Two sizable grants from the U.S. government, announced within two weeks of each other, are set to make the Ecusta Trail a reality. The roughly 19-mile greenway along an unused rail line between Brevard and Hendersonville, first proposed in 2009, received about $46 million toward its estimated $53.5 million construction cost.
The first award, announced June 22, allocated about $24.6 million from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity Program. The second, awarded July 6, brings $21.4 million from the Nationally Significant Federal Lands and Tribal Projects Program. Both initiatives had been expanded as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“It is a true testament to the shared vision and commitment of all our partners that we received both grants,” said Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof in a city press release about the grants. “I look forward to moving ahead expeditiously to turn what has been the dream of this trail into the reality of a world-class regional trail system.”
The remainder of the Ecusta Trail’s costs will be covered by the N.C. Department of Transportation, the nonprofits Conserving Carolina and Friends of the Ecusta Trail, the Henderson and Transylvania county tourism boards and local municipalities. Construction is expected to begin this summer and conclude by 2028.
Local documentary highlights national forest conservation
The epic sweep of Western North Carolina’s federal lands — over 1 million acres throughout Pisgah and Nantahala national forests — receives cinematic treatment in a new documentary by Asheville-based filmmaker Garrett Martin. The River Runs On, which makes its local premiere at New Belgium Brewing Co. at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 20, explores questions about managing the land in light of the recently adopted Nantahala and Pisgah Forest Plan.
“It was the perfect opportunity to reflect on our relationship to nature and to use the plan as a meditation on our role as humans in the natural world,” says Martin in his director’s statement. “The film is a reflection of my love for this region of the world and a vision for how we can view our place within it.”
Local figures included in the documentary include Josh Kelly, public lands biologist with MountainTrue; Jennifer Pharr Davis, founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Co.; and Tommy Cabe, tribal forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Several of those featured will hold a Q&A session for viewers after the July 20 screening.
Tickets and more information are available at avl.mx/ctw. Additional screenings are scheduled for Friday, Aug. 4, at Western Carolina University’s Highlands Biological Station, and Thursday, Sept. 28, at UNC Asheville; the film will be available for at-home screening on most major platforms by late September.
- The U.S. Forest Service has proposed new fees for mountain bikers and equestrians to help fund trail maintenance throughout WNC. A proposed fee of $5 per rider, or an annual pass of $30, would apply to the Jackrabbit Mountain Bike Trails near Haysville and many trails in the Pisgah Ranger District. Comment on the fees can be submitted through Tuesday, Aug. 22, online at avl.mx/ctz, by email at SM.FS.NFsNCFees@USDA.gov or by phone at 828-257-4256.
- Buncombe County is asking for guidance on “passive recreation lands,” or parks that feature low-impact activities such as hiking and natural playgrounds. The county hopes to fund such projects through the $30 million in open space bonds approved by voters last year. More information and an online survey are available at avl.mx/cu3.
- The city of Hendersonville is developing its first sustainability strategic plan. The document will shape the city’s approach to sustainability in the areas of energy, transportation, waste, land management and water, as well as offer recommendations for residents and businesses. More information is available at avl.mx/cu0; residents can weigh in by contacting Caitlyn Gendusa, the city’s public works superintendent for sustainability, at CGendusa@hvlnc.gov or 828-697-7074.
- Hikers and mountain bikers can explore over 3 miles of new trail in Pisgah National Forest outside Old Fort thanks to the Catawba Vale Collaborative. The Bernard Mountain Trail, located near the popular Kitsuma Trail, features roughly 1,000 feet of elevation change, along with technical features and advanced sections for bikers. More information is available at avl.mx/ctr.
- Get Outside WNC, an initiative founded by West Henderson High School student Jenna Watson, is leading guided group hikes to raise funds for Brevard-based environmental education nonprofit Muddy Sneaker. The next two outings visit Triple and High Falls on Sunday, July 23, and Looking Glass Rock on Sunday, Aug. 6, both at 2 p.m. Tickets and more information are available at avl.mx/cty.
- The Blue Ridge Parkway removed the wreckage of a small plane that crashed near Waterrock Knob in 1983. In a press release announcing the move, parkway Superintendent Tracy Swartout acknowledged that the wreck site had been popular among hikers. However, she said safety and conservation concerns had led the parkway to airlift the debris by helicopter.
- A ban on camping and fires at Max Patch, a popular grassy bald along the Appalachian Trail in Madison County, has been extended through June 2026. The measures, instituted in 2021, were set to expire this year. But according to an alert from the U.S. Forest Service, they were kept in place “to continue the great restoration work” at the site.
- Asheville-based nonprofit EcoForesters was named 2023’s Conservation Organization of the Year by the N.C. Wildlife Federation in honor of its forest stewardship efforts. Brandon Jones, who operates the Fontana Marina on Fontana Lake, was also named the organization’s Public Lands Conservationist of the Year for leading trash cleanup efforts in the area. Both local winners will be honored at the NCWF’s awards banquet in Cary on Saturday, Sept. 9.
- UNC Asheville has approved a Climate Action Plan that outlines paths for the school to achieve its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Developed with substantial input from students in UNCA’s Communicating Climate Change course, the plan includes steps such as on-campus composting and the installation of green roofs. The complete document is available at avl.mx/cu1.
- Several Asheville neighborhoods received support for environmental projects as part of the city’s Neighborhood Matching Grants program. Awards include $5,000 to Malvern Hills to improve the Hominy Creek Greenway, $5,000 to Haw Creek for a trailhead kiosk at Masters Park, and $4,250 to Kenilworth Forest for park improvements and pollinator-friendly plantings. The next round of grant applications opens in February, with more information available at avl.mx/ctt.
- The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy announced the protection of 64 acres on Twelve O’Clock Top, a mountain near Dutch Cove in Haywood County. The land sits on a wildlife corridor near the future Pisgah View State Park and will protect roughly a half-mile of stream.
Save the date
- The N.C. Arboretum welcomes James T. Costa, author and executive director of the Highlands Biological Station, at 6 p.m. Friday, July 21. Costa will discuss his latest book, Radical by Nature, which explores the life of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Registration and more information are available at avl.mx/ctu.
- The Creation Care Alliance holds a free guided excursion into Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 5. Participants will learn about the value of old-growth forests while taking time for prayer and spiritual practice. Registration and more information are available at avl.mx/cui.
- Carolina Flower, a 5-acre farm and florist in Walnut, opens for self-guided tours Aug. 5. The event is timed with the blooming of over 2,000 dahlias on the farm and a studio sale at the farm’s Marshall storefront. Tickets and more information are available at avl.mx/ctx.
- The Organic Growers School celebrates its 30th anniversary with the Sow & Grow Fest on Saturday, Sept. 30. The free event, taking place at the Smoky Park Supper Club from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., will feature a seed and plant share, family activities and other happenings in honor of the Asheville-based education nonprofit. More information is available at avl.mx/cu2.