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Spearhead Trails – Path Forward For Southwest Virginia, Or A Slippery Slope?

A headwater stream above Laurel Fork – a New River tributary – muddied by erosion and runoff from ATV use on Spearhead Trails’ Original Pocahontas Trail System in Tazewell County. The environmental and economic health of the trail system has been a source of controversy and bitter division in Southwest Virginia. Photo courtesy Wally Smith.
A headwater stream above Laurel Fork – a New River tributary – muddied by erosion and runoff from ATV use on Spearhead Trails’ Original Pocahontas Trail System in Tazewell County. The environmental and economic health of the trail system has been a source of controversy and bitter division in Southwest Virginia. Photo courtesy Wally Smith.



On a Tuesday in early October, a caravan of all-terrain vehicles left the tiny outpost of St. Paul in the mountains of far southwest Virginia, and headed into the woods.

Aboard rode a handful of VIPs, among them two governors, Virginia’s Ralph Northam and Maryland’s Larry Hogan. They had come to St. Paul for the annual conference of the Appalachian Regional Commission, a congressionally-funded agency tasked with bankrolling economic development in a region rich in natural resources but knocked back by years of declining coal, gas, and other extraction-industry jobs.

The conference showcased the centerpiece of a shining economic future for this isolated corner of the state: Spearhead Trails, a vast network of motorized vehicle paths stretching 600 miles across public and private land in seven Virginia counties.

Since the first Spearhead trail opened in 2013, restaurants, stores, outdoor adventure companies, hotels and cabins have sprung up around it.

In a region which has seen an average population decline of 10 percent since 2010, where half the residents live in poverty, each new business is celebrated as a harbinger of hope.

“Obviously, tourism is important,” then-governor Northam told reporters in St. Paul. “The numbers have broken records this year as people want to get out and about. This is just a great opportunity to provide greater investment in Appalachia.

But the story of Spearhead has not been all entrepreneurship and autumn afternoons with governors. Since 2013, the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority has spent millions in state, federal and private money to construct and maintain trails through forested mountains, wetlands and streams harboring a number of rare animal and plant species unique to the region. It has done so, according to memos and correspondence spanning years between Spearhead and Virginia's environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), while claiming it is exempt from both state and federal laws governing stormwater management, erosion and sediment control and land disturbance. Since 2018, these documents show, DEQ has alternatively, warned, encouraged and threatened Spearhead to get its act together.  But to little avail – the Authority has largely ignored the warnings, critics say.

The Authority asserts many of its trails follow existing mine roads and are subject to local regulations and not strict state oversight.

Meanwhile, Spearhead's trail expansions and disturbance of sensitive lands have ignited a running battle between ATV enthusiasts and environmentalists and fostered angst and division among residents struggling for a common goal – jobs for the economically battered small towns dotting the Appalachian Highlands.

The conflict has only continued to escalate.

In July, The Clinch Coalition (TCC), an environmental group in Southwest Virginia, released a report highlighting “significant damage” done to waterways by ATV traffic on Spearhead trails. Researchers cited 15 potential violations of environmental regulations observed by DEQ. They estimate roughly 100 miles of trails were built with public funds but without comprehensive regulatory oversight. 

Spearhead officials say the report is filled with old complaints that already have been addressed. They add that they inherited trails with significant environmental damage from mining and logging operations. They maintain county agencies approve and guide most development on the trails, although critics point out these counties have an economic interest in the trails’ success.

Officials from DEQ and Spearhead say their relationship has been improving. “We all view the region as the resource. The trails give us an ability to draw tourists here,” said Brad Ratliff, Spearhead’s attorney. “They come for the beauty of the region…The intent is to keep everything as pristine as we can.”

At this point, the tourism venture drawing thousands from around the state and country poses an unresolved question:  Can Spearhead Trails turn far Southwest Virginia into an outdoor recreation mecca without further blighting the very mountains and wilderness that draw its customers in the first place?


Spearhead’s trails were built by the Southwest Regional Recreational Authority, or SRRA, a hybrid private and public entity created by the Virginia General Assembly in 2008. The Authority launched with an enticing promise -- replacing the extraction industry economy of Southwest Virginia with an outdoor recreation economy that would put acres of old, abandoned surface gas well and coal mine land to sound environmental and economical use.  Its off-road vehicle paths now snake through vast reaches of both public and private lands leased by the Authority.

The blueprint for all this: West Virginia’s famously successful Hatfield-McCoy Trails. Now spanning a thousand miles through the mountains and hills of fourteen counties, Hatfield-McCoy brings an estimated $43 million to West Virginia annually. An entire economy of ATV resorts, cabins, lodges, restaurants and rental concerns has emerged there to cater to riders from all over the country.

Southwest Virginia wanted a piece of that.

Motorized trails seem tailored to the region—a wrinkled sweep of Allegheny highlands wooded in maple, oak, poplar and pine, sparsely populated and starved for income. The section of trail visited by Northam in October wends its way for 118 miles across more than 5,000 acres. Riders paying $30 for a day pass or $63 for a year’s access can travel its paths from St. Paul to the nearby mountain town of Coeburn. Both settlements, along with numerous others in the region, are classified as "ATV friendly," meaning they allow off-road vehicles—single-seat ATVs and “side-by-sides,” or utility task vehicles—on their streets. 

Under the best of circumstances, off-road vehicles do not follow the standard “leave no trace” edict of traditional outdoor adventurers. They churn up dirt, damage plants and root systems, and their considerable weight compacts the soil, leading to flooding and landslides. Their racket can interfere with wildlife food supply, reproduction, predator-prey relationships and nesting, biologists say.

This damage can be mitigated by best management practices, adherence to local, state and federal regulations and permitting requirements that come with expert guidance.  The Authority itself published the Spearhead Trails Implementation Plan in 2012, laying out the state and federal regulations to which the trails would be subject and indicating a commitment to comply with each.

But Spearhead’s commitment somehow fell by the wayside. Concerned, DEQ met with Spearhead officials for the first time in September of 2018. Two months later its regulators toured one of the trails with SRRA staff.

Throughout 2019 and 2020, DEQ explained to Spearhead’s then-executive director Shawn Lindsey and his board that certain land-disturbing activities required erosion and sediment control plans. That areas with widespread stormwater run-off required stormwater management permits. That the Authority was also supposed to build and design its trails with sediment basins and traps, perimeter dikes, silt fences and other measures to minimize erosion. But according to state memos, DEQ inspectors found many devices improperly installed, poorly maintained or missing.

On August 22, 2019, DEQ sent a memo to Lindsey and SRRA's board of directors. The four-page document was an effort to formalize the agency’s environmental oversight of the trail network.  It detailed the regulations and permitting process the Authority must follow when building and maintaining trails.   

Around the same time, the Authority was lobbying the governor’s office for an exemption from state environmental regulations, according to emails between a lobbyist for Spearhead and state officials. The effort failed.

When little changed, DEQ sent another memo to Lindsey in September 2020.  Thirteen pages long, it was illustrated with 36 photos of damage, erosion and destabilization caused by Spearhead's failure to adhere to regulations. Among the issues cited: no permits or stormwater management plans where required; inadequately stabilized slopes in trail corridors; uncontained flooding; slope erosion and sediment flowing from the trails into state waters.

Lindsey, who left his $100,000 a year Authority job last year, is now director of the Doe Mountain Recreation Area in Tennessee. He declined a request for an interview for this story.

The environmental problems are most evident on the Original Pocahontas Trail in Tazewell County. One day last fall, Wally Smith, a 37-year-old aquatic biologist who teaches at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, stood next to Laurel Fork, an excavated streambed through which Original Pocahontas runs, and couldn't believe what he saw.

All around him, water flowed. The color of milky coffee, it filled vast puddles and moved through crevices and gullies formed by wide, uneven tire tracks. The tangled roots of mountain laurel, rhododendron and wild aster lay exposed from the streambed’s bulldozed sides like a sliced jumble of wires in a storm-tossed house. Salamanders, frogs and aquatic insects, prevalent here for centuries, were nowhere to be seen.

“This is worse than I’ve ever seen it,” said Smith, who spends much of his time studying the wetlands and streams of Southwest Virginia. "It was a streambed in a forest."

The environmental damage to this exact place is visible from space. Smith used satellite images to compare it with other, undisturbed wetlands on the same trail. He found dramatic differences.

"In a healthy wetland," he said, "plants cover the wetland. The types of plants that grow in wetlands need saturated soil. But when you drive ATVs over it, the soil is compacted, and new plants can't grow. It is essentially like trying to grow plants in concrete."


How many streams and wetlands has Spearhead excavated while creating its self-described “world class destination”? Critics say it’s nearly impossible to tell. When it comes to public information and accountability, the organization’s status as a broadly-conceived state authority requires it to share less than other government agencies.  Its executive director is overseen by a board made up of representatives from the supervisors of seven southwestern Virginia counties and the City of Norton. Each one is selected by his or her own board and appointed for a three-year term.

The Authority receives funding from various federal and state agencies, but its exact budget is difficult to ascertain. The Virginia Tobacco Regional Revitalization Commission contributed $2.2 million between 2008 and 2019, and an additional $300,000 in loan forgiveness in 2020. Spearhead got $400,000 from the Shott Foundation in 2018 and also received public donations. On top of that, the General Assembly funds the Authority with regular annual payments: $850,000 in 2021 and $1.1 million this year. Current federal highway grants total $1.2 million. Finally, each of SRRA's eight board member municipalities is required to give Spearhead $25,000 a year.

Although subject to Virginia's Freedom of Information Act, Spearhead at times has been reluctant to release documents.  The Clinch Coalition requested information from Spearhead in 2019 and found themselves in a prolonged dispute.  In one request, then-director Lindsey estimated he would charge the nonprofit between $2,000 and $5,00 to produce public documents. 

Critics grew more vocal. Well before DEQ got involved, TCC began hearing from residents about flooding and other problems in and around the trails. TCC members, including Smith, began investigating these reports. One man in Wise reported that Spearhead built a trail right through the middle of his family cemetery, Smith said. Another said his living room in Pocahontas fills with dust when riders take to the trails there. And residents of Tazewell County talked about having to dig ditches around their properties to accommodate trail-related flooding.

“If you were going to write a book about how not to build a trail system," said Smith, "what we saw could illustrate it nicely.”

Hoping to work with the Authority to address its concerns, TCC met with Lindsey in the summer of 2018. Lindsey maintained -- as he would later do with DEQ -- that Spearhead's trails were exempt from state and federal environmental regulations because the majority follow existing mining, timber and outlaw roads. The trails, Lindsey told TCC, were not DEQ's “area of expertise,” according to an audio recording of the meeting.

Steve Brooks, a longtime local environmental advocate now with TCC, said the organization has long supported tourism and is "fine with” ATV trails. "We just want to keep them from harming fish and aquatic life,” Brooks said. “I would ask them to follow best practices just like loggers and anyone else whose building affects state waters.”

Kelly R. Miller, DEQ stormwater and watershed planning manager, said only three types of regulation applied to the Spearhead: sediment and erosion control, stormwater management, and rules requiring permits for crossing creeks and streams. The agency has little or no authority over existing coal-hauling and other trails, and no way of knowing which trails were newly constructed and which were not, she said.  

Many of the issues raised in the recent TCC report were “from years ago” and have been corrected, she said.

The ability of DEQ's Southwest Office to investigate the 600 miles of trails is also limited. Just two inspectors cover thirteen counties in a vast region of narrow, doglegging mountain roads. The agency owns no ATVs or other means of transportation capable of reaching the far-flung corners of the trail network.

At one point, Miller considered renting an ATV. But the price was too high, she said, the insurance issues too complicated. The agency shelved the idea.

In May 2021, DEQ and the Authority signed a Memorandum of Agreement that Miller described as "long in the making." The voluntary pact established "guidelines for cooperation" between Spearhead and the state related to the construction, upkeep and operation of the network.

Miller said the first few months after the agreement were difficult, but she felt the two sides were making progress. But after reviewing a plan Spearhead submitted as part of the Memorandum of Agreement, she wrote a letter to Rose and Spearhead engineer Nick Woods in October noting that "there seems to be a misunderstanding" on the part of the Authority because its submitted plan contained loopholes and exemptions from environmental laws and regulations.  "There are no inherent short-cuts or exemptions," wrote Miller. "Each project...must be in compliance" with all relevant state laws.

Under Spearhead’s new leadership, Miller said, “They don’t make a move any more without talking to us.”

On a recent weekday, Melissa Rose and another Spearhead employee led a tour of The Original Pocahontas trail.

Rose, a former banker, became SRRA’s executive director about a year ago. The learning curve has been steep – trading designer handbags for hiking boots and camo -- but she says Spearhead is turning a corner. It began posting more information about its leadership –names of board members, meeting schedules and minutes – on its website this spring.

Spearhead doubled its staff to about two dozen employees to increase trail maintenance.

 The rainy summer and logging operations have taken a toll on the Original Pocahontas. Several damaged sections were closed off.  An operator in a small excavator dug a fresh ditch, allowing stormwater to filter through a bale of straw before running downhill.

DEQ inspectors have accompanied Spearhead officials on ATV rides through the trail system, Rose said, and have hiked parts of The Original Pocahontas.

 “We have 600 miles of trails and a lot of catch-up to do,” said Rose, as the ATV bumped and jostled over the winding paths. “It would be great if we could snap our fingers and get this done all overnight.”

But the changes haven’t been a result of criticism from TCC, Spearhead officials insist. They believe environmentalists want to shut down the trails completely – a charge TCC vehemently denies.

Spearhead leaders say the constant criticism of their environmental record is unwarranted, but has not reached out to TCC to discuss the issues. Instead, the public conversation, and vitriol, have spread on social media.


There seems little doubt that Spearhead Trails has brought new tourists and their money to Southwest Virginia. Although no independent assessments of the trails’ economic impact have been released by the Authority, a Spearhead-commissioned study claimed in 2019 that its trails had at that point, pumped $18.8 million into the region’s economy and created 198 full-time jobs.

But some question whether Spearhead has met its early economic promises.

Visitors from around the state and region flocked to the trail system in record numbers during the height of the Covid pandemic, but hotel bookings fell off, Rose said. Permit sales have fallen this year, she said.

The Authority is expanding to reach new tourists, building hiking and equestrian trails, a shooting range and the Sportsman Complex in Dickenson County.

But residents and elected local officials have questioned whether the trails have lived up to the hype. A Pennington Gap town councilmember said at a public meeting the trails hadn’t come close to meeting initial predictions of delivering $20,000 a week in new business to the community, according to a report in the Powell Valley News.

Rose acknowledged the frustrations. “We won’t make those kinds of promises,” she said

The economic need is great. Consider Pocahontas, the first coal boomtown in Virginia and home of the first exhibition mine attraction, a National Historic site. The town's fortunes withered in 1955, when the Pocahontas Fuel Company closed up shop and left.  Pocahontas’s population, 2,410 in 1950, plummeted to 1,313 by 1960. Its commercial heart lay abandoned. Stately buildings fell into disrepair, then just fell, collapsing into piles of rubble.

In 2008, Pocahontas High School, the focus of the town’s social life, shut down. By last year, the town population had fallen to 343.  Walk around Pocahontas on a weekday and you are likely to see precisely no one.

Mayor and town manager Benjamin Gibson, born and raised in the throes of this decline, left like most everyone else. But he returned during the financial crisis of 2008, looking for low-cost housing after difficulty finding work. After two years in town, he says, he decided that “If I was going to stay here, I had to do something to help.”

And help couldn’t come soon enough.  Pocahontas owed $2 million on an old loan to fix the water system. The new Pocahontas Correctional Center, built nearby, had not drawn many new residents.

It was just about then that Tazewell County began applying for grants to finance the planning and building of what would become Spearhead's second trail, The Original Pocahontas. The county partnered with the Authority to help build, operate and maintain it. “I was pleased,” Gibson said. “Because it was development. It was promising and exciting, a new opportunity for us.”

In 2013, a year before The Original Pocahontas opened, a Florida couple arrived, looking to build cabins for the expected influx of ATV riders. They invested $750,000 in the resultant Real McCoy Cabins, plus a restaurant and a store.

One of the biggest local investments since 1958, the project became a windfall for the long-beleaguered municipality. Real estate taxes, water and sewer, trash, sales tax, cigarette taxes—all collectively known as "tourism taxes”—landed in the town's coffers.

In 2017, another economic miracle arrived in the form of a Dollar General store, the first merchant to return to the town limits. In its first year, the mayor says, the store made an estimated $1.4 million, delivering more tax revenue and promise to Pocahontas. 

Using its growth for leverage, the town won an $1.8 million grant from the state to stabilize and expand the Pocahontas Exhibition Coal Mine, an attraction featuring part of the mining tunnels that sustained Pocahontas for almost a century. A 2,200-square-foot restaurant, Ole No. 3, complete with liquor license and bar, opened late last year. 

Gibson wants this prosperity to continue, but nothing is guaranteed.

“We’ve only got one basket – tourism,” he said in his office in town hall, a converted drive-through bank building. “We went for it. It’s paid off for us.”

 But not every community has bought in, he said. “If you sit here and do nothing, it’s not going to benefit you.”


The course of environmental advocacy never did run smooth in Southwest Virginia.   The current ATV trail disputes echo the early, venomous battles between environmentalists and Big Coal.  When Big Coal started pulling up stakes, its supporters used environmentalists as handy scapegoats.

Now that outdoor recreational tourism has become the region’s new Big Coal and hope for economic revival, environmentalists who question its methods are targeted anew. But this time, substandard trails could destroy the very prosperity and longevity of this new venture – and possibly leave residents stuck with the side-effects of flooding, landsides and water pollution.

Much of the hostility of trail advocates, riders and SRRA itself has been aimed at Smith, TCC’s expert on Spearhead. He has been falsely accused of forcing the closure of trails and subjected to death threats sufficient to merit police protection. Last year, Spearhead's attorney sued him for defamation. The suit was dismissed in December.

Smith is puzzled by the vehemence. “I guess there's this attitude of, ‘How dare you bring this up when we're trying to build the economy?’" he says. "But the thing is, nobody ever seems to think we can do both—build the trails and take into account environmental concerns.”  

The battle seems likely to continue.

The Authority has continued to lobby for certain environmental exemptions.

Northam is gone now, but Spearhead Trails appears to have another champion in new Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.

During Youngkin's January 15 inaugural parade, Spearhead and related local tourism groups drove a long line of clean and shiny off-road vehicles past the new chief executive and members of the legislature. 

Interspersed by two sets of marchers with signs, the drivers waved to the cheering crowd as the parade announcer spoke of "Virginia's breathtakingly beautiful mountains."

Christopher Tyree is a Virginia native and the senior director and co-founder of the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism. For more than 30 years, his cameras and pen have carried him to report on stories on nearly every continent. His award-winning projects have helped shape policy and spur awareness of important issues. His work has been published in hundreds of the world’s leading periodicals and broadcast networks including the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and Deutsche Welle. He earned a graduate degree in visual communication from Ohio University and BS in journalism from James Madison University. Chris, his wife, Melanie, son, Jack, and their pups Milo and JoJo Pickles enjoy hiking the many trails along the Blue Ridge Mountains.