Damn the trees, full speed ahead

Lawsuit seeks to knock four-wheelers off mountain

Any given weekend, weather permitting, ORV enthusiasts — that's off-road vehicles, for you Volvo owners — from across metro Atlanta and north Georgia flock to a trail that begins a couple miles northeast of Ellijay, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The trail, called the Rich Mountain Road, is a favorite because it's so damn rough. Four-wheelers, Jeeps and Land Rovers have been shredding the woods there for so long that it's less a road and more of an earthen obstacle course.

"The part we particularly like is near the opening to the trail. It's very rutted, very rough," says Herb Geozos, president of the off-road club, Southern Jeeps. "The [U.S.] Forest Service has deemed it quote, unquote unpassable. However, we regularly show them that's not true."

There's just one problem. It's highly likely that Geozos and the rest of his club should never have been allowed to drive on Rich Mountain Road in the first place.

A lawsuit filed Sept. 17 in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Gainesville Division alleges that the Forest Service has violated the Wilderness Act, the National Forest Management Act, and its own ORV rules by allowing off-road vehicles to penetrate the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

The lawsuit is the latest battle between weekend off-roaders and environmentalists, who point to a 2001 U.S. Forest Service study that concludes four-wheelers and ORVs have seriously damaged about 700 miles of the Chattahoochee National Forest. This lawsuit, however, concerns a stretch of forest just nine miles long.

Filed by the Turner Environmental Law Clinic on behalf of the conservation groups Georgia Forestwatch and Wilderness Watch, the lawsuit asks the court "to immediately close the Rich Mountain Road until adverse environmental effects are eliminated."

Until recently, off-roaders like Geozos believed it was perfectly OK to drive around in the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Gilmer County claimed ownership of the so-called road on Rich Mountain, and as is the case with many North Georgia counties, commissioners there ignored the warnings of environmentalists and allowed four-wheelers and off-roaders to chew up vast sections of the mountains.

In January, the Gilmer County Board of Commissioners relinquished its claim on Rich Mountain Road. In May, Forest Service attorneys concluded that the land did indeed fall under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, which, according to at least three federal laws, is required to maintain wilderness-like conditions for areas under its control.

"Despite the Forest Service counsel's opinion, and plaintiff's repeated requests, the Rich Mountain Road remains open," the lawsuit says. "The Forest Service has not attempted to prevent illegal ORV use on the road, or the surrounding Wilderness Area."

Geozos says he hasn't been on the Rich Mountain Road in six months, but other members of Southern Jeeps went up there in mid-September.

About 75 families pay $49 a year (plus a $25 one-time initiation fee) to be members of Southern Jeeps, one of five off-road clubs in the metro area.

Once a month the club sponsors a trail ride that draws between 15 and 30 vehicles.

Besides Rich Mountain Road, Southern Jeep's website recommends these and other ORV trails: Anderson Creek, near Amicalola State Park; Beasley Knob, outside Blairsville; and Tellico, near Murphy, N.C.

With that many tires on that many trails, it's no wonder 700 miles of the Chattahoochee National Forest are severely damaged.

Some of the torn-up banks on Rich Mountain Road are 4-feet high. For an off-roader, that's a fun climb. But for the forest, it's an open wound.

Vegetation, when present, filters and absorbs rainwater. Without it, rain erosion has eaten away at some of the trails, making them too difficult to drive except for the more experienced drivers. But novices forge new trails to bypass the tough ones.

A couple rains and a club outing later, the new trail is deep enough to be labeled expert only, and the novices carve new bypass trails, and so on and so on.

The result of that repetitive process is gashes, ditches and culverts in the forest floor that snake for miles through the Rich Mountain Wilderness Area.

Thus it's probably not surprising that even off-roading aficionados agree that their pastime has some ill effects on the forest.

"We enjoy our sport and we understand that there are impacts on the environment," says Geozos. "We're not just a bunch of rednecks in trucks. We want to minimize those impacts wherever possible."

But the lawsuit says it's too late to minimize impact, and time to stop off-roading — at least on Rich Mountain Road.

"We think [the Forest Service] has a duty to close the road, period," says Larry Sanders, the Turner Environmental Law Clinic attorney who brought the case. "But they have some discretion on how they manage their land in the long-term. For right now, that thing is a mess and until they figure out how to fix it, they need to shut it down."