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Asheville-area forest trails need support

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12/13/2011 - Asheville-area forest trails need support
by Karen Chavez - Asheville Citizen Times

 ASHEVILLE -- Do you love your local Forest Service trails? Apparently there are some 5 million visitors who do.

 With an ever-increasing fan base using the 1,600 miles of trails on the four national forests across North Carolina, but no more federal dollars to maintain them, the Forest Service is launching an initiative to bring together trail users to develop a long-term trail management plan.

The agency also wants to recruit more volunteers.

The initiative, known as the Non-Motorized Trails Strategy, will get under way with a series of public workshops starting in January.

"We've had a backlog of maintenance needs and an increase in recreation," said Alice Cohen, trails strategy facilitator with the Forest Service.

"We need to collaborate more, get more volunteers to help with trail maintenance and make sure the natural resource is protected in the process."

The National Forests in North Carolina manages four national forests -- the Nantahala, Pisgah, Uwharrie and Croatan. The four forests comprise 1.25 million acres of public lands, making them some of the most visited forests in the country.

Most of that land lies in the Pisgah and Nantahala forests in Western North Carolina, together making up about 1 million acres and the majority of trail miles, Cohen said.

But Forest Service staffing -- one recreation manager and one part-time recreation coordinator for each of the seven districts statewide -- is not keeping pace with the amount of land to be maintained. This is where the public's help is needed, Cohen said.

The Forest Service will hold public workshops for Pisgah and Nantahala trails and is asking representatives to attend from a wide range of trail-user groups, such as local communities and ecotourism, hiking and mountain biking clubs, equestrian groups, elected officials or any interested member of the public, she said.

"This is a working group," Cohen said. "We need people to roll up their sleeves, look at the conditions of the trails and increase the quality of the trail experience. It will take up to a year. It's a collaborative effort."

A 2008 Forest Service recreation user study found that the great majority of trail users are hikers, Cohen said, followed by mountain bikers, equestrians and then a variety of uses including birdwatching, fishing, hunting and rock climbing.

BJ Moretz, a member of the Blue Ridge Horsemen's Association, said the group, which helps to maintain equestrian trails across the state, will send a representative to the trail strategy workshops.

"Most of the trails we use are in pretty good shape, but some could use re-routing and some should be closed altogether because they're too steep and the water running off is eroding them," Moretz said.

"I think (the workshop strategy) is a great idea. It will get everybody on the same page and working together, forming bonds with some new people. It will also help in building trails to the same standards."

Stuart English, spokesman for the Carolina Mountain Club, the region's largest hiking club with some 1,000 members, said he also expects the group will participate.

"I like the idea that the Forest Service is going to work with us," English said. "It seems like a positive thing."

The club has between 70-80 dedicated trail maintainers who volunteer their time to maintain 130 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and 92 miles of the Appalachian Trail in WNC.

"If they are expecting more out of volunteers, then they should be working with us," he said.

The result of the Trails Strategy should be recommendations for a comprehensive trail management plan for each national forest in North Carolina, along with a stronger community of volunteers, Cohen said. The agency will use information generated for the Nantahala/Pisgah National Forests Management Plan revision slated to start in 2013.

"We're looking forward to working with our partners," Cohen said. "Our ultimate goal is to come up with recommendations for trail management into the future, and to increase out volunteer support and collaborative network."

Workshop dates

Jan. 9 (snow date Jan. 12): Morganton. Cooperative Extension building, 130 Ammons Drive, Sui te 2.
Jan. 10 (snow date Jan. 17): Andrews. Andrews Community Center, 54 Park St.
Jan. 19 (snow date Jan. 23): Mars Hill. Location to be determined.
Jan. 26 (snow date Jan. 31): Franklin. Macon County Community Facilities Building, 1288 Georgia Road.
Jan. 30 (snow date Feb.2): Brevard. Hampton Inn, 275 Forest Gate Drive, Pisgah Forest.

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