Off-road enthusiasts are questioning a TWRA decision to limit land use on a 1,200-acre parcel of land on Aetna Mountain, and they say they believe a proposed land swap is behind the new policy.
But a developer denies that notion, and an official with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says the issue is broader than that, involving both wildlife land management and water pollution from erosion.
Christie Perkins is an active member of the We Rock Off-road Club and owns land next to TWRA's Cummings Cove Wildlife Management Area.
She said club members have been off-roading on the state-owned site there for years, even decades. But suddenly the developer and TWRA have posted signs closing the area to motorized traffic.
"Black Creek Farms wants TWRA property to move up the mountain some so they will have a corner of what now is TWRA property because it has a ridge on it, and that is the only access they have to their other property on the other side of the mountain," Perkins said. "They have to have that ridge to continue to build houses, maybe 700 more houses."
Developer and road builder Doug Stein said the issue is about pollution and trespassing.
"They [four-wheelers] are on everybody's property, and about a year ago, it caused a large release of silt and a mudslide on Highway 41," he said. "We have talked to TWRA about a land swap, but they are not related."
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said the mudslide occurred on Feb. 28 - the day Chattanooga had 3 inches of rain and tornadoes. She said the state department of transportation called TDEC out to investigate the source of the mudslide.
"We tracked it [the mud] to the top of the mountain to an area under the TVA power lines," Lockhart said.
The off-road vehicle riders have made a track along the TVA transmission-line easement.
Kirk Miles, a TWRA program manager, said the agency obtained the 1,200 acres with the help of federal Forest Legacy Program funds in 2003 and turned it into a wildlife management area in 2006. There are no designated roads so vehicles can't use it, he said.
Miles said TWRA has been approached by Black Creek developers about a land swap.
"It's definitely not a done deal. ... It may very well be that because it is Forest Legacy [purchased] property, that that can't happen at all," Miles said.
"The only reason we would consider that would be if it improved access to the wildlife management area for the general public. The goal is to have multiple user groups," he said.
The Tennessee River Gorge Trust also owns land there that the off-roaders have used.
Trust Executive Director Jim Brown said this is a classic example of changing times. Aetna Mountain once was timber and coal land, he said. The public largely had free access to it, and they still want that.
"So now we're getting conflict between new owners and old users. This is an inevitable thing that happens," Brown said, adding that the siltation problems on the mountain and in the river are caused by many things, not just off-roaders.
"The ORV people are good people. They like to have fun. And now we're going to have to redefine how that's going to be carried out. TWRA is a long-term resource manager. They'll figure it out," Brown said.
"And then the adjacent landowners - we're one - will have to get with the community ... and figure out some kind of compromise," he said.
Contact staff writer Pam Sohn at psohn@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6346.