Paths to Success - Mon River Trails System

Morgantown Dominion Post
8 March 2015
By Katie McDowell  

For Ella Belling, executive director of Mon River Trails Conservancy (MRTC), Morgantown just wouldn’t be Morgantown without its trail system.

So she couldn’t have been happier, she said, when the national Rail-To-Trails Conservancy (RTC) highlighted the area’s 48 miles of trail as its Trail of the Month for February.

“National press coverage will bring more travelers to explore our rail-trails and enjoy the communities along them,” she said in a recent release. “This honor verifies what locals already know, how this rail-trail is great for outdoor recreation and our trail towns are fun places to stay and enjoy the music scene, dine in unique restaurants and discover local attractions.”

Sitting down with The Dominion Post, Belling explained MRTC is the 501(c)3 nonprofit agency tasked with purchases, building, construction, upkeep and amenities along the trails. All 48 miles of them.

The first stretches of trail were purchased in the early 1990s. Since then, through volunteer work and fundraising, the organization has built it into a true destination, Belling said.

They are now working to connect portions of town more easily to the trail. For instance, they are working with the City of Morgantown to fund a bridge, allowing South Park and Greenmont residents easier access to the Deckers Creek Trail.

“Construction on that will hopefully start this year,” she said.

While some of the project is funded by grants secured by the city, MRTC must augment those funds with fundraising. The organization is working with the South Park and Greenmont neighborhood associations to that end.

They’ve also submitted grants for a Collins Ferry Road link, she said.

A national event — a three-day cycling sojourn, with more than 100 cyclists participating — is also on the horizon, she said. Aside from highlighting the Mon River Trails System as a whole, it will specifically offer an opportunity to bring attention to link with Pennsylvania’s Sheepskin Trail, into Point Marion, Pa.

“It’s fun, but meaningful, work,” she said.

While many Morgantown residents may identify the rail-trail with the stretch that travels through Hazel Ruby McQuain Park — with its amphitheater and cherry blossom trees — the system itself is actually a combination of urban and rural trails. Some portions of the trail, such as the Caperton, are paved, while others, such as the Deckers Creek Trail and Mon River South Trail, are covered with crushed stone or limestone.

That makes the trail system the perfect way to experience the region’s urban and rural areas, Belling said.

The more urban parts of the trail work to connect neighborhoods, city parks, shopping areas and restaurants, “without getting in the car,” she said.

The rural portions offer a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle, and rather enjoy the natural beauty the region has to offer.

But whichever portion each resident prefers, both have brought tons of change to the community, she said.

“Certainly its brought in tourism dollars,” she said. “It’s revived the riverfronts considerably — we’ve seen them transition from abandoned warehouses to restaurants and shops. It’s a commuter network for a lot of people, not just a place for leisure.”

Of course, however, the leisure factor — and the health factor — can’t be overstated for many.

One of those trail enthusiasts is Bill Reger-Nash, professor emeritus, WVU School of Public Health and associate chair of the Morgantown Pedestrian Safety Board.

“The trail system in the Morgantown area is one of our most valuable assets for the region,” he said. “Just recently, I had a conversation with a new WVU administrator who said that the local rail-trail system sets the Morgantown community above so many others throughout the nation.”

Reger-Nash himself used the rail-trail daily as a way to commute to and from work.

“I used the rail trail for more than 10 years daily to commute to work from Stewartstown to the WVU Health Sciences Center. My commute took me through Point Marion and along the old rail bed to the West Virginia border. I would then pick up the rail trail and cycle through the WVU Arboretum and proceed to the Health Sciences Center. The 70-minute commute was energizing. The Mon River rail trail offers a scenic opportunity to safely commute, all the while enhancing fitness, helping control body weight, promoting serenity and sparing the use of fossil fuels. One arrives at work refreshed and finishes work in a way that the stressors of the day disappear.”

In that way, it serves not only as a leisure activity, but a key to better health across the community as a whole.

“From the public health standpoint, Dr. Sam Zizzi and his WVU colleagues ascertained that 23 percent of trail users were new exercisers,” Reger-Nash pointed out. “We do what the environment enables and reinforces. The trail ‘calls’ to people to enjoy the outdoors in a nurturing setting.”

To that end, MRTC is always working to add new amenities and facilities along the trails — such as restrooms, maps and signs. A new restroom will be opening soon at the trail head at the end of Van Voorhis Road, Belling said. Another has just recently opened in Masontown, along the Deckers Creek Trail.

Dave Harshbarger, wellness manager of the Ornish Program at WVU, not only sits on the board of directors for MRTC, and also serves as a volunteer — he’s also a regular trail user himself.

“I have been a board member for about 10 years and have been a regular user since it was built. Living only a half mile from entrance points in Marilla Park, my family and I used it regularly when they were small and getting pulled on tag along bikes. We use it recreationally for jogging, biking, cross country skiing and also use it times for commuting to and from work.”

For families to find the trail a safe, well-maintained place to enjoy time together is one of the reasons Belling and all of the MRTC volunteers work so hard, Belling said.
In fact, it’s almost as though the better they’re doing at maintaining the trail, the less people notice, because they’re free to notice everything else around them, rather than the state of the trail itself.

And, Belling said, the better the trail, the better the area.

“The longer the trail system is, the more economic development you see, the more tourism you get,” she said. “That’s the point of looking forward to 150 miles of trail, instead of just 50.”

An avid cyclist, Reger-Nash probably wouldn’t argue with that goal.

“We can walk and bike along the trail, enjoying Decker's Creek, the Mon River all the while conversing with friends and family. Thus, the rail trail promotes family bonds and general collegiality,” he said. “... Riding on the trails permits riders to enjoy the wonderful local scenery. I have bicycled in Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. No biking trails are more scenic than we have locally on the way up to Preston County and along the Mon River.”