Tourism progress blocked by land ownership in southern W.Va.

In 1948, a hiker named Earl Shaffer came up with the idea of ​​an alternative to Appalachian Trail (TO). It would be a trail stretching from the deep south to New England, just west of the AT. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Great Eastern Trail Association was formed and parts of the trail began to open to hikers. But when hikers arrive in southern West Virginia, they find an incomplete trail.

However, in 2013 Joanna “Someday” Swanson and “Hillbilly” Bart Houck completed the first Great Eastern Trail (GET) hike.

“A new trail system like this doesn’t come up every year,” Houck said before attempting the hike. “Trying to be one of the first to walk this trail and show it off and bring it to light is actually a very humbling experience.”

The hope for this trail was that it would relieve some of the foot traffic on the iconic Appalachian Trail which sees approximately three million visitors each year.

“It’s also going to be an economic boost for this region that needs a boost other than coal,” Houck said. “I am not against coal. In fact, I have many friends who work in the coal industry. But it’s a way to present southern West Virginia in a different light.

Nearly a decade later, what is the impact of the Great Eastern Trail in southern West Virginia?

Back on the trail

Tim McGraw is president of the TuGuNu Hiking Club, which maintains and promotes the Great Eastern Trail in southern West Virginia. McGraw got involved with the project because of his love for the experience of being outdoors in southern West Virginia.

Tim McGraw along the Great Eastern Trail in Mercer County.

“I love being in nature, especially I love being on the ridges in southern West Virginia,” McGraw said. “For me, it’s a kind of spiritual experience. Being in the woods, I just want to share how I feel when I’m in nature. I want to share this with other people. »

The GET stretches from Alabama to New York west of the Appalachian Trail, but parts of it are incomplete, especially in southern West Virginia. McGraw says the biggest challenge to completing the trail here is private land ownership. Pioneers tried to keep the trail on accessible land by mapping it to connect public land. These lands include the RD Bailey Lake Wildlife Management Area, Bluestone State Park, and Twin Falls Resort State Park.

Scott Durham worked as Superintendent of Twin Falls State Park in Wyoming County for 42 years.

“We let them co-designate some of our existing trails in Twin Falls as part of the Great Eastern Trail,” Durham said. “That designation disappeared, not because they weren’t welcome, but because they just sat idle.”

The proposed route for the Great Eastern Trail inevitably crosses private property to reach public lands like Twin Falls. According as2013 study Wyoming County has the highest concentration of outdoor land ownership of any county in the state. In fact, Durham says Twin Falls was given to the state by a private company,

“All of the land around three-quarters of the Twin Falls boundary is corporate land,” Durham said.

Corporate landowners have a reason for not granting hikers access – accountability. For Durham and many southern West Virginians, it’s a familiar story.

“I’ve worked in southern West Virginia my entire career,” Durham said. “I have been involved in a number of economic development efforts, the hardest part of trying to create economic development in southern West Virginia always comes down to having access to buy land and own lands.”

Durham says the Great Eastern Trail would mean more than economic development for the region.

Great Eastern Trail in Mercer County

“It also brings a stamp of approval,” Durham said. “If you go somewhere in Virginia, North Carolina, and they say well, ‘The Appalachian Trail goes through here. That gives you a picture of what this place is and how good the experience is. outdoors at this location.

“It’s going to bring in hikers, but it’s going to bring in other people too, because that’s part of what people are looking for when they go outdoors.”

There is a way around the roadblocks. Private landowners could open their land to hikers and the state could assume responsibility. This is how the proximity Hatfield McCoy ATV Trail System was made possible. For now, this is not the case for the Great Eastern Trail.

If somehow the trail clubs found a way to complete the GET in southern West Virginia, what would a completed trail do for the economy of southern West Virginia? West Virginia? Well, there’s a hint of what’s possible further down the trail in Narrows, VA.

Welcome to the General Douglas MacArthur Hotel

The General Douglas MacArthur Hotel was purchased by Narrows native Alan Neely in 2008.

Allen Neely stands in the front door of the General Douglas MacArthur Hotel in Narrows, Virginia.

He has an award-winning mustache and a passion for his hometown.

“Narrows Virginia is a National Trail town, because it’s the only town in the United States where two major hiking trails drill? intersect,” Neely said. “The Great Eastern Trail and the Appalachian Trail intersect at the top of this mountain.”

After working as a prime construction contractor at Virginia Tech, he retired and saved this historic hotel from demolition. Today, about a quarter of its activity is made up of hikers.

“They are (hikers) actually from all over the world,” Neely said. “We had people from Brazil, Great Britain and Spain. They come and they go back to their hometown wherever it is and tell about the small town they love. You know, we’ve even had people walk around here, and they’ll come back and buy houses to move here. I mean, not one or two. I mean several.

The vision for many coal and railroad towns in southern West Virginia also includes restoring a historic hotel or building and growing a tourism industry.

Allen Neely in the lobby of the General Douglas MacArthur Hotel.

So what will it take to complete the Great Eastern Trail in West Virginia? Scott Durham says that getting started will require initiative.

“There have to be people stepping in,” Durham said. “But there are serious hikers here. It can take just that person who cares.

The state created the first administration of non-motorized trails cooperating with private landowners in 2019. The Mountaineer Trail System Recreation Authority is intended to highlight the best of northern West Virginia’s trails for biking and boating. The authority represents 15 counties in the northern part of the state.

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