SLADE — White's Branch Arch has stood for thousands of years in the Red River Gorge. But not long ago, Zeb Weese noticed it was in danger.
All-terrain vehicle enthusiasts had discovered the hiking trail, originally built as a logging road, that leads up to and goes across the scenic arch near Natural Bridge State Park.
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”Ten years ago, you could drive any two-wheel (drive) sedan from there to where I'm standing,“ Weese said as we stood 50 feet apart on top of the arch.
Not anymore. The sandy soil has eroded from around big sandstone outcroppings atop the arch. Rusty steel pipes from natural gas exploration years ago stick out of the ground in several places.
”Those were buried fairly deep just a few years ago, but the ground has washed away,“ said Weese, the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission's eastern regional manager.
”I've seen a huge difference since 2002,“ he said. ”It seemed like overnight the impact was terrible. We were hastening the demise of this arch exponentially.“
What's happening around White's Branch Arch and in other natural areas offers a cautionary tale, especially as state officials develop plans to promote ”adventure tourism“ as an economic engine for rural Kentucky.
All-terrain vehicles — known as ATVs, or ”four wheelers“ — have become popular tools and toys in rural Kentucky. Hardly a weekend goes by that there isn't a news item about somebody being killed in an ATV accident.
It's one thing to ride an ATV on a farm. Or even on an old strip-mine site, which has already been damaged beyond comprehension so coal could be extracted by the cheapest and easiest means. It might even be worth opening some of Kentucky's ”reclaimed“ mountaintop removal mining sites to ATVs, since only a small fraction of the flat land created by them will ever be used for development.
But we should be very careful about opening public land to ATVs. They can do a lot of environmental damage, especially in areas with steep hills or sandy soil. Big ATV wheels dig up vegetation that holds soil in place, allowing erosion that sends silt into steams and rivers. Much of the erosion around Red River Gorge eventually ends up in the Kentucky River, which is the water supply for Lexington and many other towns.
Many ATV riders are responsible — they stay in designated areas; they don't go into the woods and blaze their own trails. Some ATV groups work with conservation officers to protect the environment.
”It's like a lot of things — a few bad apples ruin it for everyone,“ Weese said. ”There are appropriate places for everything, including ATVs.“
But the state and federal land designated as nature preserve in Red River Gorge isn't one of them. Not that it has stopped some ATV riders. Weese said most of the problems seem to come from out-of-state ATV clubs that hit the area on weekends.
Officials have posted signs banning motorized vehicles. In 2006, they got some grant money to rent bulldozers. They dug a series of deep trenches to keep ATVs off the trails. Some trenches include footbridges so hikers can continue to use the popular trails. But those measures haven't always worked.
”It's unfortunate we have to do this,“ Weese said, noting that the trench barriers also produce erosion. ”We were doing the damage in a restricted area to keep the damage from being done in a much wider area. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best we could do. The main goal was to protect the arch.“
Dave Cooper, a Lexington environmentalist, took me mountain biking on several logging roads and trails that are closed to motorized vehicles. Then we hiked up the trail to White's Branch Arch to meet Weese.
Throughout the area, we saw several fresh ATV tracks and the erosion they helped produce. Some tracks were on the rutted trails; others went through the woods.
”One four-wheeler can do more damage than a hundred horses or mountain bikes,“ Cooper said. ”The problem is, they won't stay on the roads. They rip up the forests.“
Adventure tourism could be a great way to capitalize on Kentucky's natural beauty and help more people enjoy it. But we must be careful not to destroy it in the process.