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Federal Money to Be Used for W.Va.’s Highland Trail

Fri July 16, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Rick Steelhammer - Charleston Gazette



DAVIS, W.Va. (AP) The Heart of the Highlands Trail, a 23-mi. loop passing through five public land agencies in and around Canaan Valley, is taking shape in Tucker County, due to a $600,000 appropriation from Congress.

The Heart of the Highlands will connect a series of existing trails in Blackwater Falls State Park, the Canaan Valley Institute, the Monongahela National Forest, Canaan Valley State Park and Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“We have some of the most beautiful scenery in the country here in Tucker County, and this will help more people be able to see it,” said Jonathan Schafler, manager of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. “About 70 percent of the trail exists already. There just needs to be some coordination between the agencies to finish the rest.”

A Heart of the Highlands governing board, which includes representatives from the land management agencies, the Tucker County Commission and the nonprofit group Tucker County Trails, will oversee development of the trail.

Plans call for passing the recently approved $600,000 appropriation for trail building on and adjacent to Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge to a local nonprofit organization. The nonprofit, in turn, will act as a pass-through, and channel the money to the Heart of the Highlands governing board to determine how and where the federal trail-building money will be spent.

“I think it will have a good impact on this area,” said Roger Lilly, president of Tucker County Trails and owner of Blackwater Bikes in Davis. “It will let people see the beauty of Canaan Valley, give them another place to hike and ride, and improve access for people who like to fish, hunt and observe wildlife.”

The first phase of Heart of the Highlands construction is expected to involve linking Canaan Valley Institute property along Camp 70 Road and the Blackwater River on the outskirts of Davis to the northern end of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Schafler said the federal appropriation includes funding to build a new bridge crossing the Blackwater from Camp 70 Road in the vicinity of a small suspension bridge that is closed because it’s unsafe to cross.

Although a new master plan, due out later this year, will determine where the trail will pass through the 16,300-acre Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge from CVI land, Schafler said one option calls for placing it on the western edge of the refuge, near the base of Canaan Mountain.

Boardwalks likely would be used to carry portions of the trail across any wetland segments or other biologically sensitive areas along its path, Schafler said.

“It’s hard to see what Canaan Valley’s like without being in it,” said Lilly. “It would be great to see some of the places we used to ride and hike before it became a refuge opened back up.”

While protecting wildlife and rare plant communities are among the refuge’s main missions, giving people the chance to see and appreciate it is important, too, Schafler said.

“The more people get to see of what’s here in the refuge,” he said, “the more likely they are to protect it.”

From the refuge, preliminary plans call for having the new loop trail follow a section of Cortland Road, cross W.Va. 32, and enter Canaan Valley State Park, staying north of the park’s lodge and golf course before linking with a segment of the existing Allegheny Trail. The Heart of the Highlands would follow the Allegheny Trail northward into the Monongahela National Forest, where it would cross Canaan Loop Road and connect with Blackwater Falls State Park’s Yellow Birch Trail. Trail users would follow the state park’s access road back into Davis.

Schafler said a second phase of trail development could involve building a trail connecting Davis to the nearby town of Thomas.

From the Heart of the Highlands Trail, hikers eventually could be able to connect with Forest Road 80, which passes through the refuge and climbs to the top of Cabin Mountain, where connections could be made to trails in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.

“This area could become another gateway to Dolly Sods and all the other special places around here,” Schafler said.

He added that working together to develop the new trail could lead to more joint ventures in the future between the participating land agencies.

“With five land agencies in one county, connectivity is nearly as important as the trail itself,” he said. “I hope the trail also will help show that ecotourism can be a viable industry for this area.”

Schafler said he hopes that some day, the trail can be linked to Cumberland, Md., and the Chesapeake & Potomac Canal National Historic Park.

A draft of the refuge’s 20-year master plan is expected to be released this summer, followed by a comment period involving at least two public meetings.