View from Point Lookout Trail in Pisgah National Forest near Old Fort in McDowell County. Jack Igelman / Carolina Public Press

A Black community situated at the base of the Blue Ridge escarpment in McDowell County is taking a leading role in developing an ambitious trail project in Pisgah National Forest.

Work is slated to begin later this year on the Old Fort Trails Project, which will create roughly 42 miles of new sustainably constructed trails to improve community connectivity, reduce barriers to access, and support environmental and social sustainability. 

The project is spearheaded by People on the Move Old Fort, a Black-led collaborative that advocates for the community’s Black residents. The efforts are designed to remove some of the hurdles, including historical legacies, to Black participation in trail building and recreation.

“It’s hard to get Black people in the woods, given the history,” said Lavitia Logan, a Black resident of Old Fort and the program coordinator for People on the Move Old Fort. “The old people say that the boogeyman was there. That’s the reason why Black people don’t go in the woods in the South. I just want people to go to take advantage of it. This is our backyard.” 

When she heard about the Old Fort project, Logan jumped at the opportunity to connect the Black community of Old Fort with the national forest.

Her enthusiasm may be traced to cheerful memories of swims at a nearby national forest recreation area, Curtis Creek. On summer evenings her father, who worked for the railroad, took her to swim when he returned from work. 

Logan is committed to the idea that her community can take advantage of the business opportunities a trail town can generate. 

People on the Move for Old Fort is the largest financial contributor to the project thus far, sharing grant funds allocated to develop Black entrepreneurship in the community. That money will be used, in part, to help speed up the planning requirements of the federal government to build trails on public land.

Historical realities

Dawn Chávez, executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization Asheville GreenWorks, understands why the Black community in Old Fort and communities of color in other parts of the state stay clear of the forest and other public lands.

Many Black people came to the region as slaves or forced labor. Near Old Fort, a memorial was recently created to commemorate roughly 3,000 Black men — some of whom perished — from the N.C. State Penitentiary who were forced to work as inmates under harsh conditions to expand the railroad west to Asheville in the 1870s. 

Later, during the Jim Crow era, public recreation spaces, such as parks, campgrounds and beaches, were segregated.

“That has a long impact in communities of color,” Chavez said. “The reason for telling children not to go to the woods may be forgotten, but it’s still a practice passed down through generations. People of color were not welcome, and that legacy carries on today. It’s hard to dispel that and build trust.”

Chávez, who grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., connected with the outdoors on family camping trips. After graduating from college, she led a center in New York City that introduced the outdoors to kids of color. And in Boston, she launched a program creating pathways for minorities to environment-related careers.

She told Carolina Public Press that the Black communities’ participation in a public lands project is a “really big deal.” 

“It’s not something you see anywhere really except in predominantly Black places. And those places usually don’t coincide with public lands,” she said.

Often, according to Chávez, organizations with good intentions approach communities of color with preconceived notions about their interest in outdoor recreation.

A more appropriate strategy, she said, is to approach communities of color with “humility and to get people’s buy-in and seek their input from the beginning.”

In 2019, Jason MacDougald, a leader of the nonprofit G5 Trail Collective, a local trail organization, attended a community meeting in Old Fort, a community of about 1,000 residents 27 miles east of Asheville, to explain a trail initiative he was spearheading in collaboration with the Grandfather Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. 

McDougald, executive director of Camp Grier near Old Fort, realized there was enormous potential for trail development in the tens of thousands of acres of forest sandwiched between Old Fort and the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

But the U.S. Forest Service relies on partnerships with private groups to maintain and develop trails. Although other mountain towns, such as Boone, Brevard and Asheville, have dedicated trail maintenance groups, the trails around Old Fort were in a maintenance shadow. 

McDougald said engaging the community was an outgrowth of his observations of Asheville’s path to prosperity, largely from tourism and its access to world-class outdoor recreation.

“We’ve seen Asheville grow and develop and the Black community get left behind,” said McDougald. “We’re in the position to build this from scratch. I hope that this project will engage the local community in being more active and connected to public lands surrounding Old Fort.”

Several years ago, McDougald began hosting regular trail maintenance weekends at Camp Grier that were a big success, attracting bicycle riders from Asheville, Charlotte and Raleigh. 

His interest in developing new trails led to a proposal to build a network of accessible and sustainable trails and transform Old Fort into Western North Carolina’s next trail town. McDougald and other leaders of the project, however, aren’t just aiming to create a playground for bikers. He envisions an outdoor hub that will draw all sorts of other users: hikers, trail runners, equestrians, nature lovers and the local community of Old Fort. 

Both McDougald and Grandfather Ranger District trail manager Lisa Jennings saw a need to invite nonconventional forest users to the table. According to Jennings, traditional interest and user groups — such as hikers, conservation organizations and anglers to name a few — typically have a seat at the table to develop Forest Service projects in Western North Carolina.

“What we haven’t done before is ask the community at large to be involved,” she said.

Listening as the first step

The trail project will develop a “purpose-built” trail system that will serve a diverse range of users from equestrians to walkers. Many current trails in the area follow legacy roads that were created decades ago to extract timber with no regard for sustainability. Now, those trails are prone to erosion and costly to maintain.

“This is really bigger than anything I’ve ever worked on,” said Jennings of the Forest Service. “We’ve listened to what people want from the community. We’ve learned that you have to invite people and make sure the community is not left out.”

This summer, the Forest Service will supervise a team of Black and Latinx students from McDowell County, restoring and repairing trails in the project area. The five-week paid summer job is part of the U.S. Youth Conservation Corps, a nationwide employment program for teens. 

Chávez said representation of people of color in the woods “makes a huge difference,” and there is a growing movement in Asheville and across the nation to engage minorities in outdoor recreation activities, such as Black Folks Camp Too and Asheville-based Everybody’s Environment. 

Formed in Asheville in 2014, Everybody’s Environment is a coalition of organizations working in the conservation and environmental fields that aim to diversify their staff and boards, form more inclusive and equitable programs, and train more culturally competent staff. The U.S Forest Service is a member of the coalition

Those efforts, said Chávez, should focus on building “authentic relationships with communities of color before an invitation comes. It’s a process to build relationships and trust. That’s the crux of it.”

This month, the public will have an opportunity to comment on the Old Fort Trails Project.

On Feb. 24, the Forest Service released a scoping document for the project and announced a 30-day comment period. Public feedback will help guide the project, followed by an environmental review and a final plan this fall. 

Jennings said the groups hope to break ground in late 2021 and implement the project over the next five to 10 years.

Jack Igelman

Jack Igelman is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jack@igelman.com.