"Some pretty drastic changes were made to address mountain biker concerns," said Costello. "Nearly one-third of the land in the original wilderness proposal was taken out. Bikers still have access to the vast majority of North Fork Mountain Trail."
The IMBA's Epic Ride designation consists of 50 miles of trail within the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, including North Fork Mountain Trail. Most of the Epic Ride terrain would remain open for cycling, Costello said.
Additional land was removed from the proposed wilderness boundary to ensure that Division of Natural Resources trout stocking in the North Fork would not be affected.
When the land was first proposed for wilderness status six years ago, U.S. Forest Service planners assigned it their highest rating for "natural integrity."
"We don't know why the wilderness designation is needed," said Coram. "The area is already protected as part of the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area."
Coram said her organization favors an approach of "cooperation and compromise" being taken in planning new wilderness areas in the Virginia section of the George Washington National Forest, which straddles the Virginia-West Virginia border.
There, a conservation-minded user group, the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, have helped put together a proposal that would close two remote trails to bikes in one potential wilderness area and remove one popular long-haul trail from another wilderness. The plan also calls for designating nearly 80,000 acres of remote land between U.S. 33 and U.S. 250 not included in new wilderness areas as the Shenandoah Mountain National Scenic Area.
Costello said Forest Service management prescriptions other than wilderness could be changed under updated management plans or through new agency policies. "I think we'll see more threats to the National Recreation Area here and in other parts of the forest, as companies push to develop natural gas," he said. "North Fork Mountain is not perfectly protected under the current management prescription."
Costello said the North Fork Mountain Wilderness proposal made an effort to "address some of the major concerns of mountain bikers. Some of them are very supportive of it. They will be able to ride two-thirds of the North Fork Mountain trail, and the land at the northern end of the mountain will be preserved forever."
Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.