The state's attempt to build an ”adventure tourism“ industry in Kentucky is raising concerns among sportsmen and environmentalists who worry the move could damage nature preserves and wildlife management areas.
The groups say they have gotten wind of a behind-the-scenes effort by Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo to boost rural economies by allowing ATVs in places where they now are prohibited.
A spokesman for Mongiardo said Wednesday that there are no such plans currently, but acknowledged Mongiardo is gathering information about land that could be used for multi-purpose trails.
The League of Kentucky Sportsman wrote Mongiardo this week saying the group supports his ideas for adventure tourism, but ”reaffirms its opposition“ to permitting all-terrain vehicles on Wildlife Management areas owned and managed by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
The Sierra Club is preparing a similar letter that opposes ATVs on state nature preserves as well as wildlife management areas.
Also, the Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers and the Fifth District Federation of Kentucky Sportsmen, another Northern Kentucky group, have written to Gov. Steve Beshear, saying they oppose allowing ATVs or horses in wildlife management areas or nature preserves.
Tim Guilfoile, the president of the fly fishers group, said in his letter that ”permitting these activities will seriously violate the intent for which these properties have been designated“ and cause ”significant degradation“ to the land.
Ray Barry, chairman of the Cumberland chapter of the Sierra Club, said the club's concerns were based on information ”leaking out of the (state) agencies by the people working there.“
Guilfoile said his group got involved after he heard rumors from some members of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, which sets policy for the department. He stressed that he had not discussed the issue with employees of the department.
Mongiardo spokesman Jeff Derouen suggested Wednesday that sportsmen and environmentalists' fears were misplaced. He said they might be reacting to rumors sparked by plans for a cross-state, multi-use trail system.
”It is not true that the lieutenant governor wants to open all wildlife management areas or state nature preserves to ATV use,“ Derouen said. ”It is true we are making an inventory to understand what lands we have.“
He declined to promise that Mongiardo won't push for ATV trails in any sensitive areas.
During last year's governor's race, Mongiardo talked about making Kentucky a leader in adventure tourism. He said he planned to make the state ”a premier destination for all-terrain vehicle riders, horsemen and outdoor enthusiasts from across the country.“
Earlier this year, the General Assembly, with the support of Mongiardo and First Lady Jane Beshear, unanimously passed Senate Bill 196. That beefed up the Kentucky Recreational Trails Authority and gave protection to private landowners who allow trails across their land.
The reconstituted trails authority is expected to have its first meeting early next month. Working with the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet, it hopes to have a statewide multi-use trail system in place by the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in 2010.
Derouen, the Mongiardo spokesman, said that trail could be for ATVs only in some areas, for horses or hikers in others, on could accommodate combinations of those uses. The state will follow laws and regulations in deciding where those trails will go, he said.
ATVs are extremely popular, particularly in Eastern Kentucky. Trails designated for ATVs have opened on former strip mine land in the region.
But the machines have been the bane of managers of public lands. Their tires create ruts that cause erosion and muddy pristine streams as riders often ignore established trails and travel cross-country. They also are blamed for spreading invasive species.
They are not allowed in state nature preserves, which often protect rare native species and natural features; and wildlife management areas, which are managed to provide habitat for everything from elk to quail.
Although prohibited, ATVs still cause problems in those areas.
”We have a constant problem with ATVs running through and doing damage to the grasses and so on, cutting off trails and running up hills,“ said Taylor Orr of London, who represents southeastern Kentucky on the wildlife commission.
There also are safety concerns, he said, about allowing recreational ATV use in places were people are hunting.
Orr said he is against allowing ATVs on wildlife management areas, and thinks the majority of the commission agrees with him.
”I haven't been personally lobbied, but I know Danny Mongiardo is pushing adventure tourism,“ he said.
Another commissioner, Doug Hensley of Hazard, said that a lot of wildlife management areas were purchased or leased with federal funds that specified how they would be used. That funding could be in jeopardy if the areas were open to ATVs, he said.
Hensley, who owns an ATV, said he is keeping an open mind on the issue.
Both Orr and Hensley said they support adventure tourism. But both noted that the fish and wildlife department is supported by people who buy hunting and fishing licenses, and that those people don't want an ATV to roar by while they're trying to call in a wild turkey or track a deer.
”If that's what they wanted, they would let us know,“ Hensley said.