Trails are vital to economic development in West Virginia

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Gary Morefield at Ship Rock, Beckley, West Virginia, Raleigh County, New River Gorge Region
Gary Morefield helps clear a path for economic development at Ship Rock near Beckley, W.Va.

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Trail building has proven a vital economic development tool in the U.S. in recent years. In West Virginia, where outdoor recreation has come to the economic forefront, it may be among the most important tools at hand, according to a proponent of trail development. Millions of dollars have been invested in hiking and biking trails in the area of the New River Gorge in the last decade, says Gary Morefield, and there’s good reason to believe more trails will help draw investment.

Nearly finished with construction of a one-mile woodland loop near Beckley’s YMCA soccer complex, Morefield paused during a weekend of clearing roots to discuss why he and others are encouraging such development. “The New River region — in fact, the whole of West Virginia — stands to benefit greatly from trail development,” he said. “The outdoor-recreation industry has already established itself here. The momentum is here, and it’s steadily moving forward.”

Morefield, president of the local cycle club, has only to gesture northward to prove his point: the Boy Scouts of America in 2013 opened a new home for its national jamboree fewer than 10 miles north, and the National Park Service in 2011 opened a 14-mile recreational trail system 10 miles farther north.

Large and small, trail-development projects are popping up throughout the Mountain State, Morefield said, and their presence is boosting property values where they course through smaller communities and attracting tourists where they wander through natural areas. The West Virginia Mountain Bike Association is working on many such projects throughout the state and encouraging development where possible.

According to a 2002 survey by the National Association of Realtors, home buyers nationally ranked trails as the second most important of 18 amenities factored into their purchasing decisions. Two hundred miles southwest of Beckley, developers at Apex, N.C., found they could charge an additional $5,000 per trailside home in the affluent Shepard’s Vineyard residential community.

Morefield said that the Ship Rock Trail at the soccer field is a good example of a project that meets the needs of both tourists and area residents, bolstering property values and attracting hikers and bikers. “There were bikers on the trail as soon as we began cutting and digging,” he said. “And that demonstrates that the trail is meeting an important need.”

Beckley councilman Tom Sopher, who has has lent his physical and political support to local trail initiatives, lauded the Ship Rock project for fulfilling several social functions. “We started looking at Ship Rock — a landmark that a lot of older people knew about — and we determined that we needed to create an easier way for older folks to get there and to establish another resource for outdoor education — a trail suitable, perhaps, for a fifth-grade class to walk,” Sopher said.

Its course was designed by Morefield and Sopher to incorporate deer trails and old logging roads that encircle an outcrop of sandstone along the rim of the Piney Creek Gorge. Along the way, it wanders through boulders and rhododendron and passes Ship Rock, a house-sized rock that towers above the gorge. Though less fantastic than many that outcrop in southern West Virginia, the trailblazers say the rock’s size was not as important as the fact that it exists, is an important local landmark, and is convenient to the city and not far from the soccer complex.

How much did the trail cost Beckley taxpayers? Nothing — the project was carried out entirely through volunteer labor and contributed resources. Since November, Morefield and a handful of volunteers invested hundreds of hours clearing and grading the trail, altering the landscape as little as possible — a principal that saved time and maintained the value of the landscape.

Morefield singled out for thanks Sopher and other contributors, including Ryan Cook, Jason Holley, Tom Staley, Greg Litton, William Shaver, and Matthew Wade, president of the Piney Creek Watershed Association.

For more information on recreational trails and their economic impact, the following resources may be of interest:

Ready to hike the Ship Rock Trail? Here’s how to get there.