Video: How Building Trails United a Community

Ask any died-in-the-lycra mountain biker what is the most famous east coast riding destination, and I’d be willing to bet three shakes of a possum tail that this crusty rider might mention Asheville, NC. The Blue Ridge mountains, which border Asheville, are well celebrated for the highest elevations east of the Rockies. And once we hone in on Asheville, the next word that comes up is Pisgah. “Pisgah” refers to Pisgah National Forest, which is an absolutely massive bit of land at over 500,000 acres, and three ranger districts. Here, we’ll be talking about the Grandfather District. Before we dive into the young trail development group known as the G5 Collective, we need to establish some context.

Asheville has plenty of popular trails within a half-hour or so of the city center. 25 miles east of Asheville lies the small town of Old Fort, population 743. Old Fort is home to perhaps two of the most well-known “Asheville” area trails– Kitsuma and Heartbreak Ridge. But after those two trails, the fanfare among the hardcore mountain bikers begins to drop off, and trails up to another hour and a half north near Wilson Creek start to come into the conversation.
A big thanks to Jenson USA for supporting this video. I had a great time riding a new-to-me trail aboard a new-to-me bike. Days like this stick in the memory banks! Also, big thanks to my sponsors, PNW Components, Industry Nine, and Remedy Supply Co.Camp Grier figures prominently in this project. It’s a non-profit aimed at providing an outdoors for all experience via a below retail rate summer camp for kids. The camp sits on a beautiful 700 acre property, which happens to be smack dab between the town of Old Fort and the Pisgah National Forest. The completion of the Rostan Trail is a big step for the G5, as that allows the public to cross through the camp property-on trail- during the times of the year when summer camp is not in session.

This story isn’t just about mountain biking, but about creating more opportunities for locals, as well as visitors, not only to access, but to love, various outdoor experiences they might not otherwise have had. It just so happens that mountain biking is the lens through which I generally view the outdoors, so that’s our context when looking at how the group has been growing.

When Jason reached out to Lisa at the Forest Service to inquire about building some more trails, she explained the process of engaging with the local community for a community led trail project. The results speak for themselves.

Old Fort is located on what was traditionally Catawba and Cherokee Nations land, with some contention over which group can lay claim to the territory. In about 1770, Samuel Davidson, who was both militarily and politically very well, purchased a one-mile square tract of land, sometimes referred to as the “western most point of civilization.” That tract included what is today Old Fort. The Cherokee and the British had signed a treaty in 1763 to not further expand west of the Blue Ridge mountains; However, there was continued conflict as the European-Americans largely ignored the treaty, and continued to push into Cherokee and Catawba lands.

Eventually, Davidson was killed by the Cherokee nation, indeed further west from his one-mile square, in Azalea, NC. In retaliation, the United States military waged massive scorched earth attacks against the Cherokee, burning over 30 villages, and pushing them westwards- an attack from which the Cherokee Nation would never fully recover.

The town of Old Fort had a large manufacturing tradition, though the closing of several plants changed the feel of the town. In 1985, United Merchants and Manufacturing Co, a textile plant, closed, and in 2019, Ethan Allen closed its furniture plant.

Shifting gears slightly, Old Fort was a good location for Robert D. Grier to relocate a summer camp for children after the original location was going to become a reservoir. By 1972, First Presbyterian Church Charlotte initiated a scholarship program to begin the Outdoors for all Effort. The 501(c)3 nonprofit camp is now known as Camp Grier, and the camp’s mission is to provide opportunities for connection, service, celebration, and renewal in nature, and they do this through both scholarships and a reduced rate tuition program.

But how intertwined was the camp with the town of Old Fort? Where does mountain biking come into this?

The KB Reynolds grant totaled $450,000, from which $75,000 was donated to the G5. Remaining portions of those funds were to be used for purchasing a building to house the Catawba Vale Collaborative, as well as to paint a mural on the east side of the building. The mural commemorates Alfred Joyner’s activism to desegregate the local school. Stefanie knows this very personally. She was finally allowed to attend the Old Fort Elementary School after the Civil Rights act of 1969 was passed.

When Jason McDougald became camp director in May of 2013, he realized the camp’s future was directly tied into the town’s future. The camp’s property includes a full 700 acres, and is located directly between the town of Old Fort and Pisgah National Forest. Looking for ways to fundraise for the camp, they found that holding bicycle and running races was a natural fit as a great way to leverage the resources they already had available- all the camp facilities, as well as amazing trails just a few pedals away. However, getting permitted, trail access from camp to the national forest was quite a challenge.

Eventually, Jason approached Lisa Jennings, the Recreation Manager for the Grandfather district of the Pisgah National Forest. This partnership between Camp Grier and the National Forest eventually became what helped get the G5 going, but in no way is this the entire story.

Lisa explained that the community-led, collaborative trail-planning method is the future of trail development. As she explains in the video, Jason’s reaction was quite, and he was able to positive utilize a tool at his disposal. Jason suggested forming a already non-profit advocacy group under Camp Grier’s existing non-profit structure, and that would eventually become the G5 Trail Collective. But it was the next, happenstance step that really brought this whole project up the ladder to fruition.
Lavita Logan, a lifelong resident of Old Fort, and a long-time friend of Stefanie, is a founder of the community group People on the Move Old Fort, as well as the coordinator for the West Marion and Old Fort Community Forums. At this forum, Jason happened to sit next to Lavita, and he gave a presentation about the proposed trail initiative, and how it would be mutually beneficial for the town of Old Fort as well as for Camp Grier. As we can see, this speech was well received. Phase 1 of the G5 Collective was to open the Pisgah Gateway Trail System with a 6-mile, stacked loop network along with a 105 space parking area. Not only are these trails highly accessible, they are a short pedal from downtown Old Fort. But that’s not all the G5 is up to- in the Mortimer area, as part of Phase 2, the G5 is working with the Forest Service and other groups to maintain some very old, very eroded trails. We’re talking handlebar deep ruts.

Much like the G5 Trail Collective works under Camp Grier’s non-profit umbrella, People on the Move Old Fort works under Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation’s non-profit. Stefanie, the President and CEO, is also a long-time Old Fort resident, having attended elementary school in the town after the Civil Rights act of 1969 desegregated the school. And as the Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation aims to bring opportunity for the low-to-moderate income community, it made sense to invest in outdoor recreation.

In 2019, Kitsbow Cycling Apparel relocated from Petaluma, CA, to Old Fort, NC, with plans to produce clothing locally in Old Fort. Considering that United Merchants had once operated a large textile plant in Old Fort, there already seemed a tradition in place to produce apparel in this small town. Hillman Beer opened shortly after that, and the outdoor industry began to take notice of what was happening in Old Fort.

Two of the largest hurdles in regards to building new trail within the National Forest Service land management system are funding the build process, which includes planning and NEPA studies, and also a second component: trail maintenance. The G5 has some unique strategies in place for both of these.

One of the most interesting bits of “secret sauce” behind the G5’s strategy is how it’s gone about securing funding for the trails – which has not been in the traditional trail funding lanes. In cooperation with both People on the Move Old Fort and Eagle Market Streets Development Corporation, they’ve applied for some of the large community health grants available from KB Reynolds Charitable Trust. Of the $450,000 awarded to People on the Move Old Fort, $75,000 was directed to the G5 Trail Collective, which was a huge bump start to the project.

Armed with funding, and the support of two significant community groups, the G5 was finding traction in that sweet North Carolina loam. The projects were divided up into two general areas- the first would be the Old Fort Gateway Trails System, which provides 6 miles of brand new trail located a short distance from downtown Old Fort, as well as a substantial parking area. These trails opened on June 26th.
Bringing this back to the canoes, zip lines, swimming pool, and dining hall of Camp Grier, one of the original goals was to create permitable trail access from Camp Grier directly to the National Forest trails. As bike and running races have become significant fundraisers for Camp Grier, avoiding pavement for these events was an original goal for the G5 Trail Collective, and now, it’s a reality. The new Rostan trail now provides cross-complex access through Camp Grier, and allows riders (and racers) to get between the new Gateway Trails System and Star Gap- something that previously would require a huge effort to get all the way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, or to detour through town and on quite a bit of pavement. Jason’s original goal of cross-complex access has finally happened, but along the way, it’s grown to be something that’s united many faces of this historic small town.

MENTIONS: @jeffweed / @loganpnelson / @jensonusa / @pnwcomponents / @IndustryNineOfficial / @SpecialtyCoffeeRoasters


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