By Jack Igelman, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
A trail restoration plan underway near Boone this winter will add miles of mountain biking and hiking trails to a popular destination in the Pisgah National Forest which makes up large portions of Western North Carolina.
The Mortimer Trails Project is one of several forthcoming in the Grandfather Ranger District supported by private organizations to meet the soaring demand for recreation on public land units in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains.
Mountain biking, among the most popular activities in the national forest, is concentrated in a handful of destinations of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests that include Bent Creek Experimental Forest in Buncombe County, the Pisgah Ranger District and DuPont State Forest in Transylvania County and the Tsali Recreation Area in Swain County.
Expanding access to trails will ultimately disperse riders throughout the 1 million acres of national forest in WNC and relieve pressure on overburdened trail systems, said Paul Stahlschmidt, a member of the Northwest North Carolina Mountain Bike Alliance, a chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association, also known as SORBA.
The Mortimer trail complex — named for a bygone logging community — is in the Wilson Creek watershed bordered by Wilson Creek and State Road 181, in Avery and Caldwell counties. The U.S. Forest Service refers to concentrated areas of paths as “trail complexes.”
The headwaters of the watershed form on steep terrain below Grandfather Mountain along the eastern escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“What riders like about the Mortimer area is that it’s remote,” Stahlschmidt said.
Mountain bikers want access to more trails in the Wilson Creek watershed because of the long backcountry riding opportunities that are rare in the eastern U.S.
Over the last several years, he observed the condition of single-track trails in the project area declining rapidly, despite the area’s isolation.
In years past, the trails maintained a steady condition because of their relative difficulty and seclusion. The paths heal themselves as leaves and other debris layer the trail and protect it from erosion, Stahlschmidt said.
However, the trails in the Mortimer complex are more compacted and prone to runoff, leading to ecological damage. For example, during heavy rains, sediment drains into waterways.
“Most of it is attributed to increased mountain bike use,” he said. “There is not as much leaf litter and more compaction on the trail — more signs, in general, of people using the trail.”
In addition to a large biking community in Boone, the Mortimer trails are relatively close to population centers in Charlotte, Raleigh and the Interstate 40 corridor, said Lisa Jennings, recreation and trails program manager for the Grandfather District of the U.S. Forest Service.
“When they go west to the mountains, the Grandfather District is what they touch first,” she said.
Not only has considerable use impacted the sustainability of trail systems but infrastructure is also strained, such as the maintenance of access roads and signage, and providing parking facilities.
“We’re seeing busy trailheads across Western North Carolina every weekend,” Jennings said. “If you can’t find the trails, and if they are in horrible shape, you’re not going to have a good experience. It’s critically important in our jobs as stewards of the land that the public can enjoy them.”
Partnership for success
With a slim budget, the Forest Service intends to lean on partners to maintain, improve and add more trail miles to accommodate the recreation boom.
In 2012, the Forest Service convened a public meeting to develop a strategy to manage nonmotorized trails in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. The subsequent report, the 2013 Nantahala and Pisgah Trails Strategy, said the system’s 1,560 miles of hiking and cycling trails are more than it can handle.
According to the report’s conclusion, trails tend to be randomly placed, lack design to meet user needs and are prone to erosion.
Those problems present a major challenge to the agency, which is crunched by tighter federal budgets, creating the need to collaborate with other land managers and volunteer groups such as SORBA.
Partnering with user groups is also a key component of the draft Pisgah and Nantahala national forests land management plan that was released in February 2020 and expected to be finalized in late 2021.
Stahlschmidt participated in the public process to create the draft management plan and attended the trail strategy meetings in 2012 and 2013. He saw an opportunity to collaborate with the Forest Service to expand riding access.
The Northwest NC Mountain Bike Alliance signed a volunteer agreement with the Forest Service in 2014 and has since spearheaded small-scale trail improvement projects in the Mortimer trail complex.
Riders have been vocal about the lack of trails in certain geographic areas, such as Mortimer, Stahlschmidt said. In all, there are 70 miles of trails within the Wilson Creek watershed. According to Jennings, only 30% of them are open to mountain bikes.
A large portion of the system consists of legacy trails in poor condition. Legacy trails and pathways are remnants of bygone logging roads and old fire lines.
“There was never a trail system designed for mountain biking,” she said. “This is an opportunity to add purpose-built trails specifically for hiking and sustainable mountain bike use.”
Finding common ground
The lack of trails may lead to “poaching” or “pirating” illegal trails, such as routes in Lost Cove and Harper Creek, two wilderness study areas, or WSAs, in Avery and Caldwell counties that are within the Wilson Creek watershed.
Though not a designated part of the national wilderness system, it is illegal to mountain bike on trails in a WSA.
Both wilderness advocates and bikers prize the area for its remoteness. While some mountain bikers would like to see access to wilderness areas, it would require a change to the federal law.
A memorandum of understanding signed by 40 regional organizations in 2015 to create a national recreation area in the Grandfather Ranger District sparked controversy between mountain bikers and wilderness advocates.
Some wilderness advocates worried the memorandum had been a bargaining chip in a deal to forgo future permanent wilderness status in exchange for the support of mountain bikers for wilderness status elsewhere in the national forest.
Kevin Massey, the North Carolina program director of Wild South, a nonprofit public lands access organization, said the portrayal that mountain bikers and wilderness advocates are at odds is wrong.
While his organization advocates for more wilderness, he said, both wilderness advocates and mountain bikers share an interest in more trails and support each other.
The goal of the Mortimer Trails Project, Stahlschmidt said, was not necessarily to keep people off pirated trails.
“We’re not the police,” he said. “First and foremost, there aren’t enough trails to meet the demand and the type of riding experience that people want. We are trying to get more access and more trails.”
In 2018, the Forest Service hosted a meeting at a restaurant in Banner Elk with the mountain bike community to discuss accelerating trail work in the area.
“My favorite thing to do is to bring out a blank map, look at the landscape and think about what we can do,” said Jennings of the Forest Service.
The result was a publicly vetted trail plan to improve the 23 current miles of mountain bike trails in the Mortimer complex, decommission several miles and add 10 trail miles.
The planning also identified failed road culverts. Malfunctioning culverts increase erosion, damage water quality and are a barrier to species, such as trout and salamanders, that migrate to higher elevations.
As part of the Mortimer project, Trout Unlimited funded the design and replacement of damaged culverts with a bottomless arch structure that provides a wider path for organisms and for debris to pass through during heavy rains.
At a cost of roughly $30,000 per mile of trail, according to Jennings, the 10-mile addition is a big step for the strapped federal agency that hasn’t prioritized funding for recreation over the last several years.
For fiscal year 2021, the Forest Service budget was slashed by 3%.
The Mortimer project is funded through a Santa Cruz Bicycles PayDirt Grant awarded to Stahlschmidt’s organization and an NC Recreation and Trails Program Grant awarded to the Grandfather Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest.
Yet, as more people visit public lands, demand for outdoor recreation may replace more traditional industries, such as timber harvesting, as the engine of economic development in rural regions of Western North Carolina that have struggled to find a stable economic footing.
A challenge, said Massey of Wild South, is trail maintenance backlogs may cause the Forest Service to push back on new trails.
“In that crucible of pressure on recreation and being starved to death by Congress, North Carolina’s national forests are getting really good at working with partners to get work done,” he said.
The Grandfather District, he added, is leading the way.
The Mortimer project demonstrated the possibilities of various interest groups collaborating successfully. Wild South is involved with planning and building in the Mortimer project area. The group also participated in a project to improve trails in Linville Gorge and is part of another expansive trail project near Old Fort.
The community-led Old Fort Trails Project, Jennings said, secured $140,000 in grant funds to seed a project that will include 35 miles of new multiuse trails that will connect public land to the town of Old Fort in McDowell County. The Forest Service will present a proposed trail system to the public in January and hopes to break ground in 2022.
Deirdre Perot, North Carolina’s public lands representative of the Back Country Horsemen of America, said the group is disappointed that no trails were assigned to equestrians in the Mortimer project.
The organization is, however, a partner in two other projects in the Grandfather Ranger District to expand equestrian riding opportunities at Boone Fork and in Old Fort. Her group has received private funding to plan future trails and develop parking areas to accommodate horse trailers.
Jennings said the Mortimer project makes most sense for mountain biking and hiking due to the steepness of the terrain.
Forestwide, more projects like Mortimer and Old Fort will disperse the burden of increased trail use throughout other riding areas in the mountains, Stahlschmidt said.
“It will not happen without some planning and without some very high-level communication,” he said. “This is one small example of how this can happen in other places.”