without a unified set of rules tailored towards the unique environmental challenges that accompany linear trails. Many projects, including those in national forests or state parks, are already governed by managing agencies’ regulatory frameworks and are led by staff with natural resource expertise – factors that often limit those projects’ risks of environmental harm.

A growing number of state-funded trail projects, however, are taking place on private lands or under the guidance of local or state authorities that lack any mandate to include trained natural resource professionals on their staff. And these efforts are increasingly opening a Pandora’s Box of environmental consequences for the Commonwealth. 

As one example, a 2022 Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism report documented widespread environmental damage across Southwest Virginia’s Spearhead Trails, a 600-mile public trail network currently receiving over $1M in funding annually from the General Assembly. The Center’s report highlighted how that effort developed under the assumption that trails were exempt from environmental laws, converting streams and wetlands in some of Virginia’s most economically-distressed communities into play areas for motorized vehicles. 

And when the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) became aware of those issues, it found itself at a loss about how to address them. The agency has since enacted a voluntary agreement to encourage better management of the Spearhead Trails system, but it argues that regulatory gray areas prevent it from requiring corrective action for the environmental issues its own inspectors have documented, leaving many open to continued damage.

Elsewhere, popular destinations like Roanoke’s McAfee Knob and Scott County’s Devil’s Bathtub are suffering from an explosion of overuse that is triggering novel environmental challenges. Such issues often leave managing agencies that are already understaffed and underfunded scrambling to react to problems as they arise, rather than planning proactively to head those issues off before they have a chance to take root. 

Virginia already has a guiding document for trail development: a 2009 statewide trail action plan published by the Virginia Greenways and Trails Task Force. But that plan is mostly focused on connecting long-distance trails into a statewide network rather than outlining a roadmap for environmentally-sustainable projects. 

And unlike other states, such as Wisconsin or New Hampshire, Virginia lacks any detailed, universal requirements for how trails should be designed and managed to benefit the environment. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation maintains one trail development toolbox containing general trail development guidelines, although many of its considerations are not formal regulatory requirements.

While it’s clear that Virginia needs improved state oversight to cultivate a sustainable trail network, it’s less clear how the Commonwealth’s various agencies can best achieve that goal. Virginia has a new State Trails Office that is developing its own strategic plan, although drafting environmental guidelines does not appear to be part of its mandate. The central role of environmental regulations at last month’s State Trails Advisory Committee meeting, however, is at least a much-needed first step.

The week of that meeting, the Southwest Virginia-based nonprofit organization I work with visited one of the Commonwealth’s newest state-funded trail projects, a multi-use trail system built on a private clearcut in Scott County. A brief downpour moved over the site during our visit, sending sediment-laden runoff pouring off of one trail surface towards an adjacent stream above the Devil’s Bathtub area near Fort Blackmore. We reported the event to DEQ, who responded with a familiar refrain: the project did not involve a regulated activity, so nothing could be done.

For residents of this corner of Scott County, water quality issues aren’t a trivial concern. A tragic flash flood in this same watershed killed one resident in 2001, while a similar flood stranded more than 20 hikers along the trail to the Devil’s Bathtub in 2020, triggering a complex rescue operation lasting well into the night. In at-risk watersheds like these, a more coherent focus on ensuring the environmental resiliency of Virginia’s public trail projects wouldn’t just enhance recreational access or appease the concerns of advocacy groups – it might also save lives.


Wally Smith is an Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise and is Vice President of the Wise, Virginia-based Clinch Coalition.

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