Hikers have access to Catawba Falls

From Staff Reports

Marion McDowell News

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hiking to Catawba Falls, a Blue Ridge Mountains and Old Fort area natural treasure is open to the public again through a temporary agreement between Foothills Conservancy and McDowell County.

Management of use and maintenance by the county of the conservancy's 23-acre access property at the end of Catawba River Road allows daytime hiking along the old trail to Pisgah National Forest and Catawba Falls.

"The public has been very eager to access and enjoy Catawba Falls since our purchase of the property quickly in June using a private loan," said Tom Kenney with Foothills Conservancy. "We appreciate the county's assistance to manage limited use while the U.S. Forest Service works to acquire the access property from Foothills in 2009."

Commission Chairman Andy Webb expressed his appreciation to the conservancy and all interested parties.

"Opening the access to the Catawba Falls has been a priority for many years," said Webb. "We are happy to cooperate with the Foothills Conservancy to encourage the use of the access area."

The old trail from the end of the road and bridge crosses about one-quarter of a mile of the conservancy's property. Trails on adjoining Pisgah National Forest are currently primitive and un-maintained to the waterfalls and may be difficult for some people and small children. All children need close supervision due to hazards along the Catawba River on Forest Service land.

The U.S. Forest Service in Asheville ranks acquisition of 98 acres for the access and gateway to Catawba Falls as its No. 1 priority in North Carolina. If federal funds are secured next year, the conservancy's property will be purchased and added in 2009 to Pisgah National Forest.

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler and Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole are trying to seek federal funds for the purchase. Federal legislation to make 96 acres eligible for acquisition currently outside the Pisgah boundary was introduced before Thanksgiving in the House and Senate.

It's likely that Land and Water Conservation Funds will not be requested in President Bush's budget recommendations for the Forest Service in February, so funding for the purchase will only be possible through the House and Senate budgets if requested by Shuler and Burr and Dole.

"There is no guarantee federal funds will be secured for the Forest Service to purchase the Catawba Falls access property," Kenney said.

Because Foothills has to repay its private loans by July 2009, the conservancy will step up efforts to raise private funds in 2008 to help retire the debt. Through Foothills Conservancy's Catawba Headwaters Fund campaign, if the Forest Service purchases the property, any excess private funds raised will be used to conserve other lands and waters of the Catawba headwaters in McDowell County.

"Citizens now need to write all of North Carolina's congressional members in Washington asking for their help on House and Senate funding for purchase by the Forest Service of the Catawba Falls access property," said Kenney. "Otherwise, permanent public access and trail use is at risk."

N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie and N.C. Sen. Joe Sam Queen have said they will help all they can on the efforts by McDowell County, Old Fort, McDowell Trails Association and Foothills Conservancy.

"Their efforts are important to help raise the federal funds next year to insure full use and development of access and recreation to Catawba Falls," Kenney stated. "We have a big uphill climb in Washington on funding early next year."

The McDowell Trails Association and county are working closely with Foothills Conservancy to complete a study of public use and trail improvements for the access property. A consultant has been hired to complete the design and feasibility in January, including a parking area and new trailhead.

The conservancy will request a $75,000 Recreation Trail Program Grant on Jan. 31 for the partners to implement the improvements. If successful, the work will hopefully be underway by September. Partners plan for future phases to include a greenway to Old Fort and connections to other proposed hiking and biking trails between Buncombe and McDowell counties.

"We are working hard together to develop better recreation use and enjoyment sooner rather than later," said Kenney. "The interest of citizens and visitors to access Catawba Falls has been tremendous, and we want to try to do all we can to provide good benefits as soon as possible to the public, McDowell County and Old Fort."

Tourism Development Authority Director Carol Price agreed with author David Edgell stating, "Preserving our natural assets such as Catawba Falls will create increased interest in the Old Fort community creating new economic development opportunities. The 2006 Blue Ridge National Heritage Area's visitor survey shows the second most frequently reported visitor activity is outdoor recreation with 24.69 percent of participants choosing this type of entertainment."



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