More than 40 miles of new trails are coming to Pisgah National Forest around Old Fort, with the first 6 miles of fully accessible paths opening as soon as this summer.
These will be the first purpose-built trails in the more than 500,0000-acre, heavily trafficked national forest in Western North Carolina, but what really makes them special is how the Old Fort Trails Project was born out of community planning, with ideas coming from the users to the Forest Service, instead of vice versa, according to project partners.
Lisa Jennings, recreation and trails program manager for the U.S. Forest Service in the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, called it "the culmination of years of work, and really years of collaboration."
Jennings, along with other project leaders including Lavita Logan of People On the Move for Old Fort, Jason McDougald of Camp Grier and Stephanie Swepson-Twitty, president and CEO of Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., announced the new trails Nov. 16 via Zoom.
"This project is not your typical trail project," Jennings said. "This is a community driven project where the Forest Service has worked with the community in a way that really brings everybody along and is responsive to how the community wants to use their public lands and we're just glad to support that effort."
That decision green-lights the 42-mile trail project, beginning with 6 miles of trail that will be completed by August, and what will eventually give hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians much more recreational access to Pisgah National Forest between Old Fort and the Blue Ridge Parkway in McDowell County.
"The most significant milestone in the many things we've done, certainly is the model that the collaborative has put together," Swepson-Twitty said, calling it "a unique model where things are being driven from the community out, rather than from the top down."
It's been a non-traditional path, McDougald said, but it's been Old Fort's path.
"It's such a relief to get here," he said. "This has been, really, all the way back to the beginning, a three-year journey that just started to bring Heartbreak Ridge down into Old Fort."
Building trails and community
The project started with McDougald's idea, but when it was brought to other community members with the West Marion Community Forum, it changed into something bigger: an effort to build the Old Fort community and economy.
For a long time, there just wasn't much energy around trails in the area, Jennings said, to the point where the Forest Service had to work to get volunteer support until she met with McDougald in 2018 about that idea.
Jennings said, "OK that's great, but let's take care of what we have," which she says McDougald ran with, creating the G5 Collective, a volunteer trail work and advocacy group that built and built for about a year, until they really started looking at maps, dreaming big and seeing what could be done.
When McDougald was invited to the Old Fort Community Forum, Jennings said it "really started to change the project in a way that made it special and unique and groundbreaking to what it is today."
Logan, of People on the Move for Old Fort, a community collaborative led by the Black community working to address town challenges with grassroots and institutional partnerships, met with Jason at the West Marion Community Forum, where they first talked about the project.
The group then formed the project slogan, "trails for all," Jennings said, meaning not only a variety of users, but a diverse group of people of all backgrounds and abilities, and a group both new and experienced to the outdoors that could help revitalize the town.
Part of that is a mix of easy, intermediate and more difficult trails that offer everything from very short, accessible trails to long backpacking trips, she said.
"Anybody who desires to be on the trail the trail, (the project) will offer something for them: a novice who wants to go walking in the woods to a serious enthusiast," Swepson-Twitty said.
Logan said she's seen Old Fort stagnate from the town of her youth when it had everything it needed, such as clothing and furniture stores. Back then kids played outside, an opportunity she wants to give back to the community of Old Fort.
Both she and Swepson-Twitty spoke of the potential economic boon the trail system could bring the town, as did U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, who both recorded statements for the Nov. 16 announcement, praising the team's work and congratulating them on the rare approval.
Swepson-Twitty's Eagle Market Streets Development Corp. stepped up as the fiscal sponsor for People on the Move Old Fort and works to develop people, property and businesses for economic and social justice.
It's the only business of color that owns its own property on Main Street, she said, saying it's "her greatest desire" to see at least three more on Main Street in the next two to three years.
"I hope it brings a lot of revenue into the town," Logan said. "People on the Move is trying to work on getting Black entrepreneurs to have businesses here in Old Fort."
She said on visits to places like Hillman Beer, she's amazed by how many folks are visiting from out of town and wants the town to grow but keep its hometown feel.
They're partnering with Pisgah National Forest's Grandfather Ranger District, Camp Grier's trail maintenance and advocacy group G5 Trail Collective and a coalition of other groups from Texas Tech and UNC Chapel Hill to the Dogwood Health Trust and Kitsbow Cycling Apparel.
'A little bit for everybody'
"It's a trail system that's built to introduce new people to the outdoors and allow them to grow in their skills, all in Old Fort," Jennings said.
The Grandfather Ranger District made its final proposal for the trails in February, of "approximately 42 miles of new sustainably constructed trails ... to improve community connectivity, reduce barriers to access, and support environmental and social sustainability."
Maps show new trails between Interstate 40 and the Blue Ridge Parkway near Old Fort, stretching from around Glass Rock Knob in the north, down to the Old Fort Picnic area and creating a loop of the current Catawba Falls Trail by circling to the south along Allison Ridge.
Other trails are planned around Camp Grier, which opens its trails to the public between Labor Day and Memorial Day.
Of the 24 new trails planned, the longest is 5.7 miles and nine are less than 1 mile. Four are hiking-only, 12 allow hiking and mountain biking and eight allow horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking.
"When you look at the whole picture from the trail perspective, you see a little bit for everybody," Jennings said.
Initial funding for the project, included more than $200,000 from People on the Move for Old Fort, the International Mountain Biking Association, Kitsbow and private residents, according to an announcement.
To build the first miles of trail, Dogwood Health Trust awarded the G5 Trail Collective $489,800, it says, to build 6 miles of trail by August 2022, with parking lot, project management, signage and outreach to a diverse group of trail users.
During the announcement, Dogwood Senior Vice President of Impact William Buster called it compelling for the organization, because "the project brought together nonprofits, businesses, community-minded individuals, philanthropy and government."
Total, McDougald said the 42 miles of trail are set to cost around $3 million, meaning there's still $2.5 million to raise to complete the project, but "the first piece is always the hardest."
But because the trails are being constructed on public land, they're much less expensive than a new greenway or linear trail system, about $50,000-$60,000 per mile rather than $1 million a mile.
Ground is set to break on the first phase in January.
McDougald said the goal is to always have someone working on the trails, construction between 6-10 miles of trail each year for the next five to 10 years.
The trails will be built sustainably, he said, with good grades, grade reversals to shed water off ridges and more.
Today, McDougald said most of the trails in Pisgah National Forest are leftover logging roads or trails from the Civilian Conservation Corps work of the 1920s and 1930s.
"This whole trail system will be built for the purpose of recreation," Jennings said.
That's a huge deal, she said, for the national forest that gets the most recreation visitation.
The Pisgah, along with its bordering, more than half-million-acre Nantahala National Forest, draw some 5 million visitor a year, according to Forest Service surveys, making them among the busiest national forests in the country.
Derek Lacey covers health care, growth and development for the Asheville Citizen Times. Reach him at DLacey@gannett.com or 828-417-4842 and find him on Twitter @DerekAVL.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: 40 miles of new trails coming to Pisgah National Forest next summer