Thursday, August 18, 2005

Historic mountain paradise or hog heaven?

Giles County officials welcome the new federal money, but critics call it congressional pork.

A 304-acre U.S. Forest Service preserve in Giles County got a long-awaited financial boost Tuesday when Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, announced that $800,000 in the new federal road bill will go toward preserving and developing the Glen Alton property.

But a taxpayer watchdog group said the money is just a small-town example of wasteful federal spending.

The preserve, which was once the hunting and summer retreat of the late Giles County businessman Clarence Lucas, was purchased by the Forest Service in 1999, but has deteriorated slightly since.

A lodge, which dates back to 1915, and many of the numerous barns on the property have been boarded up while the Forest Service made development plans and waited for funding.

On Tuesday, Boucher said the $800,000 will be used to stabilize and renovate some of the buildings and to build public bathrooms and a parking lot. The buildings will then be open to the public.

The land, which has several ponds, is now used by hikers, birdwatchers and even wedding parties.

Boucher said improvements to Glen Alton will help boost tourism and bring money into Giles County.

After the $800,000 is spent, Boucher said he is confident he can bring more federal funding to the project.

"I think this it is an absolutely terrific place," he said, adding that more funds will be required.

Future construction at Glen Alton could include cabins and an extensive system of hiking, biking and horse trails, he said.

In addition to the $800,000 for the Glen Alton project, Boucher said the road bill also included over $2.5 million for other projects in the 9th District, including $1.2 million for a tourism project at Rocky Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In 2004, Boucher included $1.6 million for Glen Alton in a federal road bill that was ultimately rejected. And taxpayer groups have been critical of the new bill.

David Williams, vice-president for policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, said although the $800,000 for Glen Alton pales in comparison to other additions to the road bill -- California received $2.3 million for landscaping the Ronald Reagan Parkway, for instance -- the local tourism project should not be paid for by federal taxpayers.

"They say this is going to help tourism, but why should federal taxpayers be paying to help tourism in Virginia or any other state? That area should pay for it," Williams said.

Boucher, who the group rates as "hostile" to taxpayers, rejected that criticism, saying he could defend any project he has brought home money for.

"I am doing what my constituents have elected me to do," he said.

Some might call it pork, but Bill Compton, a forester at the Forest Service's Blacksburg office, said Glen Alton needs money from somewhere if it's not going to fall apart.

Early Wednesday morning, Compton pointed out some of the damage that has happened since Glen Alton was purchased.

A section of the lodge that has no foundation has settled into the ground. Vandals broke several doors and nearly destroyed at least one building.

"Someone just decided they needed a piece of barn wood and that's all it takes," Compton said, pointing out a small barn with sunlight shining through bare spots where wood was missing.

Compton, who was in charge of Glen Alton for several years after it was purchased in 1999, hopes the $800,000 will pay for a caretaker to manage the property. Set to retire in September, Compton said he is proud of his work developing plans for Glen Alton together with Giles County administrators.

Since 1999, there has been an ongoing discussion about what to do with the property, Compton said. Some people want to keep it exactly as it is, he said. But that is impossible, since nature is slowly destroying the buildings. The Forest Service has already replaced the roofs on several of them, he said.

Compton is in favor of a balanced approach that meets the needs of tourists, but also preserves the pristine nature of the farm.

"I hope it is done the right way," he said. "Everything they do has to be top of the heap, top quality," he said.

If that happens, Compton said he thinks Glen Alton could top Blue Ridge Parkway tourist destinations like Mabry Mill.

Giles County Economic Director Chris McKlarney said, at one time, the county proposed including an amphitheater and a conference center at Glen Alton.

He is not sure what the property will look like after the money Boucher announced is spent, but McKlarney hopes it will make the preserve more inviting. A gravel road now ends at the gates of the property and it is hard to tell if it is open to the public or not, McKlarney said.

"It doesn't really invite you in now," he said. "That will change."

For his part, Compton is glad development is finally coming to Glen Alton.

"I'm not one to lavish praise on a congressman, or on the Forest Service, but I think he [Boucher] is doing all he can to help us," he said.

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