Green in brief: Ecusta Trail under contract, Arboretum launches kids bird-watching program

Etowah trestle on Ecusta trail
THE PATH AHEAD: This railroad trestle in Etowah could be converted to serve pedestrians and cyclists as part of the 19-mile Ecusta Trail. Photo courtesy of Conserving Carolina

Conserving Carolina under contract for Ecusta Trail

A new 19-mile greenway between Hendersonville and Brevard is now on track — pun fully intended. On Nov. 18, nonprofit Conserving Carolina announced that it had entered a contract to buy an unused rail corridor between the two cities for conversion into the Ecusta Trail.

Partners in the purchase include the N.C. Department of Transportation, which awarded Conserving Carolina a $6.4 million grant toward the trail; Henderson County, which extended a short-term loan for the nonprofit to cover the transaction; and the tourism authorities of both Henderson and Transylvania counties, which have committed occupancy taxes. The nonprofit Friends of the Ecusta Trail has been advocating for the project since 2009.

Trail supporters, including state Sen. Chuck Edwards and retired Rep. Chuck McGrady, have suggested that the Ecusta would fill a similar niche as the Virginia Creeper Trail and Swamp Rabbit Trail, drawing running enthusiasts and bikers from throughout the area and creating economic activity. As previously reported by Xpress, it would also comprise a key east-west corridor of the proposed Hellbender Regional Trail, a web of Western North Carolina greenways stretching over 150 miles. (See “Chance in Hellbender,” Sept. 2.)

Additional funding will still be needed to convert the railbed into a greenway. And because the purchase will take place under the federal railbanking program, the line could be restored to railroad use if an operator were to pay fair market value for the land.

“We are excited to go down this path with the local community on this important rails to trails project,” said Laura McNichol, a spokesperson for the Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, which currently owns the corridor. “We look forward to the day this trail is up and running for each of the communities along the line to enjoy it in the years to come.”

NC Arboretum launches ecoEXPLORE bird-watching activities

Young boy with binoculars
LOOK OUT: Young ornithologists can earn prizes by bird-watching through The N.C. Arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE program. Photo courtesy of The N.C. Arboretum

Kids stuck at home during the coming pandemic winter have a fun way to engage with the outdoors thanks to The N.C. Arboretum. As part of the arboretum’s ecoEXPLORE program, young bird-watchers can participate in Ornithology Season through Sunday, Feb. 8.

Each week, arboretum staff will release a new “Bird Break” video that highlights a local avian species and gives details of its appearance, songs and habitat. Participants can then photograph birds in their own neighborhoods and complete educational challenges to earn ecoEXPLORE points, which they can redeem for prizes such as binoculars or a bird call.

Photos from ecoEXPLORE are uploaded to iNaturalist, a citizen-science platform used by researchers to track the changing distribution of wildlife. At the close of Ornithology Season, UNC Asheville professor Andrew Laughlin will share a virtual presentation celebrating the participants’ contributions to knowledge about local birds.

More information and registration are available at Other updates are available through the ecoEXPLORE Facebook and Instagram pages.

Hear ye, hear ye

  • Asheville officials are seeking public input as they update the city’s greenway, accessibility and pedestrian plans. Two online surveys on the subject are open through Thursday, Dec. 31, at
  • Changes to the discharge permit for the wastewater treatment plant at Evergreen Packaging’s Canton paper mill, including elimination of some monitoring requirements for wastewater color, will be considered at a virtual hearing on Thursday, Jan. 21. Comments can also be emailed with “Blue Ridge Paper Products” in the subject line to or mailed to the attention of Blue Ridge Paper Products Permit at 1617 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699. More information at
  • Regulatory changes to hunting, fishing and game land use proposed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission are up for public comment through Monday, Feb. 1. An online public hearing on the new rules is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 21. More information available at
  • The U.S. Forest Service is seeking comments on a proposal to construct an additional trail access to Graveyard Fields from the John Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Comments may be submitted online at or mailed to the attention of Jeff Owenby at 1600 Pisgah Highway, Pisgah Forest, NC 28768.
  • The Friends of DuPont Forest, a nonprofit supporting the Henderson and Transylvania county state forest, seeks volunteers to serve on its board beginning in April. More information and application information at

Get out and see

  • N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission staff stocking trout
    CAST AWAY: The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission once again is stocking trout in select area reservoirs. Photo by Melissa McGaw, courtesy of NCWRC

    Conserving Carolina opened a new 2-mile connector trail between Bearwallow Mountain and Wildcat Rock. The path is part of the nonprofit’s plan for the Hickory Nut Gorge State Trail, a proposed network with over 130 miles of interlocking trails across Buncombe, Henderson, Polk and Rutherford counties.

  • Several Western North Carolina impoundments were recently stocked with surplus trout by the NCWRC to improve recreational fishing opportunities. A full list of stocked waters is available at
  • The National Park Service reminds visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway that sections of the road will be closed throughout the winter for scheduled maintenance and weather-related safety. A full list of locations and planned dates for closures is available at

Community kudos

  • Asheville-based nonprofit EcoForesters honored the Pitillo family, including landowners Bruce and Teresa Pitillo, as EcoForesters of the Year for their work in forest stewardship. The city of Asheville’s watershed management team, led by Lee Hensley, received the Root Cause Award, while N.C. State professor Mark Megalos received a lifetime achievement award.
  • Evergreen Packaging, which operates the Canton paper mill, earned the American Forest and Paper Association’s 2020 Leadership in Sustainability Award. A press release announcing the award highlighted the company’s role in developing the Smallholder Access Program, as has previously been reported by Xpress. (See “Little plots, big plans,” Nov. 6, 2019.)
  • Seven local organizations were awarded over $248,000 from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina’s Pigeon River Fund. Grants include $50,000 to the Haywood Waterways Association for program support, $45,150 to the Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation and Development Council to improve water quality in the Ivy Creek watershed and $44,500 to the Environmental Quality Institute for water quality monitoring.
  • Buncombe County gave over $95,000 in community recreation grants to support “inclusive access to recreational, fitness and wellness activities.” Of 19 nonprofit recipients, 10 received the maximum award of $6,000, including Asheville GreenWorks for Hominy Creek Greenway repairs, the Shiloh Community Association for an expanded community garden and the WNC Disc Golf Association for course repairs at the Buncombe County Sports Park.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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One thought on “Green in brief: Ecusta Trail under contract, Arboretum launches kids bird-watching program

  1. Jackie Collier

    Thank you for the positive news. We are hikers and bikers so the positive work being done to encourage more individuals to get outdoors is wonderful. Thank you.

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