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Horse trail in trouble from start

WHITESBURG — When they were granted permission to build a horse trail through a wildlife management area on Pine Mountain, Letcher County officials agreed to conduct a number of studies to make sure the environment wouldn't be harmed.

Three weeks after the agreement was signed, late July sunlight dappled the ground as Kentucky first lady Jane Beshear and local officials lined up behind shovels for the 12-mile Pioneer Horse Trail's ground-breaking ceremony.

But the trail already was in trouble.

A couple of days before Beshear arrived, a bulldozer had started clearing an old logging road in the Hensley-Pine Mountain Wildlife Management Area, pushing over some trees as it went. None of the required studies had been completed, and the county wasn't even supposed to use heavy equipment on that part of the trail.

State wildlife officials say they stopped the work soon after learning it had begun. But documents obtained by the Herald-Leader through the Open Records Act suggest that the bulldozer work continued for about a month, in what an e-mail from one state employee called a "complete disregard" of the agreement.

Jonathan Gassett, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, plays down any damage the bulldozer might have done, noting that it was working in an area that already was an old road.

But Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, has written to Gassett and Gov. Steve Beshear, calling for an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether an endangered species or habitat was harmed.

County and state wildlife officials tell different stories about how trail construction came to start in the first place.

The documents suggest that top wildlife officials sent mixed messages, and at one point appeared to approve the too-soon construction.

And the trail, held up as an example of the "adventure tourism" ideas being pushed by Jane Beshear and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, has become a symbol of what can go wrong.

FitzGerald, who also reviewed documents related to the trail, expressed "grave concerns" in his letter to Gassett and the governor.

He listed all the required steps the county had skipped, adding that the trail project "has unfolded in a manner that validates the reservations expressed by hikers, hunters and other conservation interests" about the adventure tourism campaign.

The way the project was handled also raises questions about what role, if any, was played by Jane Beshear.

Letcher County Judge-executive Jim Ward, who stood near the first lady at the ground-breaking, later told the local newspaper, The Mountain Eagle, that without her help, he wasn't certain the county could have gotten permission to build the trail through the wildlife management area.

"We talked to her about it and she's an avid horse enthusiast and she had talked to Fish and Wildlife," Ward told the Herald-Leader last week. "That's when they gave us the OK to start construction."

When wildlife and county officials signed the agreement for the trail, Gassett had a copy sent to Jane Beshear.

Gassett and Beshear spokeswoman Susan Rieber said the two have talked in general about her interest in promoting horse trails, but not specifically about the Pioneer Trail.

People who ride horses in Letcher County have pushed for the horse trail for at least a couple of years. The impetus was the paving of Little Shepherd Trail, which had been a gravel road winding along the ridge of the mountain between Whitesburg and Harlan. With a hard surface, the road was no longer suitable for horses.

A group called the Letcher County Horse Trail Committee started pushing for a trail that would roughly parallel Little Shepherd along the ridge of Pine Mountain. Ward, a strong supporter, wrote that the trail would offer "some of the most majestic views in the entire nation."

Little Shepherd runs through the 5,000-acre wildlife management area. It is covered with what wildlife officials call "relatively unfragmented, mature forest" that has seen little disturbance since being purchased with federal wildlife funds more than half a century ago.

It is one of the places in Eastern Kentucky where black bears are making a strong comeback. It also is important to neotropical migratory birds, such as the cerulean warbler, that like large expanses of forests.

Fish and Wildlife employees who work in the field opposed the notion of a horse trail in the area.

Jayson Plaxico, a wildlife biologist, worried in an e-mail that the mountain is too steep.

"It may not happen often," he wrote, "but as you know, there are places on this mountain that a skittish horse could fall off if spooked by a bear, deer, vehicle on the paved road, etc."

Wes Hodges, who manages the wildlife management area, predicted that the horse trail would open the area to ATVs.

He suggested, unsuccessfully, that the area be given extra protection by declaring it a state nature preserve.

Other Fish and Wildlife employees wrote about their concerns that a horse trail could be easily eroded, and that horses could carry exotic weed species into the area.

The Pine Mountain Trail Conference, which is working to build a 120-mile foot trail along the mountain's ridge, also initially opposed the horse trail.

The conference had planned to use at least part of the route claimed by the horse trail group. After the horse trail was approved, the foot trail group decided instead to send hikers down the paved Little Shepherd Trail.

When the county and wildlife officials signed the trail agreement, the county agreed to provide an archeological 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, the county judge, said last week that he was told he could bring the heavy equipment in as soon as the agreement with Fish and Wildlife was signed.

"I particularly asked if we could move our equipment in and do it, and they said 'yeah,'" Ward said last week.

Gassett, the Fish and Wildlife commissioner, said that Karen Alexy, the department's wildlife division director, told Ward he could begin doing trail design and work related to the studies.

"What I'm afraid of is the judge heard one thing and Karen said another," Gassett said.

But a July 23 memo from Alexy to Gassett appears to back up Ward's version.

"I have 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," she wrote. "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."

Alexy said last week that she did not recall that specific memo, but said it did not reflect what she had told Ward. Gassett pointed to other memos from his department that said Letcher County must follow the terms of the agreement it signed.

He noted that there are horse trails on other wildlife management areas, and said they don't harm the environment if properly managed. No horses will be allowed on the trail during hunting season.

The Pioneer Horse Trail has attracted the attention of a number of environmentalists.

Hugh Archer, executive director of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, warned the state Environmental Quality Commission in November that the horse trail would be an open invitation to ATVs.

"They go everywhere — everywhere," Archer said.

Tim Guilfoile, a Sierra Club activist who also is president of the Northern Kentucky Fly Fishers, wrote to Governor Beshear in August saying the fishers group opposed ATVs and horses in wildlife management areas and nature preserves.

Guilfoile, who has visited the Pioneer Horse Trail, said last week that he has modified his stance somewhat. He said he now thinks horse trails can work in wildlife management areas if there are fees in place to help fish and wildlife officials enforce rules, and if the trail is properly designed.

Gassett responded to the letter from FitzGerald by saying the area where the bulldozer worked is being studied and his department is "evaluating what remediation measures may be needed. He also said he has asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether threatened or endangered species were harmed.

And, Gassett said, his department will work with the Beshear administration "to explore the benefits" of a statewide environmental impact statement on the potential impacts of adventure tourism.

FitzGerald said he was pleased with Gassett's response. He also said he was delighted that the Beshear administration appreciates that Kentucky has "incredible ecological assets.

"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.

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

Ward said he hoped to have the Pioneer Trail completed next spring. "Everyone's real excited about it," Ward said. "We think it's going to be real good for tourism."