By Eric J. Wallace
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice signed a groundbreaking new mountain biking bill into law earlier this year. Known as SB 317, the legislation effectively extends ski resort-style liability protections to private landowners — so long as they join a group like the Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority. Comprised of public organizations, government agencies and landowners in 10 central and northeastern counties, the nonprofit spearheaded the bill’s passage. It is currently entering planning stages for what it hopes will become a statewide trail system.
“We’re extremely excited that this bill got approved and are looking forward to getting all the parties together and figuring out how to make [a statewide network] a reality,” Monongalia County Commission president, Tom Bloom, told reporters following the bill’s passage. Once in place, he believes the network will attract tourists from near and far, and “serve as an enormous economic boon, particularly for rural counties.”
The Authority will be governed by a multi-county board of directors. Trail-building will be paid for by a combination of state and private money, as well as funds from county and city visitors’ bureaus. Though there isn’t a Master Plan for what this thing is going to look like yet, it will be a mix of trail styles that will hopefully appeal to a wide range of riders. Essentially, there’s going to be a few segments of flat rail-to-trail type stuff, coupled with tons of cross-country trails including a number of pockets of machine-built flow loops (basically small park-style ride spots) interspersed.
“When I heard about this project, I reached out immediately and asked what we could do to help,” says West Virginia NICA league director Cassie Smith. Working with the league’s 200 or so coaches, 260-plus riders and hundreds of parents, she issued a statement of support for legislation that would make a new statewide trail network possible. “We think these trails are going to be an amazing addition. And NICA is committed to helping out however we can.”
Principle supporter and Morgantown resident, Jason Donahue, cites West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trails as a primary inspiration and model. SB 317 virtually mirrored the bill that created the nine-county ATV network in 2000. Since its inception, the system has grown to include more than 700 miles of trail. A 2014 Marshall University study estimated its minimum economic impact at $22 million a year. Trail-related employment has created 237 full-time jobs that bring an additional $120,000 in state tax revenue annually.
“If the Mountaineer Trail Network attracted even a quarter of the Hatfield-McCoy’s numbers, it would bring about 15,000-20,000 people to these areas every year,” says Donahue, a real estate developer that was named the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year. “If you look at national tourism, mountain bikers across the country typically make two multi-day trips a year, spending upwards of $400,000 in food, lodging and other expenses,” continues Donahue. Plus, the sport “is huge here and there are 20 million people living within a 4-hour drive of Morgantown alone.”
As he sees it, the math is obvious: Achieving success is only a matter of time. Donahue says the next step is establishing organizational infrastructure. Next comes drawing up maps and working with volunteers and professional trail-builders to connect existing resources.
With much of the proposed trail system laying on private property, the effort will open countless acres to public recreation. Better still, due to agreements inherent in participation, the network should keep them protected for generations to come.