Forest Service sets Robert's Gap plans
But some groups still have concerns
by Ashton Eley
The National Forest Service plans to move forward with a wide variety of proposed activities at Robert's Gap, though some environmental groups remain concerned about the possibility of negative ecological effects.
The Robert's Gap Project spans 39,697 acres in the northwest corner of the Big Piney Ranger District in Newton and Madison counties, including the headwaters of the Kings, White and Buffalo rivers. It has been three years in the making and includes commercial timber harvesting, prescribed burning, wildlife activities and mountain bike trail improvements and additions.
The goals of the project are to increase species diversity on the land and to protect adjacent private property, said Tim Jones, Big Piney District ranger.
"Overall, the Forest Service long-term goal is the productivity and health and diversity across this landscape. This plan implements that," he said.
The Ozark Society, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance and National Parks Conservation Association have each written objections to most aspects of the project, raising concerns about protecting water quality and native species, including the endangered bat populations.
"Our biggest concern is with the cumulative effects of this pretty large project. This is at the headwaters of two of Arkansas' most important recreational streams -- the Kings River and the Buffalo River -- and adjacent to the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area," said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, which submitted its latest objection letter May 20.
The first public notice of the project came in January 2018. Since then, the Forest Service has held two public meetings, notified neighboring landowners, met with local officials and consulted other state and federal agencies as well as advocacy organizations.
"The initial proposal was based on the best science available," Jones said. "The public involvement led to the development of a different alternative that the public has helped shape and has been a big help."
Changes to the initial proposal included cutting down on herbicides from 18.2% to 7.7% of the area and shifting to more spot and manual treatment methods. The herbicides are used to control invasive or encroaching plant species.
"We would really rather them eliminate the use of herbicides altogether because of risks involved in a primary contact waterway that's used by millions of people," Watkins said.
More than 10,000 acres of prescribed burns were proposed to help reduce overcrowded vegetation that can lead to wildfires and also limit diversity of the forest floor, Jones said. However, Ozark Society President David Peterson said it can be irritating to those in the area and may not do as much good for the forest as some think.
The watershed alliance voiced concerns in its letter about how the proposals could affect bat populations as well as their food sources in the area. The Forest Service plans to take precautions in known maternity roost sites and to avoid burning during pup season.
Erosion in these steep areas into the waterways has been a point both for and against parts of the project. According to the Forest Service's assessment, roads and trails and the adjacent areas proposed for reconstruction, maintenance, closure and decommissioning would continue to deteriorate if nothing were done.
New, temporary roads would be created for the proposed timber harvesting. These proposed 38 miles of road, along with 20 miles of burn-control lines, could lead to more erosion, Watkins said.
"Any logging road you build creates erosion problems. We asked them to limit the amount of road work," Peterson said. "[Overall] it isn't ideal from our point of view, but it isn't too bad."
The alliance would like the Forest Service to complete an updated environmental impact statement, which would be more extensive than the assessment published in March, Watkins said.
Recreational interest in the area is high, Jones said. About 40,000 people hike the trails each year, according to pre-pandemic Forest Service estimates.
"With covid, we've seen an uptick in visitation to national forests all across the country," he said.
Residents have complained about some visitors parking on their private properties, Jones said. The Forest Service plans to add about 50 parking spaces at Hawksbill Crag along the west side of Cave Mountain Road by widening the road up to 30 feet.
It also plans to modify some trails based on use and maintenance resources.
The area also attracts mountain bikers from around the U.S. who are looking for the backcountry experience offered by the 35-mile Buffalo Headwaters Mountain Bike Trail. During the last weekend in January, 300-400 riders visited for the Headwaters Challenge -- three days of rides and camping hosted by the Ozark Off Road Cyclists.
The Robert's Gap Project includes construction of nearly 14 miles of mountain bike trail, the majority of which would be easy to moderate in difficulty level. It would also remove more than 8 miles of trail that is currently on county and Forest Service system roads.
This is a decrease from the original proposal of 24 miles of new trails because of public input, according to the Forest Service.
"It's very steep and subject to erosion. The bike trails they have now seem pretty well-designed, but if you put more and more bike trails, then it will become something other than a natural area," Peterson said.
Although compromises were made, the current plan will still lead to better trail alignment and take away the risk of riding on the road, said David VanSandt, president of Ozark Off Road Cyclists.
The nonprofit will oversee the additions with grant funding and continue to maintain the system by hand, which it does with the help of volunteers.
The public commentary period on the proposal ends today. More information can be found and comments can be submitted at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=53597.
The Forest Service plans to start implementing parts of the project as early as this fall.