July 20, 2008

Trail Gains Traction in Triad: Landowners Let Strangers Cross Their Property, and Cities Jump at Chances for Tourism

By Joe Miller, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Jul. 20--For the better part of 30 years, the sight of R.M. Collins pulling into the gravel drive with a loaf of his wife's homemade bread and maybe a bottle of wine was common to folks living between Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock in Stokes County.

Collins would settle in and ask about the kids -- whom he probably taught during his 39 years as a swimming and driver's ed instructor in the county -- about the crops, about a sick relative.

Eventually -- sometimes not until the sixth or seventh visit, depending on how well he knew the family -- he'd get around to his purpose: "Do you think we could use an eight-foot section of your land for a recreation trail?"

Landowners such as Alan and Gayle Steinbicker didn't hesitate, granting Collins his request and becoming part of the state's Mountains-to-Sea Trail, a hiking path that will one day span more than 900 miles of the state, from Clingman's Dome high in the Appalachian Mountains to Jockey's Ridge at the lip of the Atlantic Ocean.

"We wanted to give back a portion of what he had given to us," says Gayle Steinbicker, who considered Collins "a grandfather to our kids" before he died in 2006. About a half mile of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs through the Steinbickers' 110 acres at the base of Pilot Mountain.

Collins' diligence resulted in the dedication in 2002 of the 35-mile Sauratown Trail, an equestrian and hiking trail linking Pilot Mountain State Park to the west with Hanging Rock State Park. A year later, a 22-mile stretch of the trail was designated part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

"Most of the landowners here go back several generations," says Emily Grogan, who accompanied Collins on many of those visits. "Their attitude is, 'What's mine is yours.' "

Collins' work, which consumed much of the last 30 years of his life, underscores perhaps the most difficult aspect of such an ambitious project: convincing hundreds of landowners to let strangers wander across their land.

So far, 485 miles -- just over half -- of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has been completed. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of that is in the mountains, where much of the trail traverses public land, primarily managed by the National Park Service or National Forest Service.

That changes abruptly as the trail drops down the Blue Ridge escarpment and into the western Piedmont.

For the 22-mile Sauratown stretch alone, deals had to be finessed with nearly 60 landowners -- deals that were gently negotiated over months, sometimes years, by Collins, who simply wanted a place for himself and others to ride horses.

"I don't know that this trail would have been established without his relationships," says Teresa Tilley, president of the Sauratown Trails Association, the all-volunteer group that founded, blazed and now maintains the trail.

Changes in attitudes

In the case of Collins and his Sauratown Trail, the agreements reflect the kitchen table discussions that preceded them. Though the agreements are in writing, the landowners can change their minds for a period of 10 years. Fortunately, says Grogan, a charter member of the Sauratown Trails Association, the most that has happened has been a minor rerouting or two.

Though there is no standard agreement for trails designated as part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the goal is to secure deals that will ensure the trail's longevity.

"Easements, grants -- we'll work with landowners any way they want," says Brian Baker, project coordinator for the emerging 70-mile Haw River Trail, which will one day run from Guilford County to Jordan Lake. About half of the Haw River stretch will be part of the MST.

Convincing folks to let the trail pass through their property has gotten easier over the years, say those responsible for getting permission.

Not long ago, landowners were suspicious that a trail on their property would open them up to crime.

"They worried about people doing drugs or some other illegal activity," says Baker, a trial attorney before he became the first full-time coordinator for the Haw River Trail. "Most of them are really excited now," he adds.

"People do tend to want to be a part of something bigger," says Carol Tingley, chief of planning and natural resources with the state Division of Parks and Recreation.

For some, the trail is a chance to let others experience the past.

"A lot of [landowners] understand the history of the Haw River," says Baker, noting the river's economic importance, along with its degradation. The breached dams, the abandoned mills and the other traces of history serve as reminders of the region's past.

Conservation is also a big motivator. Sections of the MST that follow waterways -- and much of it does in the Piedmont -- can be eligible for protection using money from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

Even a one-time nemesis to green space -- developers -- have become some of the trail's biggest cheerleaders.

Increasingly, new housing developments are including -- and in some jurisdictions, being required to include -- trails and greenways in their communities.

"We don't need the valuable uplands," says Kevin Redding, executive director of the Piedmont Land Conservancy, which is helping to secure land in the Triad. "They'll dedicate, as part of the zoning, land down by the creek that they couldn't develop anyway."

And there's the chance for landowners to experience a great recreational amenity without burning a drop of $4-a-gallon gas.

"A big selling point, to me, is the idea of being able to walk out your back door and walk to the ocean or to Clingman's Dome," Baker says. "To me, that's a great thing."

Rural path, city path

The trail is also seen as an asset to local municipalities.

Initially, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was to take a northerly, rural route that included the Sauratown Trail.

It was scenic but bypassed much of the highly populated Triad. When Winston-Salem, Greensboro and assorted smaller Triad communities became aware of the MST four years ago, they wanted to be included.

They banded together and proposed a southerly route that would take the MST down the Yadkin River through Tobaccoville and into downtown Winston-Salem, where it would piggyback on existing and proposed greenways into Greensboro.

Today, the Triad is the only spot on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where the trail forks to give hikers two options: rural or urban.

Scot Ward, who began a quest in May to hike the MST in its entirety, chose the rural route.

"This trail has mountains, foothills, coastal plain, swamps and beaches," he said of the Mountains-to-Sea path. "You don't get that kind of variety on the Appalachian Trail. There, all you see is mountains, mountains, mountains."

But the rural path bypassed numerous urban landmarks.

Old Salem, Salem College, Winston-Salem State University and several parks are some of the highlights on the southern path.

The color green has driven the urban route. The prospect of people taking a day, a weekend or longer to explore the MST through the Triad -- and spending money at restaurants, shops and attractions along the way -- was a prime motivator for local governments.

"Tourism." In one word, Paul Krone, planning director with the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments, pinpoints the motive. "That's a big part of why local governments have gotten behind this and are excited about it. We see the MST as the superhighway of hiking trails."

Through the Triad, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has served as a catalyst for greenway and other trail development.

For instance, the MST doesn't run through Davidson County, which is just south of the MST's southerly route. Nonetheless, the county is working on a master plan for a greenway system that would tap into it via a spur trail.

"The folks involved in planning," Krone says, "all understand that if they can connect to the MST they can be part of something much bigger than themselves."

The MST carrot has also accelerated development of the 19-mile Piedmont Regional Greenway, Krone says. That paved path would link 11 miles of existing greenway in Winston-Salem with trails in Greensboro at Triad Park and that city's extensive watershed trails network along lakes Brandt and Townsend.

East of Greensboro, Alamance County took the unusual step of hiring Baker full time to push for creation of the entire Haw River Trail, even though only half of the trail is in that county.

The move was necessary if an MST connection between the Triad and Triangle is to be made anytime soon.

It took decades of work by Collins to convince fewer than 60 people to let the trail cross 22 miles of private land. How many landowners will Baker have to court?

"I don't have any idea," he says with a tired laugh. "Several hundred?"

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