Representing the Internet Community to the Forest Service

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On Thursday, January 19, I attended the Trails Strategy Workshop with the National Forests in North Carolina in Mars Hill. Overall, the event was very encouraging and informative. Thanks to Alice Cohen, Trails Strategy Coordinator; Diane Rubiaco, Acting Supervisor; Michael Hutchins, Acting Appalachian District Ranger; Erik Crews; Dispersed Recreation Program Manager; and all the others with National Forest in North Carolina for working late to give us the opportunity to be heard. This is a huge deal, and it’s obvious that the Forest Service is coming around to the idea of getting plenty of input before making big, long-lasting decisions that affect our trails.

It’s great to see the land managers reaching out for public involvement in this way, and they did a great job of bringing everyone onto the same page in understanding what they’re trying to do. Throughout the various sessions in the workshop, they were able to demonstrate what common goals disparate trail user groups all have when it comes to trail system planning. They also quashed the inevitable suspicion that the Forest Service is out to just close as many trails as they possibly can (it was repeatedly emphasized that this was not the case).  There were over 40 people in attendance by my count, representing a variety of groups such as the Carolina Mountain Club (hikers), Pisgah SORBA (mountain bikers), equestrians, private camps, eco-tourism outfits, and many more. They also did a good job outlining the next steps going forward

The upcoming Working Meetings take place from February to September and will focus more on the specifics of what needs to happen in the trail system. Their stated outcomes include pursuing sustainability; establishing links, connectors, and loops; realistically prioritizing maintenance; coming up with criteria for consideration of future trail system change requests by the public; increasing volunteer contributions and efficiency in the face of dwindling budgets; and monitoring progress in implementing the plan. Although the meetings are open to the public, the Forest Service has asked organizations to send one representative each to keep the groups at a reasonable size, which seems like a good idea given how energized people get about this topic (as they should).

So although I’m not with any established group of the kind mentioned above, what I’d like to do is ask to be a representative for and its users. I know a lot of our visitors are those who live in the area but perhaps aren’t affiliated with any particular group or can’t attend meetings, and also those who visit from outside the immediate area but have a stake in the future of the trails system here. Please send me email, leave comments on the blog or our Facebook or Google+ pages, tweet to us on Twitter – just send us your input as to what you’d like to see happen to the trails in the National Forests in NC! I’ll try to bring those considerations to the table and ensure that every angle is explored as this important strategy is developed.

Likewise, I look forward to sharing more information back with everyone about what we learn might come out of this. I’ll also be encouraging the Forest Service to continue to be transparent and consistent in disseminating official information (such as potential new trails, change of trail designations, trail closures, and trail map data) as quickly as possible. They’ve been doing a great job at this so far, especially with their new web site (and the Trail Strategy Page), but we want to ensure that this continues so we can pass the information along to you in a way that matters most: boiled down to just the information you need to plan your next hike or ride!

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