Hamilton County commissioners have given their blessing for a grant application to help pay for horse trails at Enterprise South Nature Park, with one commissioner and local environmentalists urging the county to proceed with caution.
The resolution to seek a $230,000 Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation grant, which requires a 100 percent shared match from the county and city, passed 8-1 Wednesday.
If the county gets the grant, it will have the estimated $460,000 needed to build about 10 miles of equestrian trails, a parking lot, waterless restrooms and a paved road on 2,800 acres of a currently undeveloped northern tract of the Enterprise South Nature Park property that would be accessible from Highway 58.
But much of that property abuts a wetland that University of Tennessee at Chattanooga biology and ecology students use for vital research, according to Simone Madsen, a recent UTC graduate who volunteers at the wetlands.
"Usually, horse trails wouldn't be a problem. They are pretty low impact. It's just that the proposed trail they have flagged out there runs pretty close to the wetland boundaries," she said.
The risk is horses -- and riders -- could track in invasive species -- the seeds of grasses and shrubs -- that can crowd out existing native plants and destroy the wetland ecosystem. Not only that, they could track in the chytrid fungus that is found in soil and is deadly to many amphibians.
Students and biologists who study in the wetland take measures to clean their boots and tools before entering the wetland to avoid spreading such invaders, Madsen said.
The more than 40 species of frogs, salamanders, newts, snakes, turtles and lizards students have studied could be put at risk, she said.
But don't get her wrong -- biology students certainly like horses, too.
"We don't have a problem with horse trails, as long as they are far enough away from the wetland," she said. "Sometimes the [environmental engineering] standards look good on paper, but don't work in practice."
Commissioner Tim Boyd has a different issue with the horse trails, and his is purely fiscal.
In an agenda session late last month, he said most of his District 8 constituents don't own horses and shouldn't have to pay for trails. If taxpayer money was involved, he said something more economically accessible should be built.
Last week, he suggested the grant match be required to come from private funds.
"I don't hate horses. The problem with this resolution is I don't think the county taxpayers need to be matching this money," Boyd said.
Mayor Jim Coppinger said the trails could attract a new group of people interested in investing in Hamilton County -- and they've been a part of the plan at Enterprise South Nature Park from nearly the beginning.
"There are many things that attract economic development to this community," he said. "I may enjoy golf courses, and some don't. Some like art, and some don't."
If the county gets the grant, then Coppinger will return to the commission before accepting or spending any money. The Chattanooga City Council also would have to accept the grant.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.