WVU’s Smith OEDC is laying groundwork for an explosion of trails soon to come.
It’s been a busy season since Richard Edwards came to Morgantown in March. As the outdoor recreation infrastructure coordinator for WVU’s Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative (OEDC), one of his mandates is to develop a robust system of trails in Morgantown and across the state.
Edwards brings 20 years’ experience across the U.S. and internationally, and he likes to work with a big-picture, long-game perspective. He is all about a place’s trail development ecosystem—building skills and nurturing relationships that, ultimately, turn into a pipeline of trail projects that people want and that the community has the ability to build and maintain.
So early trail work is dual purpose. “All of the work this season has had two objectives,” he says. “We want to move trail planning and implementation forward but, hand-in-hand, we want to use it as an opportunity to build community capacity.” It’s in the name, he says—the OEDC is a collaborative. “So we work with partners and communities to build their skills and capacity. Sharing knowledge and assisting communities in developing local talent is the path to long-term success for outdoor recreation throughout the state.”
Work This Season
As far as trail-building, the primary effort this season has gone into the beginning stages of a several-mile shared-use trail system on WVU property at West Run—trails that will open officially in the spring. The Smith OEDC hired the International Mountain Biking Association’s Trail Solutions team and Appalachian Dirt out of Thomas to do the grading and initial cut-in, which prepared the surface for finishing work by volunteers.
And that finishing work is a great opportunity for capacity-building—teaching trail-building techniques and job-site safety, for one thing. “We do it somewhat old-style, like 19th century–style construction work, with lots of physical hand labor, using old-style tools to move rocks and that kind of stuff,” Edwards says. Teaching volunteer management, too, because a community can’t scale the work up and build and maintain a high-quality, densely interconnected trail network without skilled crew leaders who know how to keep volunteers productive and safe.
“Right now we’re able to put on events for 20 or 30 volunteers, but we’d like to be able to do a 100-plus volunteer event—and for that we need 10 to 15 crew leaders,” Edwards says. “We might have two volunteer events in different parks in the same evening now, but next year it’s quite likely that there’s volunteer trail work happening on six or seven different properties throughout the area.”
The Shape of Trails to Come
Edwards has engaged WVU students in laying groundwork at several sites. “We’ve got engineering students from the Statler College doing capstone projects that are feasibility and preliminary engineering analysis on a couple different hard-surface projects—‘Is it possible? What’s the cost?’—getting them suitable for grant submissions,” he says. “And we’re having an engineering class team, assisted by AECom staff and city engineering staff, explore the feasibility of connecting the First Ward neighborhood to Mountaineer Heritage Park, along the river at the dam, with a bridge over Don Knotts Boulevard.” The idea was developed a while ago by trail users and the city, and it has the potential to create great connectivity. “First Ward is so close to the rail-trail, yet so far away,” Edwards says. “And, from an architectural perspective, it would create a gateway coming into the city from Don Knotts.”
He’s also interested in meeting the need for trails that are not just for recreation, but also for transportation—trails that would likely be hard-surfaced and connect people with school, work, and other specific destinations.
And to meet the needs of both the Youth Cycling Coalition and of young and beginner cyclists in general, he’s in conversations about developing more youth cycling opportunities, particularly adjacent to schools. “With after-school programming for kids, if you have to bus them, that’s a barrier. And if parents have to drive them, that’s an even bigger barrier—and it also creates an inequity because, in a lot of families, both parents are working.” When trails are immediately adjacent to schools, they’re more accessible to everyone, he says. “For folks coming from more challenging family situations, that’s an opportunity that can really change lives.”
Support in the Community
Property owners are proving to be supportive, he says. He’s especially excited that BOPARC has just filled a new trails coordinator position. “There’s lots of potential on some BOPARC properties,” he says. “We did a little work with them recently—really good folks, really great equipment operator.”
And volunteer trail-building energy in Morgantown is high. “There’s an amazing amount of support and interest in the community. Huge amount of passion,” Edwards says. Experience tells him there’s a lot more potential to be tapped. “Especially as we develop trail systems that have really good on-ramps for folks to become trail runners or mountain bikers or hikers, every single person is another potential volunteer. The idea as they become users is to get that mindset into them from the beginning, that it’s just part of being a trail user: ‘I like to hike, so I should go out one or two Saturdays a year and volunteer.’” It’s an ethic the mountain biking community has cultivated with good success, he says.
Get Out and Volunteer
If you’re a trail user, this is a great time to exercise your work ethic and learn from a trail-building pro. Edwards encourages everyone to join a work session. “We’ll be listing work events on iServe—look for trail volunteer opportunities.” Events may be scheduled mid-day during the week, Thursday late afternoons and early evenings, and weekends. Fall and winter work will include wood work and stone work and, in the depths of winter, planning and design.
People and groups that are interested in volunteering can contact the OEDC about trail work opportunities, both paid and volunteer, at firstname.lastname@example.org—they ask that you include a phone number.