The U.S. Forest Service apologized Tuesday for damaging the Appalachian Trail with all-terrain vehicles during its patrols of a pipeline protest.
In a news release, the agency admitted that its law enforcement officers used the ATVs from April 11 to April 30 on a short stretch of the scenic footpath that follows the ridgeline of Peters Mountain in the Jefferson National Forest.
“We are still evaluating the damage, but this is clearly our mistake and I apologize that it happened,” Michael Donaldson, a special agent in charge of law enforcement for the agency’s Southern region, said in the news release.
Motorized traffic along the 2,200-mile trail from Georgia to Maine is generally prohibited.
Four-wheeling on the trail left tire tracks, muddy ruts and a swath of bare land six to eight feet wide, according to photographs provided by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
The improper use came as the Forest Service monitored two ongoing protests of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will cut through the national forest and under the Appalachian Trail as it transports natural gas from northern West Virginia through the New River and Roanoke valleys.
Motorized vehicle use “can cause severe damage to the landscape and require hundreds of volunteer hours and several months to repair,” said Laura Belleville, vice president of conservation and trail programs for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
“We appreciate that the U.S. Forest Service has taken responsibility and will be repairing the damage to the A.T. as we work with our partners to prevent incidents like this from happening again in the future,” she said.
According to the Forest Service, officers used the vehicles to access a remote site where a tree-sitter is blocking logging along the pipeline’s right of way at the top of Peters Mountain, just across the state line in West Virginia. A second protester is on a platform suspended from a pole that is blocking a construction access road at the base of the mountain in Giles County, several miles away.
Much of the route between the two protesters is on a Forest Service road where motorized traffic is allowed for law enforcement and construction crews.
But to make the last leg of the trip to the mountaintop protester, the officers motored along a stretch of the Appalachian Trail that the Forest Service said was about 150 yards long.
The purpose of the trips was to conduct welfare checks on both protesters twice a day, the news release stated. To date, “no actionable medical issues” have been identified.
Officials with Mountain Valley and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is monitoring the construction project, have said that the Forest Service also allowed security crews for the pipeline company to use the trail.
Tuesday’s news release did not address that issue, and a Forest Service spokeswoman declined to comment further.
The use of ATVs came after the Forest Service stepped up its response to pipeline protests on public land that began Feb. 26.
Appalachians Against Pipelines, a group that has been documenting the resistance on its Facebook page, said that in recent weeks, law enforcement officers with the Forest Service have been preventing support teams on the ground from sending up food and waters to the two protesters with a system of buckets on ropes.
A letter written last week by two attorneys on behalf of the woman on the pole, who reportedly has gone the longest without supplies, stated that she could die if the Forest Service continues to deny her food and water.
“The Forest Service’s actions in continuing to starve her out are tantamount to torture and contrary to human rights and international law,” Floyd County attorneys Alan Graf and Tammy Belinsky wrote in a letter to Joby Timm, the Roanoke-based supervisor of the national forest.
In written response to those concerns released Tuesday, Timm said the Forest Service is responsible for enforcing a closure order issued shortly after the tree-sits began, making the pipeline right of way and other areas in the national forest off limits to the general public. Both protesters are within the closed areas of the forest.