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Closing of popular ATV trail unclear

March 27, 2013

By JIM RUNKLE ([email protected]) , The Express

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RENOVO - State officials say "nothing is dotted or crossed" with a proposal to close a popular, 45-mile ATV/snowmobile trail to facilitate heavy traffic from a mine reclamation project.

They said this after bids to reclaim a strip mine and minimize acid mine drainage into the West Branch of the Susquehanna River watershed been scheduled for opening, and after no bids were received.

Local officials, however, are decrying the lack of information and transparency that has accompanied the project.

Article Photos

In this photo, ATV?riders are seen on the Whiskey Springs ATV?Trail.

Indeed, the matter could have been a fait accompli last week, had any contractor actually submitted a bid on the project.

As it stands, the lack of interest has moved the reclamation back to square one, as the state Department of Environmental Protection examines what went wrong, why no interest was shown and how corrections might be made.

"We're still in the early stages," said Terry Brady, deputy press secretary for the DEP's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "We're going to get word out as soon as possible if indeed there is any word to get out."

The project itself is a massive undertaking on 160 acres in Sproul State Forest, designed to mitigate the amount of acid mine drainage contamination into Kettle Creek and the Susquehanna River.

The work would require the transport of some quarter million tons of coal out of the site, and the trucking in of 370,000 tons of alkaline material into the site.

Another potential glitch is the fact that the project is tied to federal funds and those resources have a deadline attached to them.

Some estimates suggest the trail could be closed or limited to sections for three years while the work is being done.

According to a discussion at Tuesday afternoons Clinton County Natural Gas Task Force meeting, it was noted that the project, estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million, originally started about six years ago as an initiative sparked by Trout Unlimited.

"To the extent there's any closing of the trail or entrance to the trail, it would be necessitated by a concern for (the ATV riders') safety," Brady said.

Earlier looks suggested the project could be conducted over time and in segments, but DEP officials decided on the larger project to make it more attractive to firms and businesses that might submit bids, he said.

The Whiskey Springs ATV Trail, formerly Sproul ATV Recreation Area, has about 45 miles of trails that travel through re-vegetated old strip mines, gravel roads and forest trails. Seven scenic vistas, wild animals, wildflowers and mountain laurel enhance the riding experience. The area also has 14 camping sites and day use parking.

The riding area was named after the near-by spring used by old coal miners to keep their whiskey cold. It is located located about 10 miles north/northwest of Renovo.

"It's in a holding pattern for now," Sproul District Forester Doug D'Amore said of the mine reclamation. "It was put out for bids and no bids were received. There will be an awful lot of truck traffic if it goes forward, and the decisions about the trail will focus on that."

While declining to go into detail and referring questions to the public relations office, D'Amore said the reclamation would involve removing "crop coal," and requiring closure of any deep mines contributing to the problem. The work would also require the application of a "tremendous amount" of alkaline or limestone material to offset the impact of acid mine drainage.

"Afterward, fill would be applied to cover the ground, and in the end, improve the water quality at Kettle Creek and eventually in the West Branch of the Susquehanna," the forester said.

D'Amore said some ATV trail users have been aware of the situation for at least a year, because the local district office has fielded telephone calls for that period, but no formal press release has been created because "nothing is concrete."

Whiskey Springs is open during the summer and winter seasons. It usually closes during the fall and spring hunting seasons to prevent injuries and fatalities associated with hunting. Whiskey Springs permits ATVs that do not exceed 58 inches in width and 1,200 lbs.

Butch Knauff, a Renovo area resident, ATV enthusiast and local elected school board member, has written to state officials to express his concern.

"With the planned closing, these thousands of ATV enthusiasts will be denied the ability to enjoy this wonderful area," Knauff said. "Not only will they not be able to ride their ATVs in this beautiful area, they will not be coming and staying in the Renovo area. The ATV riders consistently fill the hotels and motels in the Renovo area while here riding. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the local restaurants, gas stations and hotels. With this proposed closing, the economic impact could prove catastrophic to these small businesses.

"I realize that the strip mine reclamation project is a vital necessity that will have a long term impact on the Kettle Creek and Susquehanna River watersheds. I also realize that the primary reason for closing the Whiskey Springs ATV area is for the safety of both ATV riders and the individuals working on the reclamation project."

Knauff favored a "staged" approach to the reclamation project with sections of the trail remaining open to enthusiasts.

The Clinton County commissioners, in the meantime, said they heard about the project but have received nothing official from DEP or DCNR. They said they expected to tour the region sometime this week to familiarize themselves with the reclamation, and State Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven, has been contacted by area residents with concerns about the closing.

Some ATV riders book rooms at area motels and bed and breakfasts to stay in the area while riding the trail, making any notification of the reclamation and trail closing that much more important.

The project will almost certainly increase truck traffic on the forestry roads, like Two Mile Run Road, Middle Branch Road and Boyer Road, creating a hazard for ATV riders, state officials believe.

On Monday, Commissioner Pete Smeltz said this might be "a case of 'temporary inconvenience for permanent improvement,'" although he also found the lack of information troubling.

Commissioner Jeff Snyder said given the situation, he would try to establish some new lines of communication between the county government and DEP to insure information on issues of public interest are made available to the public in a timely manner.

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