Driving I-beams in Cashes Valley. Photo provided by District Leader David Govus
Cashes Valley and illegal ATV use
Cashes Valley lies at the head of Fightingtown Creek northwest of Ellijay. The upper part of the valley is in Gilmer County while the lower part is in Fannin County. The valley can only be reached by an old public road that fords Fightingtown Creek four times. The road was built by the early settlers of the valley, and is neither claimed nor maintained by Fannin County, Gilmer County or the Forest Service. During winter or periods of high water, the deteriorating road becomes virtually impassible. Local law enforcement is nearly non-existent in this area.
Parts of the Cashes Valley watershed comprise the eastern end of the 12,000-acre Mountaintown Inventoried Roadless Area, the largest Roadless Area in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Formally identified Roadless Areas are afforded special protection and are eligible for Wilderness protection. The Mountaintown Roadless Area was in fact proposed for Wilderness protection in all the draft versions of the current Forest Plan, only to be dropped at the last moment after the 2000 elections.
At one time Cashes Valley contained the village of Ai, a school, several churches and several hundred residents; two remaining cemeteries remind us of its history. Electrical service never reached Cashes Valley, and the last resident of Cashes Valley, Boyd Johnson, died in the early 1990s. The Forest Service by this time owned 90% of the land in the valley, while some of the remaining land is owned by descendants of the original settlers. The wildest section of the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia curls around the top of Cashes Valley for over a dozen miles.
With the rise of All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) in the late 1980s, Cashes Valley became a playground for illegal off-road activity. ATV trails emanated in all directions from the public road. The Benton MacKaye Trail came to resemble an off-road vehicle course rather than a foot travel only trail. Many of the structures in Cashes Valley were looted and burned to the ground including the beautiful 100-year-old Church of Christ.
Beginning in 2000, Georgia ForestWatch initiated a campaign to end illegal ATV activity in the valley and to protect the integrity of the Mountaintown Roadless Area. At the urging of Georgia ForestWatch, the Forest Service made several attempts to block illegal trails. These efforts were not robust enough and failed. A major problem was that ATVs were allowed to ride the public road in the valley with impunity, in clear violation of Georgia law. As a former Forest Service Law Enforcement Official (LEO), Jim Wilson noted, “how can we keep them out of the woods if we can’t keep them off the roads?”
In 2006, Georgia ForestWatch petitioned then Forest Supervisor George Bain to allow Forest Service LEOs to enforce the law and to prohibit ATV travel on public roads crossing Forest Service land. Unleashing the LEOs in Cashes Valley made a huge difference. Georgia ForestWatch surveyed the remaining illegal ATV trails, and joint Georgia ForestWatch-Forest Service work projects in 2008 and 2013 created robust blocks of the remaining illegal ATV trails. A more detailed account of this history can be found in the summer 2013 edition of ForestNews (http://www.gafw.org/newsletters/2013summer_newsletter.pdf).
Mud bogging update
This past year Georgia ForestWatch turned its attention to another long-term problem in Cashes Valley … mud bogging. The road into Cashes Valley fords Fightingtown Creek twice in a short span. A large, flat riparian zone containing a beautiful, rich bottomland forest with native wildflowers occurs south of the road in an area known to locals as the Double Ford. Over the years, Double Ford has been subjected to repeated mud bogging activity. Individuals driving four-wheel drive vehicles off the road to spin their wheels have destroyed this riparian zone, simply to experience a perverse thrill. At times, areas larger than an acre have been ripped to shreds. The Forest Service made many attempts over the years to protect this riparian area from vehicles, but berms and fallen trees were ineffective. Vandals sawed up the fallen trees, drove over berms and pulled down barricades.
This fall, former Georgia ForestWatch Board member and longtime volunteer Dan Bowden came up with the idea of driving steel I-beams along the edge of the road in order to create a barricade to stop this senseless destruction. Dan purchased 50 surplus 5-foot I-beams, hauled the heavy load to Double Ford, and coordinated with the Forest Service to drive these I-beams into the ground. Conasauga District Ranger Jeff Gardner and his assistant Rex Rymer showed up with a small excavator, and after a long day with help from Dan and another Georgia ForestWatch volunteer, drove the I-beams into the ground.
Thanks to Jeff, Rex and Dan, another step forward has been made in the 20-year-struggle to rid Cashes Valley and the Mountaintown Roadless Area of off-road vehicle abuse. However, the deteriorating public road faces another threat. Large Jeep convoys out of Atlanta and elsewhere schedule trips to Cashes Valley seeking opportunities to test their vehicles during bad weather, and their rough tread tires have the ability to destroy even a good road. This activity is not confined to the Cashes Valley road but is happening on Forest Service roads all across north Georgia. Many of these roads weren’t designed to withstand this type of high-volume, concentrated activity during wet weather. These large convoys are highly damaging, improper and selfish, but legal. These forest service roads provide a place for convoy enthusiasts to play with their expensive toys, but this happens at an environmental cost and places even more pressure on the Forest Service’s limited road maintenance funds.