By: Lydia Crawley
The Parsons Advocate
Three representatives from the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority (MTNRA) presented an update to the Tucker County Commission at the Commission’s regular meeting. Andrew Walker, Tom Plaugher, and Jonathan Martin represented the authority at the meeting.
“I’m a county resident,” Plaugher said. “Two years ago, Commissioner Moore had asked me if I would serve on a board for a new entity called the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority that was a legislative committee or group that put together this economic development authority for trail network development and we’re here today to just give you an update on what the Trail Network Authority is and what they’re doing.”
Recently hired Executive Director Andrew Walker introduced the County’s two representatives. According to Walker, he was hired in October to lead the organization. “This is Jonathan Martin,” Walker said. “So, he’s the other – so there’s two – core members from each county.
So, Tucker County is fortunate to have Tom and Jonathan as the two board members for the Mountaineer Trail Network.” According to Walker, the board has 32 members, two from each of the authority’s 16 counties.
Walker proceeded to explain to the Commission what the MTNRA is. “So, what the Mountaineer Trail Network is, as Tom mentioned, is a multi-county recreation authority. So, if you are familiar with the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, it’s essentially the non-motorized version of that trail system.”
“So the Legislation in 2019,” Walker said of the history of the organization, “opened the opportunity for recreational trail authorities to exist and right after they did that, they created our organization. So, we are made up of 16 counties in North Central West Virginia. So essentially, Pocahontas County is our southernmost county up to Mon County over to Wood County and Parkersburg and then over to Grant County in the Eastern part of the state. So, Tucker County is one of the counties that is represented in our network.”
Walker informed the Commission of the authority’s funding. “We have been operating for the last year and a half out of an Appalachian Regional Commission Power Grant,” Walker said. “So, we have 1.2 million dollars and some other funds we’ve been working with.”
The commission was also updated on the activities the authority has been funding. Walker said, “And we have four main tasks or activities that we are working through. The fourth being much of the Mountaineer Trail Network and that is going to happen at the end of the summer in 2024. So, about a year from now, a little more than a year from now. So then broadly, so to kind of go through some of the stuff that we’ve been working on – So, we’re technically an economic development authority so we work to better economic development for the communities we serve through non-motorized recreation. So, trails, waterways. So, Tucker County is great for that. Obviously, you’ve got where we’re sitting right now you’ve got the Cheat River Water Trail, essentially starts in Hendricks and flows through here. So, we’re doing a lot of work on the Cheat River Watershed. We’re also working with a number of different nonprofit organizations and DNR on top of the hill and the Camp 70 trail system, specifically right now.”
“Made a lot of good headway,” Walker said. Walker also explained the activities that the authority is currently focused on towards helping their communities. “Activity two is infrastructure improvements and development. So, we’re working with five main hubs right now to sign out all those areas, make it easier for the user, lower area of entry for the people who live in the communities that we serve. And then we are also working through branding and logoing now. Not only for ourselves as an organization, but to help out all the communities. So, we’ve hired a national branding firm called Destination by Design, they’re out of Boone, North Carolina. They will actually be here next week for an onsite review to be going through the entire area. We’ll be spending an entire day in Tucker County and out of that we’ll have a larger branding website, all that kind of stuff to help improve all these communities.”
Plaugher explained to the Commissioners a little more about his role on the board and how its efforts are impacting Tucker County. “Commissioner Moore asked me to serve on the board as a county landowner,” Plaugher said. “My property joins the Cheat River Water Trail and I also worked in the timber industry. So, as someone with a stake with public landowners here. Working with this group is something that’s going to be beneficial to the residents of Tucker County. Everything I can see from the Trail Network Authority, is very positive. It’s going to promote and enhance the resources that are already here, which should lead to more business, more opportunity for residents here in the county and it’s all been pretty good, I think. I think it’s a really good group and they’ve done some really good things.”
Martin, a Davis resident, also described to the Commission his role with the authority. “I’m from Davis,” Martin said. “I’ve been working with the Heart of Highlands to connect the six land management areas up there a lot and have been on their board for the last three or four years. I’ve worked with the…bike association and do the bike races and stuff. So, I got appointed through the Heart of Highlands to kind of step in with this just to help from a regional’s perspective and kind of get some bigger volume on this and the state’s kind of pushing this organization. It seemed like there’s a lot of little organizations up on the mountain.”
Tucker County Commissioner Mike Rosenau asked the authority if their future plans included more accessibility to the waterways. “Let me ask you this,” Rosenau said. “Will there be in your process additional, say, boat launches into the river, any type accessible fishing?”
“Those are all things that the Trail Network Authority is looking at and trying to work with private land owners on and some of the things that the authority brings that benefits those land owners that want to work with them on something like that is liability protection and things like that. To make it more appealing for a landowner to want to offer that public access,” Walker said.
Walker outlined the current plan for improving access to the river. “So, the river is a good example. Right now, the last three or four weeks, we’ve been working specifically on Cheat River Water Trail and Parsons and St. George and Hendricks and all those areas. One of the things that, to kind of answer your question a little more specifically on is, we kind of looked at all these different put ins and pick up sites and… the river’s awesome. It’s hard for people in the community to be able to know what’s available, to know how far stretches are, know where the put ins are or the pickups are. So, what we’re doing – we have a considerable amount of funding within our budget we’re working with right now – and when I mentioned the infrastructure improvements, we’re looking at right now putting in new kiosk sign with an updated map, with updated distances and all that kind of information, floor rates and all those things, at every single one of the existing put ins and take outs that are on the river right now.”
Walker also said that his agency is working with other state agencies. “And working with DOH. The nice thing about being a state agency is it makes it easier for us to break down those walls and talk with other state agencies. So we’re working with DOH, we’re working with DNR, the U.S. Forest Service to get better access to those things.”
Rosenau suggested the Authority and the Commission work together on a project that Commissioner Fred Davis has started. “Well, Andrew, there is one thing that Commissioner Davis has been working on,” Rosenau said, “is additional stocking of the Cheat River with small mouth bass. So, maybe that’s something that we, they could work together with your organization, would enhance our river and people coming and utilizing.”
Walker agreed that the plan would help the river. “Yeah, I’m a long-time fisherman,” Walker said. “The small mouth in the Cheat River watershed are awesome. So yeah, anything we can do to improve that resource. That would be great.”
Davis said, “I went to Elkins and talked to them about getting it stocked. So, I’d work with you through that.”
Rosenau said, “He would have the contacts at the state level to absolutely, in Charleston.”
Walker said the authority was working to coordinate local groups who are working on similar project in order to work together. “As a commission, in Tucker County specifically, you have so many organizations and people that would love your assistance,” Walker said. “Where we are trying to help out a lot is to be collaborative. So we’re coming in and not trying to change things or not trying to reinvent the wheel, we’re trying to get groups like Friends of the Blackwater or Heart of the Highlands, you know they are working on projects that are very similar, to get them in the same room so that we’re all working towards similar goals….We’re trying to coordinate all those groups into one group and one working agreement system so that the projects we’re working on have a lot more validity, a lot more weight and we can do a lot more with those.”