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Trails are just good for communities

Members of Nantahala Area SORBA riding at the Fire Mountain Trails in Cherokee. Members of Nantahala Area SORBA riding at the Fire Mountain Trails in Cherokee.

Trails are good and we could have more here.

— The board of the Nantahala Area Southern Off-Road Bicycling Association

Our primary thesis is this: trails are good for communities and their economies, and if the political will existed, we could have more in Western North Carolina. We have public lands owned by local town and county governments, amazing terrain, and the potential funding opportunities exist. As a chapter of a regional mountain biking advocacy organization (the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA)), we hear about the amazing things trails have done for towns across the Southeast. We realize this is not common knowledge, nor is there any reason for it to be common knowledge, so we wanted to talk about some of the things we hear about in our advocacy world in a more public forum.

Quality of life impacts

Discussions about building new trails often center upon the economic impacts of tourism. While that’s important, we do not want to lose sight of the positive impacts trails have on us, the people who live here. 

The Rails to Trails Conservancy summarizes the many benefits to communities well in several fact sheets on its website (www.railstotrails.org). They detail how studies have shown that having trail networks close to town increases overall health and wellness in communities because it removes barriers to exercise, like travel time, and offers a pleasant place to go be active. Additionally, they discuss how having a trail or trail network close to town can foster a sense of community, as local trail users develop a sense of pride for their local trails. 

You can see this happening in Cullowhee and Cherokee already since the recent construction of trail networks in those communities (www.smokymountainnews.com/outdoors/item/24706-backyard-trails-local-mountain-bike-trails-surge-in-popularity). Finally, many of us end up traveling long distances and spending money in other towns in order to go for a ride, hike or run. Local trails cut down on the need to travel and keep our money in our towns.

Economic Impacts

The economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry has only recently been quantified. The recent Outdoor Industry Association Outdoor Economy Report quantified the size of the economic impact of the outdoor industry in the U.S. and concluded it has a larger impact than oil and gas, the auto industry, and pharmaceuticals. In the “Economic Impact of Mountain Biking in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests” by the Outdoor Alliance, they found mountain biking visitors alone spend about $30.2 million per year in our region. 

Towns across the U.S. have seen the positive economic impacts of trail development. For instance, multiple articles about the Cuyuna area of Minnesota, Fruita, Colorado, and Bentonville, Arkansas, have explored how initial investment in trails was greeted with skepticism but then gradually accepted and viewed as a positive for these communities. (www.marketplace.org/2016/10/13/world/minnesota-spent-iron-ore-land-transformed-mountain-biking-heaven)

The director of the Tourism Development Authority for Jackson County, Nick Breedlove, recently published an editorial in The Smoky Mountain News about how tourism is now our top industry (www.smokymountainnews.com/archives/item/24712). We think the creation of multi-use trail systems would continue to advance and diversify this industry. People are increasingly coming to WNC not just for our gorgeous views, but also to recreate on trails. We would contest that if we want to keep them here overnight to spend money on our restaurants and lodging, we need more trail resources. 

Environmental Impacts

Like every single thing we do, trails have an environmental impact. The key is to find what level of impact is acceptable for the identified benefits. Trails are of particular concern because soil flushing into streams is our biggest water quality issue in the mountains of WNC. Poorly built trails can do exactly that, eroding soil directly into streams. 

However, modern trail building has come a long way. Modern trails are built away from streams and are never allowed to have long, straight, steep sections, which cause erosion. Furthermore, when trails must cross streams, we have several methods to be sure there is little impact, such as bridges, paving with large rocks and good design of the trail’s approach to the stream. Trails can and have been built with minimal impact to water quality, even in watersheds for reservoirs. The Carvin’s Cove natural reserve outside Roanoke, Virginia, is a good example. It has 60 miles of multi-use trails in the watershed for a reservoir that supplies the city of Roanoke.

Since multi-use trails include the use of mountain bikes, we would be remiss to not address a long-standing misconception. Mountain bikes are not any more damaging on well-designed trails than walking or running, and they are far less damaging than horses or motorized vehicles. This has been shown in many scientific studies across the world, and a summary is available on our website (nasorba.com). To convince yourself that feet can be just as damaging as wheels, one only needs to go hiking on Black Balsam or the Appalachian Trail, where they will easily find sections of trail off-limits to bikes but heavily eroded. Good trail design is ultimately what matters, and there are professional trail builders all over the southeastern U.S. that are very, very good at what they do. 

The cost factor

Most of our county and local governments are not overflowing with cash, and building trails is not cheap. The cost to build a mile of trail in our mountains is about $20-30,000. Fortunately, there are several funding options, giving local land managers the opportunity to build trails with little to no financial burden. The Recreational Trails Program (RTP) through the Department of Transportation is probably the most heavily utilized program, offering matching grants to fund trail building. Better yet, the matching dollars for these grants do not have to be in cash: the labor of land managers or volunteer groups like ours can be used as matching funds. This strategy is how WCU was able to construct their trail system without any cost to the university.

Who are we?

Nantahala Area SORBA (NAS) is a local trail organization formed in 2012. We both help maintain trails and advocate for more trails, where appropriate. Each year we spend hundreds of hours performing maintenance on trails at Tsali, WCU, and Panthertown. Last year, after Hurricane Irma came through town, we also spent two days helping clear trees at Pinnacle Park in Sylva. Our main goal is to keep trails in our area fun and safe, and to do what we can to create more trail-based recreation opportunities. 

What can you do?

Tell your local government officials that you see the promise of trail development in our region. Additionally, we would love it if you would join us at NAS. Your membership dollars help us buy food and tools for our volunteers so we can keep our trails in great shape. Even better: join our mailing list or Facebook group, find a work day, and come help us out! We always need volunteers, it takes work to constantly fight back vegetation and erosion impacts in our wet and wonderful WNC.

(This article was submitted by the board of the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycling Association, www.nasorba.com and www.facebook.com/nantahalaareasorba/)

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