Tire tracks and muddy ruts along the Appalachian Trail mark the spot where the Mountain Valley Pipeline will meet the scenic footpath.
Although motorized traffic is generally prohibited, Mountain Valley security crews and U.S. Forest Service officials have been driving all-terrain vehicles on the trail to reach an area where pipeline protesters are stationed at the top of Peters Mountain in the Jefferson National Forest.
“Motorized use is antithetical to the wilderness experience of the Appalachian Trial,” said Andrew Downs, regional director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
After receiving a complaint Sunday about ATV traffic on an approximately quarter-mile section of the trail that runs along the edge of Giles County, Downs contacted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is overseeing construction of the natural gas pipeline.
A FERC official looked into the matter and was told that the Forest Service authorized the use of ATVs, according to FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen. Forest Service officials have also been four-wheeling on the trail, she said.
Joby Timm, the Roanoke-based supervisor of the Jefferson National Forest, said through a spokeswoman only that his agency was looking into the matter.
When FERC approved Mountain Valley’s proposal to build a 303-mile pipeline from northern West Virginia through Southwest Virginia, the plan was to bore a tunnel for the 42-inch diameter steel pipe to pass under the Appalachian Trail — reducing the impact on one of Southwest Virginia’s most cherished natural resources.
Full-scale construction at the top of Peters Mountain is weeks away.
But the remote spot where the pipeline will cross under the Appalachian Trail has recently grown crowded, with Mountain Valley security officers and Forest Service officials camped out in the woods to guard a tree along the pipeline’s route that has been occupied by a protester since Feb. 26.
When the tree-sitters first set out to block logging for the pipeline, two of them climbed into tree stands in Monroe County, West Virginia, close to where the buried pipeline would burrow deeper under Peters Mountain before emerging on the other side in Giles County. One of the protesters has since come down.
During the protest, the Forest Service has allowed ATVs on the trail “on a regular basis to access the security encampment near where the obstructionists are in the trees,” Mountain Valley spokeswoman Natalie Cox wrote in an email Monday.
The Forest Service “advised the MVP project team to also utilize ATVs in the same area in order to support USFS law enforcement efforts by bringing security personnel and materials to the encampment location,” she wrote.
Critics question the use of ATVs. They point out that Mountain Valley and Forest Service officials could have covered a short distance on the trail by walking and carrying their belongings with them — the same way that hikers do.
The teams have apparently been using Mystery Ridge Road, a Forest Service road that climbs Peters Mountain all the way to where the Appalachian Trail runs along the ridgetop, according to Kris Schneider of Floyd County, who discovered the damage while hiking on Saturday.
But rather than park their ATVs at the trail and hike the remaining distance to where the tree-sit is located, the officials have motored up and down the footpath, leaving a trough of mud and tire tracks six to eight feet wide, Schneider said.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Schneider, who was so moved by the beauty of Peters Mountain while through-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2002 that he decided to move from Cleveland, Ohio, to the New River Valley, where he has lived ever since.
“The footpath, I consider that sacred ground,” he said.
Schneider said he followed the trail of tire tracks to where Mountain Valley and Forest Service crews were camped out next to the tree-sit. There, he saw several tents, a generator, a porta-potty and a large pile of firewood. Two ATVs were parked next to the camp, he said.
After getting reports from Schneider and others over the weekend, Downs complained to FERC and the Forest Service.
“The pictures look absolutely terrible,” he said. “This is a serious, serious impact to the Appalachian Trail, without question, no matter who is doing it or what they did it for.”
According to a development plan submitted to FERC last November, shortly after the agency granted a key approval for the pipeline, Mountain Valley originally intended to avoid the Appalachian Trail as much as possible.
The company agreed to bore under the trail, leaving undisturbed areas of about 300 feet on each side of the footpath to lessen the pipeline’s damage to scenic views that the trail affords from Peters Mountain.
“No motorized vehicle traffic is permitted between the Appalachian National Scenic Trial bore pits,” the plan states. “However, construction and operations personnel may walk between the pits as needed to complete inspections.”
The current use of ATVs has nothing to do with construction, Cox said.
However, photographs of a churned-up Appalachian Trail were quick to hit the internet, where pipeline opponents cited them as yet another example of the environmental damage they say will be caused by building a massive pipeline across steep mountain slopes and through clear-running streams.
“Does this look like the Appalachian Trail?” Diana Christopulos, a local environmental advocate, wrote in a Facebook post.
“Motorized vehicles are prohibited, but Mountain Valley Pipeline is apparently allowed to break the rules and/or federal employees are breaking rules for them … and using the AT as their private muddy road right next to Peters Mountain Wilderness.”
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