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Plan to allow road racing on Little Shepherd Trail is simply a terrible idea

Letter to the editor
A Black-throated Green Warbler is seen searching for insects on an ironweed plant on Little Shepherd Trail atop Pine Mountain near Whitesburg. This photo was taken by Jennifer Honeycutt of Mayking, who says birds and other wildlife who call the Trail home will be in danger if the Letcher Fiscal Court goes through with plans to allow the Raven Rock Rally Sprint road race to take place. Ms. Honeycutt explains her concerns about the proposed race in a letter appearing elsewhere on this page.

A Black-throated Green Warbler is seen searching for insects on an ironweed plant on Little Shepherd Trail atop Pine Mountain near Whitesburg. This photo was taken by Jennifer Honeycutt of Mayking, who says birds and other wildlife who call the Trail home will be in danger if the Letcher Fiscal Court goes through with plans to allow the Raven Rock Rally Sprint road race to take place. Ms. Honeycutt explains her concerns about the proposed race in a letter appearing elsewhere on this page.

To the Editor:

Turning Little Shepherd Trail into a racecourse for the Raven Rock Rally Sprint is a bad idea.

There are many factors to consider:

Little Shepherd Trail winds through Letcher County for approximately 14 miles along the crest of Pine Mountain before it enters Harlan County and continues for another 24 miles. The narrow road undulates with the contours of the mountain, winding and twisting through a dense tunnel of forest, around hairpin curves and in a few places skirts sheer drop-offs mere feet from the road’s edge. The surrounding forest harbors a staggering diversity of plant and animal life. At any time one may round a bend and find a bear, deer, fox, turkey, grouse, bobcat, or coyote standing in the road. Migratory songbirds and butterflies flit along the roadsides, finding sustenance, be it nectar, insects, or seeds among the wealth of native wildflowers that line the road. A number of those bird and butterfly species are in sharp decline, making the habitat on Pine Mountain even more important for conservation.

The mountain is unique in that it is a relatively intact landscape in an area that has depended largely upon the mining industry to drive the local economy. As a result, Pine Mountain shines like a rare jewel above everything else around us, a treasure chest full of a unique central Appalachian landscape.

With the decline in mining, our community must look elsewhere for ventures to revitalize the area and bring much needed revenue. Tourism is something the eastern Kentucky region has been exploring as a viable option to bring visitors and their dollars into struggling communities. Letcher County has looked to Pine Mountain for tourism development to attract nature lovers, advertising in several travel venues that promote hiking and natural beauty in hopes of attracting visitors. County tourism built instantly popular overlooks at several vantage points along US 119 near the top of the mountain that showcase awe-inspiring views. The state tourism department used a photo of one of the Pine Mountain overlooks to market outdoor tourism for the entire state, eastern Kentucky in particular. That photo appears on billboards in other states. It makes our little corner of the world look spectacular.

The Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail, currently under development, follows the crest of the mountain from Breaks Interstate Park. It will eventually span 120 miles in length. The state park website indicates that hikers may walk along Little Shepherd Trail to continue along the proposed route. When completed, the Great Eastern Trail will overlap the Pine Mountain trail along the Little Shepherd Trail as it passes through Letcher County. It will be the longest foot trail in America, stretching from Alabama to New York. A horse trail parallels the Little Shepherd Trail and crosses it several times as well.

The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, in recognition of the unique character and one of a kind status of Pine Mountain, has been buying tracts of land for conservation of wildlife and ecosystems, which will create opportunities for passive recreation and bolster tourism. Ebird, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a tool of the bird-watching community with a link to hundreds of thousands of citizen-science birdwatchers who use it every day. It lists the Little Shepherd Trail as a hotspot for bird-watching in Letcher County. The Hensley Wildlife management area adjacent to Little Shepherd Trail conserves lands for wildlife, providing nature viewing for leisurely drives along the trail, and hunting opportunities in proper seasons. With all these exciting possibilities to attract hikers and nature lovers, with all the advertising that has been done to promote these passive recreational activities on our one and only intact natural area, why are we throwing all of that away by turning our one and only nature drive, the Little Shepherd Trail, into a race course?

Traveling the road at high speed during the timed race event seems very unsafe, given the narrow, twisting road, curves, and proximity to steep dropoffs in certain locations. What happens when a driver approaches a curve too fast and loses control? What happens when a driver rounds a curve and finds a bear or deer in the road? It is impossible to predict when an animal might bound in front of a car, even though several cars might pass without incident, a deer or bear may decide to dash across the road in front of a car at any time. Should a driver swerve, the car may go off the road, and, depending on location, might drop a long distance into the surrounding forest. That could lead to serious injuries to the driver. The adjacent landowners, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust and the Hensley Wildlife Management Area, may have damage to their properties caused by the potential wreck and subsequent extraction of the vehicle.

Permitting the Raven Rock Rally Sprint to occur on Little Shepherd Trail sets a precedent, and other groups may want to host car and motorcycle races, which will prompt more shutdowns. What happens when someone that saw the state billboard, or saw the advertising in a magazine, or the Facebook promotions, shows up to take a nature drive or hike? How are they going to know the road is closed for racing? Do you think they’ll come back, especially when they find out the road has become a racecourse? The things they came hoping to enjoy will have been greatly diminished or destroyed by allowing and maintaining the road as a raceway.

Turning Little Shepherd Trail into a racecourse will most likely increase the temptation of a certain percentage of the population to drive the trail a little faster, to see how fast they can negotiate a curve, or speed up in what few straight stretches exist. Things spread like wildfire on social media platforms, and you can bet that people will show up to drive fast on the trail. There is no policing of any kind on that road now. What is the plan to control the aftermath of developing the road as a racecourse? What happens when someone who’s been emboldened to drive too fast rounds a curve and collides with someone who has come for a leisurely drive? Or hits someone standing outside the car bird-watching or photographing wildflowers? Or hits someone hiking the road? It already requires some caution to drive the road, due to it being a two-way road, the narrow width, and blind curves. It is totally unfair to advertise for visitors to come drive the road to enjoy the passive recreational opportunities when you’ve allowed the road to be used for racing.

Road rallies are granted permits to race on little used roads like old logging roads in national forests and other public lands. They’re not held on roads in popular recreation areas or high traffic areas, for obvious reasons. You don’t want to compromise recreation lands or allow races in areas where there is the possibility of a collision. This rally and all future races need to be staged on old mining roads. With all the old mining land in the area, a fabulous venue could be developed for all types of racing and other motorized sports. It’s puzzling why this race is being staged on the only nature drive we have, in the only natural area that we have. That one road can’t be the answer for everything. If you try to direct every venue to that one road, you’ll eventually have nothing. Allow races on the road and you run the very real risk of wrecks and injuries occurring long after the race itself has ended. Anyone trying to use the road for passive recreation, whether hiking, birding, leisure nature drive, or photography will be unable to enjoy the road due to it being overtaken by thrill seekers driving too fast, and they will leave and take their dollars with them.

Why not do it the right way from the start? It’s so much easier than trying to fix a mistake later. We have an abundance of old mining land, but Little Shepherd Trail is the only thing of its kind that we have in the area; it’s unique in the state for that matter. If we allow an activity that diminishes it, we diminish our own possibilities. We need every tourism dollar we can get, but we have to stage events and activities in the proper places. The Little Shepherd Trail isn’t the proper place for a car race.

JENNIFER HONEYCUTT
Mayking

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