By Jonathan Pleasant
Each meeting of the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority (DMRA) over the past few months has inched closer to an elusive soft opening. With most of the big legal hurdles now out of the way, the board has begun to turn much of their attention to the mountain itself. One of the biggest issues of contention at last weeks meeting involved the organizational structure for the propertys already existing trail system.
Dr. Tina Delahunty, a county resident and professor from Texas Tech University, has been using her expertise in the field of GIS to map out the mountain and has consequently developed a number system to identify those trails that are already in place. Currently there are over 30 miles that the board is looking at opening as soon as possible, with many new trails expected to be built following the completion of a master plan for the project.
Many of the existing trails loop back into one another and vary greatly in length. One of the longest trails, which Delahunty designated Trail number one, runs from the Harbin Hill Visitors Center all the way to the other side of the mountain in Neva. Dividing the mountain roughly in half, Delahuntys system designated all trails south of number one as odd numbers with those north being even. Space was left in the numbering for the addition of new trails, with those directly connected to the main trail having two digits and those branching off farther having three.
There was some debate about having trails that overlapped for short distances, where both numbers would be used, such as 23/28 where trails 23 and 28 joined. Mike Farmer with the Mountain Trail Riders Association was one of the strong voices against this merged trails option, citing the confusion it could cause users. While Delahunty admitted there is no perfect numbering system, she also explained that this was the best option she could come up with considering the already extensive network of trails.
Many of the other board members agreed and when Farmer made a motion to leave all trails with single, individual numbers, the vote failed by five votes. Discussing the issue farther, there are currently only two trails that would have split numbers, and with most of the board feeling that Delahuntys system would work well as is, a second motion to adopt the system as presented passed eight to three.
One of the other concerns facing the existing trail system is the presence of an ongoing biological study from ETSU identifying different plants on the mountain. Dr. Frosty Levy, one of the researchers from the University, has identified a handful of areas needing further study and has asked the board to take care when working at these points until the study can be completed. Most of the spots identified would not impede use for the soft opening and although the board discussed each area that Dr. Levy identified, there were no major concerns about his requests.
In addition to the numbering system the board also looked at a spreadsheet that had been put together to identify appropriate uses each trail. Some trails incorporated all uses from hiking up to off highway vehicles (OHV) while others were labeled specifically, such as equestrian trails on the south side of the mountain. There were no real disagreements with these designations but there was a lengthy discussion about a proposed connection to a potential entrance off Park Service Road in Doe Valley.
There are currently some trails in this location but they are largely unconnected to the rest of the system. However, it would only take a small amount of trail building to link the two. Although Mike Farmer, who is chairman of the Roads and Trail Committee, admitted that there would need to be more fieldwork done to identify where the connection would be most suitable, the board did give their full support not only to do some further research but also to begin any work necessary to get the existing trails ready for the soft opening.
Pro Bono attorney Mona Alderson has been working as the boards legal advisor for the past few months, and confirmed her belief that getting the trails ready would be the last real challenge in determining a date for the opening. Regardless, Alderson did review next months public hearing to be held at the Johnson County Health Department on July 9th. The hearing will be one of the final steps in approving the boards emergency rules, which will govern the mountain until a permanent set of rules make their way through the states lengthy approval process. In the mean time the emergency rules will suffice for the soft opening.
The board also continued discussions about sales locations for user agreements, which will serve as permits to give users access to the property. Currently permits will likely be sold at the Harbin Hill Visitors Center, the Johnson County Mayors office, Mountain City Cycle, and East Tennessee ATV in Elizabethton. Both of these two businesses had approached the board in the past about selling permits and with one located in Johnson County and the other in Carter, the arrangement would work well for the soft opening.
Each site would have to be willing to sell the permits at cost, and County Mayor Larry Potter presented information that would allow for credit card transactions. There was some concern about other businesses wanting to sell permits at their locations as well, and the board agreed that future options would be available once the mountain officially opened. However, until then the general consensus was that sales would limited to just the four locations as well as online. Mayor Lawrence Keeble made a motion to this effect, which passed unanimously.
The boards website was a point of discussion as well, with webmaster Tim Horne presenting a proposed format for the front page with individual sections for each committee. The proposal included a map of the mountain and space for videos and pictures for each committee as well. The current site is already hosting the boards monthly minutes and agendas, but there will be much more extensive news and update section on the full site when it gets up and running.
One of the most discussed sections was an online form that interested volunteers will be able to fill out which will not only create a database that the board can use but also will be able to direct volunteers to where they are most needed. Additionally, there will be a plan your trip section of the site listing directions to the mountain as well as locations of available services such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and points of interest for the surrounding area. Meeting the approval of the board, changes to the site should be up and running soon, and interested volunteers are encouraged to keep a check for potential updates.
Mona Alderson was also on hand to discuss two memorandums of understanding between the DMRA board and Johnson County as well as between the board and the Mountain Trail Riders Association. Working closely together, the agreements will define exactly what limitations exist between the organizations. Mountain Trail Riders in particular have been very busy working both on the mountain and off, especially during a recent ATV rodeo sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce at Chamber Park in Doe Valley. Raising more than $2,500, chamber member Frank Arnold informed the board that the Modern Woodmen of America had pledged a matching grant for the funds as well. This money will be kept by the Chamber and used exclusively for Doe Mountain projects. Having applied for several grants, including a $250,000 RTP grant, the DMRA board is hoping to generate some funding in their accounts as well, but in the mean time the Mountain Trail Riders have offered their recent grant from Yamaha to do work on the parking lot at the Harbin Hill Visitors center as well as getting the existing trails up to specifications for the soft opening. The Yamaha money will also cover the purchase and installation of trail signs. Vice-Chairman Richard Strange made a point to specifically thank the members of the Mountain Trail Riders for their continued support in helping not only OHV users but the project as a whole.
Secretary Gabby Lynch introduced the board to another potential revenue source, discussing the emerging field of carbon banking. Essentially the process involves actively managing and saving forest land to increase reductions in carbon pollution. Large commercial or industrial operations that have trouble meeting regulations or want to actively reduce pollution often buy carbon reserves from other sites, a process that Lynch explained has been very successful in other places including southwest Virginia.
Showing a brief presentation, the secretary asked the board for permission to look into carbon banking farther, doing some research to see if it would fit with Doe Mountain. Most of the members agreed that it could be a good idea, although it was also noted that for carbon banking to work it couldnt interfere with the overall goals of the project.
The last major point of the evening was an update on the status of Doe Mountains master plan. Requests for proposals went out recently and Lynch confirmed that ten submissions had been received from companies interested in developing the plan. Ranked through a complicated points system that is reviewed by the master planning committee, Lynch identified the top three proposals to the board. All were relatively local companies, with the farthest away being Nashville, along with Big Stone Gap Virginia and Asheville North Carolina.
With the boards approval, the next step is to conduct interviews with each of these top ranked companies to determine which might be the best fit for Doe Mountain. A motion was made by Mike Farmer to give the Master Planning Committee authority to continue this process, which was seconded and passed unanimously. Although other submissions were ranked lower, Lynch was keen to point out that there had been no acceptance or rejection letters sent out at this time.
With this lengthy meeting behind them, the DMRA board will now prepare to hold their public rules hearing in July. With this last hurdle behind them, the focus will likely continue to turn toward preparing the mountain for the first official visitors, a milestone that many have been eagerly awaiting.
By Jonathan Pleasant