Anthony and Patti Emanuel of Back Country Horsemen of Northwest Georgia take the care and trail maintenance of Crockford-Pigeon Mountain very seriously as they volunteer their time to making the trails along the mountain more accessible.
The couple resides in Trenton but make the trip to Crockford-Pigeon Mountain on a regular basis.
The group averages over 2,000 man hours per year of volunteer work at Pigeon. That is the equivalency of a fulltime Georgia Department of Natural Resources employee.
They are part of the Northwest Georgia Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America.
"BCHA is a national organization dedicated to perpetuating the common-sense use and enjoyment of horses in America’s back country and to assist land management agencies in their maintenance and management of equine-related trails and facilities. BCHA has over 13,000 members and organizations in 27 states," Anthony said.
Back County Horsemen of Georgia consists of four BCH chapters that include North, Northeast, Middle, South, and Northwest Georgia.
The Northwest Chapter was formed in 2011.
"BCHNWG focuses our support using local service teams. We believe equestrians tend to use trails close to home and thus we encourage those riders to help maintain the trails they use and enjoy," Anthony said.
There are more than 60 miles of trails on Pigeon Mountain and the Emanuels Northwest Georgia chapter is the primary caretakers of those trails.
BCHNWG tries to engage the volunteer work with SORBA (Southeast Off Road Bicycle Association) and hikers from the tri-state region, which includes campers and cavers, to improve trail maintenance on Pigeon Mountain.
The group consists of 12 members (who come from Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia), who schedule monthly workdays. The group travels on horseback to the trails. They bring equipment with them, including chainsaws, bush wackers, handsaws, hand tools, to clear the trails for safe passage.
Since the tornadoes of 2011, the group mainly works to clear fallen trees from the high winds that came through the area.
"Those tornado level type winds really leveled a lot of trees on the trails, so for the past five years we have been working very hard to clear those trees," Anthony said.
"The thing too about mountain trails, and that many miles, is that we can go in and clear a trail and then find out about a month later that there’s two or three more blow downs," Patti said.
At the beginning of every year, the chapter conducts a survey of unsafe conditions along the trails for all multi-purpose users.
"A horse can step over a lot of things that a bicyclist cannot," Anthony said.
The unsafe areas are listed and when the group reunites, they establish priority as in what trail is most used and most affected (unsafe).
Anthony is also contacted by other trail users if there are any other unsafe conditions, or areas that need work.
A typical workday consists of about six hours per day of groundwork, where safety is the top priority.
"It’s tough work. You are chainsawing trees that are sometimes as much as 24 to 30 inches in diameter and you are cutting down trees that are the same dimensions. We have specialized training to minimize the risk involved," Anthony said.
The lumber from the cut-down trees is then left alongside the trails, cleared by a five to six feet of passage.
"We want the trails to be as safe as possible," he said.
Not only do they work to clear the trails, but also make design and riding improvements along the trails.
Dealing with the litter
The Back Country Horsemen see their fair share of liter along the trails and campsites.
"It is pathetic. It is disheartening. There is not a trail that we maintain that is at some point in the season not littered," he said. "We clean up as we go. We carry bags and pick the liter up.
"One thing that I have never understood, is why someone goes to the effort and get out in this remote area, gorgeous area, and then they throw down their beer bottles, or their water bottles. I don’t understand it," Patti said. "The two mentalities don’t go together."
Anthony said that Pigeon Mountain used to be a dispersed camping area, where campers could camp anywhere on the mountain, but the trash problem increased so much that the state eliminated it and only allow designated camping areas.
"People complained about it, but they had no one to blame but themselves," he said.
The Emanuels said the Georgia Outdoor Recreational Pass (GORP) license has been a positive thing to happen at Pigeon Mountain.
"GORP is the best thing that has ever happened for the Department of Natural Resources and their efforts to develop and expand outdoor recreational activities for Georgians, simply because every dollar of GORP goes to the Department of Natural Resources. It does not go to the general fund like our taxes do," Anthony said.
The DNR gets back some of the funds for the wildlife management areas through collected volunteer work hours, like those of the BCH.
"Our volunteer hours justify funding state funds to Pigeon," Anthony said.
Graffiti is a problem on the overlooks, campsites, and in some cases along the trails.
"On of the things that bothers us is in the campgrounds, the equestrian campgrounds, the destruction to the trees (carving graffiti into the trees)," Patti said.
Promoting Pigeon Mountain
The Emanuels said promoting Pigeon Mountain as an outdoor recreational escape for residents and travelers is a good thing, but accessibility has to improve.
Anthony said Pigeon is a wildlife management area in which the majority of its funding comes from hunters.
"There will always be a struggle to maintain a balance between having it wild, so that you have game up there and the hunters can come in and hunt. But you have to balance that against the recreational needs of the tri-state community and that can be accomplished. Right now, the hunters are the primary funding source for the DNR wildlife management, so you can’t ignore the need to balance the wildlife side of the mountain with accessibility to other users," he said.
The biggest challenge Pigeon faces before this can happen, Anthony said, is that the mountain needs to be more accessible with safe access.
"The number one challenge is the road conditions," he said.
"The key to retail businesses (being set up near or around Pigeon Mountain) coming there, again, gets back to how many people are going to come there for whatever activity, whether it is hunting, caving, whether it is equestrian, rock climbing, whatever. You have got to have that flow of people and to have that flow of people, they have to have safe access to those areas and that is why I keep telling everybody that I talk to that we have got to improve those roads," he said.
The need for volunteers
The Emanuels say that BCHNWG is always looking for volunteers and you don't have to be on a horse to participate.
"We need more people to come out and volunteer," Patti said. "We need people to start getting involved. If they (only) volunteer one work day a year, or one every six months, it would be huge.
"We are talking about giving up six hours on a weekend or a weekday. We schedule work days for every second Saturday in the month and then we also have impromptu workdays scheduled during the week, based on a per-need basis. We come across a trail that is real bad and we can't clear it in one day, then we will schedule a work day during the week," Anthony said.
You can find Back Country Horsemen of Georgia on Facebook. Back Country Horsemen of North West Georgia can be located at www.bchnwg.org.
To volunteer, residents can reach Anthony Emanuel by phone at 423-580-8745 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Come help us, we need you. You don't have to have a horse to volunteer and there is always something to do," Patti said.
Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at email@example.com.