Forest Service still planning to fix Trail of Tears damage

COKER CREEK, Tenn. (AP) — Damage to a Monroe County section of the Trail of Tears done five years ago by the U.S. Forest Service has never been repaired, but the agency says it will be.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports the Forest Service previously admitted building as many as 35 earthen berms and pits in the trail to discourage off-road vehicles, later calling the destruction a "terrible error." On Wednesday, a reporter visiting the site found portions of the trail overgrown and impassable.

An email to the paper from spokeswoman Stephanie Johnson said the agency is working to finalize a memorandum of agreement on the work to be done. The funding is available. She said the agency has been consulting with several American Indian tribes as well as state officials about the repairs.

Johnson also said the agency signed a formal apology for the damage in 2017. In addition, extensive archaeological work has led to the section of trail becoming eligible for a "historic places" designation.

National Trail of Tears Association Executive Director Troy Wayne Poteete defended the Forest Service in an email, saying there have been several meetings and lots of planning.

"To say they have ignored the situation would be a gross mischaracterization," Poteete said. He added the association "does support the efforts and will be supportive of whatever the tribes find agreeable."

Once the memorandum of agreement is signed, work will begin within one year, Johnson said. It will include archaeological work to ensure the protection of any discovered artifacts.

"Additionally, the Forest Service will host cultural sensitivity training for its employees, assist with trail immersion summer camps for tribal youth, and work with local heritage groups to improve education/interpretation of the tribal importance of the Trail of Tears," she said.

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Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com