Established a year ago, West Virginia’s flatwater trail commission is moving forward to connect resources for the state’s 14 water trails, including 88 miles of waterway being developed for paddling, kayaking, and fishing.
Commission president Bill Currey says the organization has been studying trail systems in other states and will now move forward at home, working to bring economic prosperity wherever trails are established.
“The flatwater trail commission has been in operation one year, and we’ve been reasonably successful—because nobody had ever really identified how many flatwater trails there were,” Currey said.
Having found success with the Coal River Group, established to clean the Coal River, Currey was appointed in 2021 by Gov. Jim Justice to head the volunteer-based commission, which works in concert with the W.Va. Department of Natural Resources.
“The commission is over all 14 water trails, and we’re over any trail that would be designated in addition to that. We’re not a rulemaking agency. Basically, we’re designated by the legislature to be an advocate for water trails and as a problem solver.”
With the new year comes new goals for the commission, including the development of funding through the legislature to provide more support and materials for the state’s water trails.
Additionally, members have been learning from flatwater commissions in surrounding states, some of which have been in place for 20 years.
“All the states surrounding West Virginia have a highly sophisticated flatwater trail commission and budgets to fund that commission and promotional and advertising efforts ongoing to bring people to their flatwater trails throughout the region,” he said.
“But we had none, so we’re in a rush to try to catch up and promote West Virginia flatwater rivers for the kayak business. It’s a tremendous opportunity to grow tourism for areas that desperately need a reason for tourists to come to their area.”
“The reason a lot of people wanted to create a flatwater trail was, once they followed all the rules and became authorized, then they could apply for the recreation trail funding to build boat launches, buy signs, and to promote their trail,” Currey said.
By promoting the trails to kayakers from across the country, visitors to the area increase, and flatwater trails serve one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the nation—kayaking.
The commission estimates that more than 1,500 paddlers are using the water trails every weekend in the summer months, and they expect the number to continue to grow.
One area that has enjoyed growth attributed to water trails is Saint Albans, where the Coal River flows into the Kanawha River. There, the Coal River Group partnered with the city to create Yak Fest, a two-day community festival inspired by the Tour de Coal event.
“Saint Albans is the benefactor of so much of the promotion we’ve done to promote people to come and use our Coal River water trail,” Currey said.
“The Yak Fest event draws over 12,000 people to Saint Albans to party, drink craft beer, eat food and hear great music all based on the kayak theme.”
Other hard-hit areas on the rivers will benefit from the economic boost that comes from river tourism and water trails. However, those waters must be cleaned.
“We want every city on the river to experience that by promoting their clean rivers,” Currey said.
“If it’s not clean, people won’t come, which is all the more reason to promote kayaking; it promotes volunteers to want to clean up, to help clean up the river. If we don’t have clean rivers, we don’t have visitors.”
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