Whitesburg KY

Reins tightened on horse trail

Fish and Wildlife agency wants to assess environmental impact

A committee working to develop the proposed Pioneer Horse Trail on Pine Mountain got a double dose of bad news this week.

Letcher County Parks and Recreation Director Derek Barto told the group he had been contacted by officials with the Governor’s Office for Local Development (GOLD), who said that because the committee does not control the land for the trail it will not qualify for a GOLD grant.

Committee Chairman Jimmy McIntosh then showed the group a letter from Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Commissioner Jonathan W. Gassett setting out a number of steps that could prove difficult for the group to meet in order to get state approval for use of the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area.

Eight provisions included in the letter from Gassett were read aloud at Monday night’s meeting by Mike Caudill, who serves as an appointee of Governor Fletcher on the Kentucky Recreational Trails Commission. The provisions include requiring an engineered drawing of the trail, an archeological survey for both the horse and wagon trails, alternate routes, and an environmental impact assessment on the trail. The letter said if the assessment does not satisfy the Fish and Wildlife Department, it may be necessary to undertake a much more detailed environmental impact study.

Barto said he was told the GOLD grants will probably be awarded within the next two to three weeks, and the horse trail committee will probably have to wait until the next round of funding next summer if it cannot resolve the land use issue quickly. District Two Magistrate Archie Banks told the committee he does not believe money is now the biggest issue, and stressed the importance of obtaining the right of way across the 6,000-acre Wildlife Management Area.

Barto said he and McIntosh had discussed the possibility of going ahead with work on the horse trail and waiting until later to begin work on a trail for horse-drawn wagons to use to commemorate the first crossing of historic Scuttlehole Gap. McIntosh said the cost of doing the horse trail by itself would be low. He said most of the work could be done by volunteers.

Magistrate Banks said the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which currently has a policy of not allowing new horse trails in Wildlife Management Areas, poses the biggest obstacle to making the trail a reality. Banks said Doug Hensley, who lives in Hazard and represents the region on the Fish and Wildlife Department’s Board of Directors, had initially been positive about the trail, but seems to have changed his mind after talking with members of the Pine Mountain Trail Conference. The Wildlife Management Area is named in honor of Hensley.

“He (Hensley) blames it on the guys on the walking trail,” said Banks. “I wish he would come and explain his position. That’s what’s wrong with this place, that kind of thinking. I just think it’s ridiculous.”

The Pine Mountain Trail Conference has charge of overseeing the construction and operation of the Pine Mountain Trail Development State Park, a 120-mile linear park that connects the Breaks Interstate Park in Pike County with the Cumberland Gap National Park in Bell County. The Little Shepherd Trail Section of the new state park follows the same old roadbed the horse trail committee wants to use.

The conference is chaired by Letcher County Extension Agent Shad Baker, who was identified at Monday night’s meeting as one person who opposes the horse trail.

Caudill, chief executive officer at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation in Whitesburg, told the group their best course of action may be political in nature. Elections for regional commissioners to the Department of Fish and Wildlife were to be held last night (Tuesday) at the Hal Rogers Forum in Hazard, and Caudill suggested taking as many eligible voters as possible to the meeting and voting for Ronnie Wells of Paintsville, who Caudill said was instrumental in getting 40 miles of horseback riding trails at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg.

Caudill said the voting was open to anyone who has held a Kentucky hunting or fishing license for the past two years, or who has registered a boat in Kentucky for the same time period. He said the names of the top five finishers in the election will be sent to Kentucky Governor Ernie Fletcher, who will then choose a commissioner.

“There are nine people, the Fish and Wildlife commissioners, who make the decision,” said Caudill. “As long as they are the same, you will get the same decision. If they change, you might get a different decision. The vote is tomorrow.”

McIntosh, the horse trail committee chairman, suggested the group assemble as many eligible voters as possible and transport them to the meeting in Hazard. Interested parties were to meet at the Letcher County Courthouse at 6 p.m. to go to Hazard as a group and cast their votes.

94th District Representative Leslie Combs told the committee she is still optimistic about the trail and said it is imperative to get all the interested parities together so they can work out their differences. Combs said the most important thing for the horse trail proponents to do is to find out who will have the authority to decide the matter and let both sides make their cases to that authority.

“I would like to understand why they are opposed to the trail,” said Combs. “Who is the deciding authority? Who says we can or can’t do it? The walking trail obviously has permission.”

Caudill suggested it may be necessary to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Pine Mountain Trail Conference to get that information.

“I wish we could come face to face with the opposition,” said Combs. “We’re doing too much talking around this. We need to get everybody together and talk about the whys and why nots.”

“The group on the walking trail knows how to pull strings,” said Magistrate Banks. “I wish they would come and explain. I would like to invite them to a fiscal court meeting.”

Also addressing the group was Whitesburg engineer Roy Crawford, who said he had a number of doubts about the environmental impact of the trail. Crawford said he does not represent the Pine Mountain Trail Conference. He told the group the horse and wagon trails would be the fourth separate route on a very narrow ridge. He said he has spoken with the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, which has expressed concerns about the possible disruption of high altitude migration routes for species which will only migrate at certain altitudes.

“Pine Mountain is the high altitude migration route for species that don’t like to go lower,” said Crawford. “If it is disrupted, it will endanger these species.”

Crawford also said he was concerned about possible erosion caused by a large number of riders. He said he had read in several accounts of trail meetings that significant numbers of horses and wagons would use the trails. Chairman McIntosh asked if it would be better if they just started with the horse trail. Crawford said it would, but that he would still rather see the horse trail located at another site.

Magistrate Banks said the horse trail would generate more revenue for the county than the walking trail along the ridge of Pine Mountain. But Crawford pointed to the very positive impact the junction of the Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail has had on Damascus, Va. Crawford also said he has had second thoughts about the possible results of erosion from the Pine Mountain Trail Linear State Park.

“This kind of thinking is why we are where we are,” said Banks. “It’s kept us from progressing.”

After a short recess, Crawford, Judge Ward and Representative Combs produced a list of all the interested parties they could think of. Ward said he will issue an invitation to each individual or group to attend the June meeting of the Letcher Fiscal Court on Monday, June 18, at 6:30 p.m. Ward said it is important to get the matter resolved soon so the county can be eligible for the grant from the Governor’s Office for Local Development.

“I would like to see this happen,” said Combs. “To bring the walking trail people to the table and discuss the issues.”

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