By Jack Igelman
A proposed U.S. Forest Service plan released last month would transform a neglected portion of the Pisgah National Forest between Black Mountain and Old Fort into a paradise for hiker, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Over the next few weeks, the public will have an opportunity to comment on an ambitious project to develop the trails, a project spearheaded by a partnership of trail users, public land managers, and community leaders.
The project will create roughly 42 miles of new sustainably constructed trails to improve community connectivity, reduce barriers to access, and support environmental and social sustainability. The project will also include two new trailhead parking areas.
There are, to be sure, plenty of miles of trail carved into the steep escarpment wedged between the high ridges along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Old Fort. But the rugged paths of this section of the Blue Ridge are beyond the reach of most riders lacking brawny quads and bottomless lungs.
Camp Grier director Jason McDougald said the sweeping section of Pisgah National Forest that abuts his camp near the town of Old Fort is often overlooked.
“On the way down I-40 from [Black Mountain to Old Fort] there’s a sign that says you’re leaving Pisgah National Forest,” he said. “I don’t think people realize there are 70,000 acres of public forest to your left.”
Despite including a couple of the most cherished mountain bike routes near Asheville – Kitsuma and Heartbreak Ridge – the area is, said McDougal, a “no-man’s land”.
“If you jump on your bike in Old Fort you’re going to have a big day,” McDougald confirmed. Many current trails follow legacy roads that were created decades ago to extract timber with no regard for sustainability. Now, those trails are prone to erosion and costly to maintain.
McDougald realized there was enormous potential for trail development. While Boone, Brevard, and Asheville have dedicated trail maintenance groups, the trails around Old Fort were in a maintenance shadow. Since the Forest Service relies on partnerships with private groups to maintain and develop trails, McDougald began hosting regular trail maintenance weekends at Camp Grier that were a big success, attracting riders from Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. He eventually forged a formal maintenance relationship with the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. And in 2019 the G5 Trail Collective was formed as a Camp Grier initiative focused on multi-use trail conservation and construction in the five counties that make up the Grandfather Ranger District.
That momentum led to the proposal to build a network of accessible and sustainable trails and transform Old Fort into Western North Carolina’s next trail town. McDougald and other leaders of the project, however, aren’t just aiming to create a playground for bikers. He envisions an outdoor hub that will draw all sorts of other users: hikers, trail runners, equestrians, nature lovers, and above all, the people of Old Fort. Both McDougald and Grandfather Ranger District trail manager Lisa Jennings saw a need to invite non-traditional forest users to the table. According to Jennings traditional interests and user groups – such as hikers, conservation organizations, or anglers to name a few – typically have a seat at the table to develop Forest Service projects in Western North Carolina.
“What we haven’t done before is ask the community-at-large to be involved,” she said.
That’s what led McDougald to an Old Fort Community Forum meeting to explain the trail initiative and where he met Lavita Logan, program coordinator of People on the Move for Old Fort.
Raised in Old Fort, Logan fondly recalls summer evenings in the national forest as a girl. Her dad, who worked for the railroad, took her to swim when he returned from work. “When I was young that’s all we did,” she said. “We played in the woods. I spent most of my time in Curtis Creek.”
Logan, who is Black, is deeply worried about the future of her town. Like many small communities in Western North Carolina, Old Fort has experienced its share or economic woes, including the closing of the Ethan Allen plant in April 2019 and with it 325 jobs.
“I’ve always thought about moving, but I’m rooted. Old Fort has a lot to offer,” she said. So when she heard about the project she jumped at the opportunity to connect the Black community of Old Fort with the National Forest.
Logan said that the town has two established Black communities and her organization is a Black-led collaborative that works to advocate and engage Old Fort’s residents. She’s committed to the idea that her community can take advantage of the business opportunities a trail town can generate. In fact, her organization is the largest financial contributor to the project thus far, sharing grant funds allocated to develop Black entrepreneurship in Old Fort. That money will be used, in part, to help speed up the planning hurdles required by the federal government to build trails on public land.
Make no mistake, Old Fort has a long way to catch up with other mountain trail towns, such as Brevard. But having a blank canvas is a blessing too.
“We’re in the position to build this from scratch. We’ve seen Asheville grow and develop and the Black community get left behind,” said McDougald. “I hope that this project will engage the local community in being more active and connected to public lands surrounding Old Fort.”
On February 24, the Forest Service released a scoping document for the project and announced a thirty day comment period. The agency hosted two virtual public meetings on March 3 and 5 to share information about the project and how to submit a comment. The public feedback (see below for more info on how to comment) will guide the project, followed by an environmental review, and a final plan this fall. Jennings said they hope to break ground in late 2021 and implement the project over the next 5 – 10 years.
“It’s hard to get Black people in the woods, given the history,” said Logan. “The old people say that the boogey man was there. That’s the reason why Black people don’t go in the woods in the South. I just want people to go to take advantage of it. This is our backyard.”
Notice to the public from Nicholas Larson, District Ranger
The Forest Service invites your involvement in determining the scope of this project and identifying
potential issues (36 CFR 220). If you have questions about this project please contact Lisa Jennings,
Recreation and Trails Program Manager at the Grandfather Ranger District, at 828-337-1359 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be most useful, please provide comments within 30 days of this notice. Comments may be submitted on the web here. Please use the provided link to submit electronic comments. Comments may also be mailed to: Grandfather Ranger District, USDA Forest Service, Attn: Lisa Jennings, 109 East Lawing Drive, Nebo, NC 28761. Comments will become part of the project record and may be released under the Freedom of Information Act. This project is not subject to administrative review and appeal.
Information here from the G5 Collective, a working group that includes People on the Move for Old Fort, the Grandfather Ranger District, Blue Ridge Traveler, Camp Grier, Kitsbow, and other local leaders