by Gene Marrano
The National Park Service has been receiving input from outdoor enthusiasts who often use “social trails” to connect to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now, many of those could be closed to avoid degradation, according to Parkway officials. They heard an earful from some who showed up at a public meeting last week at Explore Park; many were bikers or joggers who use the parkway and access it from one or more of the several dozen social trails in the Roanoke Valley.
Pete Eshelman, director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership, said he was “very encouraged” by what he heard at the meeting. He hopes something can be worked out. “We recognize that social trails are there for a reason, we all recognize [as well] that it’s hard to manage and maintain them.” One concern Eshelman learned about from Blue Ridge Parkway officials is that social trails are often used to facilitate the poaching of ginseng and other wild plants that grow along the parkway.
Eshelman said bikers who use the social trails are okay if many of them are closed – as long as other paths that do provide access to the Blue Ridge Parkway are put in place. “If you close them first [without alternatives] they’ll pop right back up,” said Eshelman. He also noted that plans to extend the Roanoke greenway system to Explore Park appear to be off the table, or at least where the greenway would wind up in the park is not clear.
“There appears to be some miscommunication,” noted Eshelman, who was hired two years ago by the Regional Partnership to help develop a coherent brand for the valley’s outdoor amenities. The mountain biking community is upset that a one year pilot program which would have allowed cycling on the Chestnut Ridge Trail off the Mill Mountain Spur is apparently not going to be put in place after all; trail crews had voluntarily spent time making improvements in order for that trial period to move forward. The trial period was outlined in a 2007 plan.
Parkway officials now claim they don’t have adequate manpower to erect signage and police mountain bikers that would use Chestnut Ridge. “They just pulled it out [of the plan],” said Eshelman. Conflicts with horseback riders (which are now allowed) were cited as one reason for dropping the pilot program; Eshelman said bikers tell him they “rarely see a horse [on Chestnut Ridge]. If you’re an equestrian rider there are better places to go.”
Eshelman said Roanoke City, which actually owns the land Chestnut Ridge is on but leases it to the Park Service, could modify the terms of the lease in order to allow the biking trial period to move forward. Eshelman said people will continue to find ways to access the Blue Ridge Parkway, even if some or all of the informal social trails are closed; he suspects the extra work generated by having more people use the parkway for recreation might be something the budget-strapped National Park Service wants to discourage. Public input will be digested and assembled into a plan that may be made available this fall.