Before I retired, West Virginia state code made the director of the Division of Natural Resources or his designated representative an ex oﬃcio member of the board of directors of the Hatﬁeld-McCoy Regional Recreation Authority. I served as that designated representative for several years.
It was frustrating to participate in board meetings and not be able to express my personal views since I was oﬃcially representing DNR.
I was forced to quietly listen while local board members, staﬀ and both state and local politicians lauded the “success” of the development of an extensive ATV trail system on what is primarily coal company land in southern West Virginia.
From the beginning, I viewed the development of the system just like the coal industry — as another environmental abuse heaped upon southern West Virginia.
ATVs destroy and disrupt wildlife habitat, cause noise and air pollution and increase runoﬀ, soil erosion and degradation of water quality. I have hiked many of the trails in Logan, Boone and Mingo counties and have observed this ﬁrst hand despite being assured the trails were being developed in a sustainable manner. I found some trails that were so eroded they no longer were suitable to ride. During dry periods, dust stirred up by these noisy machines permeates the air and ﬁnds its way to nearby streams.
Like coal, it does not really pay its own way and is subsidized by tax dollars or indirect, hidden social costs. The 730 or so miles of the system sprawls across several counties in southern West Virginia. Its economic impact has been minimal — about $20 million annually, as I recall.
At ﬁrst that sounds like a lot but compare it to hunting. According to the Wildlife Resources Section of DNR, deer hunting contributes about $250 million to the state’s economy each year. In addition, the state park system contributes between $160.5 million to $189.5 million annually in economic activity. Put another way, for every $1 of general tax revenue provided to state parks, an average of $13.15 dollars was generated in economic activity. Both well worth the investment.
I grew up in the small town of Gilbert in Mingo County. In the late 1990s there was one small, depilated motel that was in such poor condition that I refused to stay there whenever I was working in the area. I will concede that changed with the development of the Hatﬁeld-McCoy trail system. Today, a few residents of the town oﬀer decent lodging making a few dollars catering to ATV riders. The number or restaurants, however, has not changed much and both locals and ATV riders alike pretty much rely on a McDonalds, a Hardees and one or two other small “mom and pop” type restaurants in the area. Nor has there been any signiﬁcant growth in other businesses that cater to ATV riders such as repair shops, dealers, etc. All in all, the system has not made a profound change to the economy of the town. The same can be said of other communities that border on the Hatﬁeld-McCoy Trail system.
Given the environmental destruction it causes and the fact it is not sustainable, I think it should be abolished. But now eﬀorts are underway to expand it to encompass our valuable public lands. The Legislature enacted a law a couple of years ago to develop ATV trails in Cabwaylingo State Forest in Wayne County on a two-year “experimental basis.” Cabin revenues and overall forest use has not increased signiﬁcantly, but the damage to existing roads and trails has been great.
This legislative session saw the enactment of Senate Bill 468, which made the use of ATVs on Cabwaylingo permanent and, at ﬁrst glance, seemingly prohibits the expansion to other parks and forests in the state. However, a closer reading to the bill, which has been signed by the governor, indicates otherwise. The bill permits the director of DNR “the authority to authorize the development and use of certain connector trails, roads and parking areas from private systems including, without limitation, the Hatﬁeld-McCoy systems, solely for the purpose of providing access to state park and state forest recreational facilities and lodging by ATV, ORV, and UTV trail system users.” Such broad authority has the potential to open many state parks and forests to abuse and needs monitoring.
I fully realize the development of the Hatﬁeld-McCoy Trail system was one of desperation after the demise of the coal industry. But if this is the best that West Virginia’s political leaders – both Democratic and Republican — can oﬀer in the way of economic development, change is desperately needed. It is sad that West Virginia consistently lacks the leadership to move the state forward instead of always backward. Little wonder it is always dead last in the nation.
Robert Beanblossom grew up in Mingo County and retired after a 42-year career with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He now resides in western North Carolina and can be reached at email@example.com.