Whitesburg KY

Horse trail work raises concerns

An environmental group is calling for a federal investigation to determine whether endangered species were harmed in the construction of a portion of the new Pioneer Horse Trail in Letcher County.

Kentucky Resources Council executive director Tom FitzGerald wrote letters to Gov. Steve Beshear and Wildlife Commissioner Jon Gassett complaining about bulldozer work on Little Shepherd Trail.

Gassett ordered a halt to work on the horse trail, located atop Pine Mountain near Whitesburg.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the bulldozer work started long before agreed-upon environmental studies were completed for the proposed 12-mile Pioneer Horse Trail, which would end near Kingdom Come State Park. Letcher County Judge/Executive Jim Ward said he had received approval from state wildlife officials to begin the work. However, state wildlife officials deny giving that approval.

Gassett said the area scraped by the bulldozer is being studied to determine “what remediation may be needed.” He said he also asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether threatened or endangered species were harmed.

The wildlife commissioner said his agency will work with the Beshear administration “to explore the benefits” of a statewide environmental impact statement on the potential impacts of adventure tourism, an initiative being promoted by First Lady Jane Beshear and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo.

FitzGerald said he was pleased with Gassett’s response.

“The concern I have is that in the enthusiasm to make these adventure tourism destination points, we don’t literally trample the things that make these sites special,” he said.

When local and state officials signed an agreement for the horse trail to go through the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area, Letcher County agreed to provide an archaeological survey, an environmental assessment and “detailed electronic plans” that dealt with clearing trees, controlling erosion and avoiding sensitive areas.

It also agreed to get written approval from a number of local, state and federal agencies.

Ward told the Herald-Leader that he was told he could bring the heavy equipment in as soon as the agreement signed. “I particularly asked if we could move our equipment in and do it, and they said `yeah,”‘ Ward said.

In a July 23 memo to Gassett, Kentucky wildlife division director Karen Alexy said she had “been in contact with Judge Ward during the past few weeks to keep him updated on the progress of the agreement and to let him know that trail construction could begin when they were ready. Letcher County began construction of the horse trail last weekend. I spoke to Judge Ward yesterday about their progress on the trail, and he informed me that it was going well.”

Environmentalists, including Kentucky Natural Lands Trust executive director Hugh Archer, opposed the Pine Mountain horse trail. Archer warned the state Environmental Quality Commission in November that the horse trail might be used by ATV riders. He worried that ATVs would cause ruts and erosion that would damage the mountain environment.

Gassett played down any damage the bulldozer might have done, noting that it was working in an area that already was an old log road.

Both county and wildlife officials told the newspaper last week that the studies the county agreed to last summer are under way and coming along well.

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