Owen Mulkeen and Sara Cottingham

Owen Mulkeen, associate director of Friends of the Cheat in Preston County, and Sara Cottingham, a community planner with Downstream Strategies, address the Marion County Commission about the Mountaineer Trail Network Wednesday.

FAIRMONT — The Marion County Commission is excited about the Mountaineer Trail Network, which could draw mountain biking tourism and other outdoor recreation to the county.

During their meeting Wednesday, the commissioners heard about the network, described as “a multi-county network of trail systems across northcentral West Virginia” that is governed by the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority.”

The Mountaineer Trail Network is to be “a non-motorized trail network.”

An informational brochure notes that “while designed specifically to target mountain biking tourism for regional economic development, the following uses are permitted: hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hiking, bicycling, mountain bicycling, running, cross-country running, nature study, winter sports and visiting, viewing or enjoying historical, archeological, scenic or scientific sites, and more.”

Two people working on the network, Owen Mulkeen, associate director of Friends of the Cheat in Preston County, and Sara Cottingham, a community planner with Downstream Strategies, spoke to the commission about the network.

In addition to Marion County, counties in the Mountaineer Trail Network include Barbour, Grant, Harrison, Mineral, Monongalia, Preston, Randolph, Taylor and Tucker counties.

Mulkeen said there is pending legislation that would expand the network and add five more counties. Those counties are Upshur, Lewis, Doddridge, Ritchie and Wood.

Senate Bill 317 created the Mountaineer Trail Network Authority. Cottingham said counties are now each appointing two representatives to serve on the board of the authority. As required by the senate bill, one has to be a landowner planning to participate and one has to be someone from the recreation, tourism or “other relevant industry within the county.”

The informational brochure about the network notes that “through a 2019 POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Friends of the Cheat and Downstream Strategies are spearheading the initial coordination of Mountaineer Trail Network and creating a pilot trail plan for the network within Preston County.” It states that the plan, which will be released in the middle of the year, “is designed to be replicable in each of the other participating counties within the Mountaineer Trail Network.”

According to the information, after authority board members are appointed, the authority “will set rules, safety standards, and other operating guidelines for the trail system.”

Cottingham explained some of the benefits of Senate Bill 317, saying “it’s a really big deal for us.” In addition to creating the authority, she said it has two key benefits, including liability protection to participating landowners with trails on their land.

“First, the legislation gives that limited liability protection to landowners who have trails on their property,” she said. “This is tremendous. We know from looking at other places in the country that have become trail destinations, they had to have this kind of protection in place.”

“From a landowner’s perspective, it means that they don’t have to be afraid to allow trails on their property for fear that some biker’s going to crash their bike, break their leg and they’re going to get sued. So, this opens up a whole new world of opportunity to really build a lot more trails and for this to take off because those landowners have that legal protection.”

Cottingham also said having an authority of this kind “really opens the door for marketing our region collectively, all our counties together, all of the amazing assets that we already have together, for really the first time.”

Noting the popularity of outdoor recreation and its economic impact, Cottingham spoke about the potential of the network.

“We believe the Mountaineer Trail Network, it presents a big key for us in this part of the state to tap into this opportunity like never before,” she said.

Commissioner Randy Elliott noted the county’s many miles of trails and the efforts that are underway to connect them in the city.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” he said. “It does mean a lot. We see what tourism can do in the community. We sponsor four or five big fishing tournaments that bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars to Marion County.”

He had some positive comments about the Mountaineer Trail Network.

“I’d like to see us carry through with it,” he said. “I saw Kris (Cinalli, county administrator) taking some notes about the requirements and what’s necessary. We may put out possibly, maybe something, asking people if they want to be a part of this.”

Eric Hrin can be reached at 304-367-2549, or ehrin@timeswv.com.

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