The Green Scene

Miles to go before I hike

What if you could traverse the whole French Broad River Basin—by bike, on horseback or in hiking shoes—without ever running into a four-lane road? That’s the big idea behind a fledgling regional effort to design create a system of trails linking Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties.

Across Buncombe and beyond: French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of RiverLink marks a trail on a map of Buncombe County as part of an effort to create a regional trail system. photo by Rebecca Bowe

Seeking public input on what this web of green passageways might look like, the Land-of-Sky Regional Council hosted a March 27 workshop at the North Carolina Arboretum. The turnout was strong, and among the faces in the crowd were Asheville City Council member Robin Cape and Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt.

The workshop planners seemed to hit on just the right formula for developing a common vision: Take about 80 local outdoors enthusiasts, put them in a room on a warm spring morning armed with coffee, highlighters, sticky notes and giant maps of the regional landscape, and watch what happens. By the end of the exercise, little-known hiking loops had been drawn in, old railway lines had been converted into footpaths, and sticky notes posted on the maps showed where linkages were lacking.

Together, the maps displayed an abundance of alternative-transportation routes across the five counties—on paper, that is. “We’re still in the early planning stages,” noted Land-of-Sky Regional Planner Linda Giltz.

The regional trail system is part of a statewide initiative led by the North Carolina State Trails Program, an arm of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The first step, funded by the state, is mapping all the trails—both existing and proposed—and their planned uses (a wide variety of outdoor-recreation buffs took part, including ATV-drivers, paddlers and trail runners).

Despite the high level of enthusiasm, however, the massive project has quite a few miles to go before it’s fully realized. A second public workshop will be held next month to solicit more input, and then the finalized maps will go before the affected local governments for approval. After that, Land-of-Sky can begin the laborious process of securing funding for conservation easements, piece by piece.

Some of the ideas brought to the table came from personal experience. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson of RiverLink, who paddled the entire length of the river last year to assess its condition, said he hopes the plan can include a few camping spots and greenways along the banks. “It’s hard to take a trip down the French Broad if you don’t know where you’re camping,” he noted.

Mary Jo Padgett, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Hendersonville-based Environmental Conservation Organization, called attention to a related project that would link in with the regional trail system: the Three County Greenway. The proposed trail would link outdoor hot spots in Henderson, Buncombe and Transylvania counties.

Mountain Regional Trails Specialist Dwayne Stutzman of the State Trails Program took a different tack. “Our main emphasis is that you can walk out of your door and get to where you want to go without using your vehicle. We want clean air and clean water, and this is how you get it.” A comprehensive trail system, he stressed, would also be an important economic asset.

Several weeks ago, transportation planner Dan Baechtold led a similar workshop to solicit public input for a citywide system of bike routes. More than 100 community members turned out to offer suggestions, he said.

“One of the goals of the bicycle plan is to connect the on-road system for bicyclists to the off-road system, and also try and find ways for cyclists to be able to get to recreation areas,” Baechtold said later. Like Asheville’s evolving greenway system, the bike routes will be incorporated into the larger vision of a regional trail network.

But the bike plan, too, is just an idea at this point. “The planning is the first step,” said Baechtold. “Hopefully, the plans will be a catalyst for getting funding.”

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