August 17, 2020

Mr. Cassius Cash
Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738

Subject:  Scoping Comments, Proposed Wears Valley Bicycle Trail

Dear Superintendent Cash:

I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,800 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition), a non-profit organization composed of retired, former and current employees of the National Park Service (NPS). The Coalition studies, speaks and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System. As a group, we collectively represent over 40,000 years of experience managing and protecting America’s most precious and important natural, cultural, and historic resources.

We are writing to you to express our concerns regarding the proposed mountain biking trail system with the Foothills Parkway.In our experience, it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for the NPS to develop a new single-track “mountain bike trail system” and associated facilities on park lands. As described in the project’s Scoping Newsletter, the new trail system would be developed within Section 8D of the Foothills Parkway, an area administered by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We have a number of concerns that we believe NPS must address as project planning moves forward; and offer the following scoping comments on this proposal.

  • An Environmental Assessment (EA) is not adequate for this proposal

The Coalition is extremely concerned about the precedent setting nature of this proposal. There are very few parks where there are any dedicated single-track mountain bike trails. We know of no other national park that has anything close to what is being proposed here – a formal network of stacked loops with dedicated parking lots, rest rooms and other facilities. Given the precedent setting nature of this proposal, and the likelihood that this will be highly controversial, we believe that the park is obligated to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), rather than an EA.

Further, we find it troubling that neither the Scoping Newsletter nor the Scoping Presentation provides an initial list of the impact topics the park will evaluate as part of the NEPA process (e.g., soils, vegetation, wetlands, wildlife, archeological sites, etc.). While we understand that identifying these issues is part of the scoping process, an initial list of the obvious topics would have been helpful and built better confidence that the park will ensure that this proposal is carefully and completely evaluated.

2)   The proposal appears incompatible with the NPS Organic Act.

As you know, the NPS Organic Act sets forth that the purposes of parks are:

To conserve the scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife; and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. 54 U.S.C.§100101.

Furthermore, courts have consistently held that the National Park’s System’s principle purpose, under the Organic Act is conservation. E.g., Michigan United Conservation Clubs vs Lujan, 949 F.2d 202, 207 (6th Cir. 1991); Bicycle Trails Council of Marin vs Babbitt, 82 F.3d 1445, 1449 (9th Cir. 1996).

The Coalition questions how a major new development (trails, parking lots, restrooms etc.) to accommodate a relatively new, non-traditional and potentially controversial recreational activity can be determined to be consistent with the NPS Organic Act.

3)  The proposal appears incompatible with the enabling legislation for the Foothills Parkway.

The enabling legislation for the Foothills Parkway (P.L. 78-232) calls for the “construction of a scenic parkway to provide an appropriate view of the Park, from the Tennessee side of the park, and for other purposes.” While the phrase “and for other purposes” does appear in the enabling legislation, it should not be assumed by NPS that it includes adding a new, controversial recreational facility that poses obvious threats to park resources.

4)  The proposal appears inconsistent with previous planning documents.

The idea of a mountain bike trail system within the Foothills Parkway is not included in any existing planning documents we can find regarding the Foothills Parkway. For example, the Foothills Parkway Master Plan (1968) makes no mention of this type of recreational activity or a facility of this type.

The 2002 Foothills Parkway Analysis Report, which addressed sections 8B, 8C, and 8D of the Parkway, concluded that “completing the parkway would best achieve the goals associated with the Congressional mandate and previous park plans, providing views of the park, an enhanced visitor experience, improved connections to regional roadways and traffic reductions on roadways within and outside the park.” No mention is made of opening the parkway to other recreational activities.

The Foundation Document for the Park and the Parkway does say the park intends to “explore/evaluate allowing mountain bike trails along park roads (e.g. administrative roads sections, concession trail sections etc.)”; but this current proposal is not consistent with that language. As noted below in the discussion of an “appropriate use analysis” any new park use must be consistent with “existing plans for public use.” This proposal is not.

5)  The NEPA analysis should include an “appropriate use analysis” as required by NPS Management Policies 2006.

NPS Management Policies 2006, Section 1.5 Appropriate Use of Parks, states, in part: “When proposed park uses and the protection of park resources and values comes into conflict, the protection of resources and values must be predominant. A new form of park use may be allowed within a park only after a determination has been made in the professional judgement of the superintendent that it will not result in unacceptable impacts.”

Management Policies, Section 8.1.2 Process for Determining Appropriate Use, states, in part: “All proposals for park uses will be evaluated for consistency with applicable laws, executive orders, regulations and policies; consistency with existing plans for public use and resource management; actual and potential effects on park resources and values; total costs to the Service and whether the public interest will be served.” As stated previously, this proposal is not “consistent with existing plans for public use and resource management.”

6)  The Purpose and Need Statements in the Scoping Newsletter are clearly pre-decisional.

The Scoping Newsletter states that the purpose of the proposed project is to “enhance the visitor experience by providing a mountain bike trail system within the transportation corridor of the Foothills Parkway.” However, the only enhanced visitor experience being evaluated is construction of a mountain bike trail system.

If the park is interested in evaluating enhanced recreational opportunities within the Foothills Parkway, NEPA requires the park to look at a full range of reasonable alternatives, which in this case could include hiking, horseback riding, biking and other activities. The fact that the park is focused only on the establishment of a single-track “stacked loop” mountain bike trail system, albeit with some opportunity for hiking and birdwatching incorporated into the trail system,  is clearly pre-decisional.

In addition, the Needs Statement states that the park has initiated this proposal in response to a process initiated by the Conservation Fund, which “engaged NPS and community stakeholders to identify specific recreational opportunities that would not conflict with future completion of the Foothills Parkway as envisioned by Congress. This process identified mountain biking as a potentially compatible opportunity with strong public support interest in establishing a network of trails specifically designed for mountain bike use.”

The Coalition is concerned that the “process” described in the Scoping Newsletter, which led to this proposal, was not open to the public at large and may have violated the Federal Advisory Commission Act (FACA). As described on the General Services Administration (GSA) FACA website*: “Any advisory group, with limited exceptions, that is established or utilized by a federal agency and that has at least one member who is not a federal employee, must comply with the FACA.”(emphasis added) Obviously, this process did not comply with that direction. *See https://www.gsa.gov/policy-regulations/policy/federal-advisory-committee-management/advice-and-guidance/the-federal-advisory-committee-act-faca-brochure.

While we appreciate the strong community interest in this project, the Foothills Parkway is a national resource. The process of identifying potential new recreational opportunities appropriate for the Foothills Parkway should have been an open planning process that was held before a specific proposal such as this was developed and advanced.

We further note that while the proposal states that this development would be “within the transportation corridor” of the Foothills Parkway, an examination of the maps of the three current alternatives would suggest that the proposed trail system spreads significantly outside the identified corridor for the Parkway itself. NPS must correct this misleading statement in future descriptions of the project.

7)  NEPA regulations require evaluation of a “No Action” Alternative.

The Scoping Newsletter makes no mention of the legal requirement for the park to evaluate a “No Action” alternative. This further contributes to the perception that the park has already made a decision to build this mountain bike trail system and associated facilities.

8)  The proposal seems ill advised given realities in the park.

The October 2016 Foundation Document for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including the Foothills Parkway, identifies four “Key Issues” facing the park; Congestion and Crowding, Threats to Forest Health, Infrastructure Stability and Fiscal Sustainability. The Coalition believes this proposal has the potential to impact all of these areas in a negative way.

The addition of a mountain bike trail system, which could attract thousands of new visitors per year, will only add to congestion and crowding in the park and the surrounding area. Having hundreds, if not thousands of mountain bikers traversing through what is currently undeveloped forest, will contribute to the further spread of invasive species, negatively impacting forest health.

With crumbling infrastructure, why would the park propose building new facilities, well beyond what was ever envisioned for the Foothills Parkway? With staffing levels and budgets strained, why would the park add additional workload (routine maintenance, enforcement, emergency medical services and rescue) to park personnel and budgets?

This proposal also must be evaluated in light of specific statements contained within the Foundation Document, which describe the current situation in the park. These include:

  • “[M]any of the facilities are aging, having considerable deferred maintenance”
  • “Roads, trails and campsites are generally in good condition, but are in continual need of maintenance”
  • “Visitation is generally increasing, resulting in additional pressure on facilities, roads and resources”
  • “Graffiti on tunnels, walls and boulders is increasing at an alarming rate”
  • “Congestion occurs throughout the park during spring, summer and fall affecting commercial services, campgrounds, parking areas, traffic etc.”
  • “Resource degradation is visible along road shoulders and parking areas, especially in popular visitor destinations”

In light of these conditions, we encourage the park to use the funding that will become available to you through the Great American Outdoors Act to fix your current infrastructure and address your current problems, rather than build any new facilities in the park.

9)  Allowing this new use in the park will require the promulgation of a special regulation in addition to completion of required NEPA compliance.

Management Policies 2006, Section 9.2.2.4 Bicycle Trails, states, in part, “[A] superintendent can designate a bicycle route, outside a developed area, by promulgating a special regulation.” The promulgation of this special regulation must meet the requirements as outlined in 36 CFR§4.30.

36 CFR§ 4.30 (e)(2) applies specifically “to new trails that do not exist on the ground and therefore would require trail construction activities…outside of a developed area.” Before authorizing and constructing such a trail, the superintendent must:

  • complete the requirements in paragraphs (d)(1), (2), and (3) of 4.30. This includes completing a written determination stating that the addition of bicycle use on the new trail is consistent with the protection of the park area’s natural, scenic and aesthetic values, safety considerations and management objectives, and will not disturb wildlife or park resources;
  • obtain the Regional Director’s written approval of the determination; and
  • promulgate a special regulation authorizing the bicycle use.

Given all of the concerns we have raised about this proposal, we believe that reaching the written determination described above will be difficult for NPS to justify or sustain. In addition, we find it troubling that the Scoping Newsletter makes no mention of the rulemaking requirement before this activity may proceed.

We appreciate the opportunity to comment on this important project.

Sincerely,

Phil Francis Signature

 

 

 

Philip A. Frances, Jr., Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

cc:        Stan Austin, South Atlantic-Gulf Regional Director, National Park Service