The Elk River Trail Foundation: preserving, protecting, and enhancing the historic Elk River Trail

By Elijah Newell, RealWV

As small towns in West Virginia search for ways to rebuild from the fleeting influence of coal mining, one organization has opted to help by financing the repurposing of the extractive industry’s former veins: the railroads. The Elk River Trail Foundation (ERTF) is an organization that supports the development of over 73 miles of abandoned rail lines in Sutton, Gassaway, Clay, and Clendenin into the Elk River Trail, operated by the WV Division of Natural Resources (DNR). ERTF President Kenneth Tawney explained that their goal is to help bring life back into these old rail towns. 

“We’re doing everything we can to make the trail attractive to further economic development,” Tawney said. 

Tawney added that after the organization was founded, it appointed a board of directors from people who represented areas throughout the trail and in the trail towns. The board’s role in the organization is to vote on which projects they choose to work on. Tawney explained that sometimes this means it can seem like specific projects get more attention than others, but the board doesn’t mind this overall. 

“We all operate under the belief that what we do for anyone along the trail will benefit everyone along the trail, because they will want to return to a trail if they have a good experience,” Tawney said. “So we have operated pretty well thus far, and pretty cooperatively; so as long as all the areas are represented and agreed to pursue particular projects, it’s a go.”

Tawney explained that before projects get voted on by the board of directors, project ideas must go through several levels to get approval. According to Tawney, project ideas must go through several committees within the ERTF, including a rail town committee, a rail trail committee, and a water trail committee. These committees represent the interests of local businesses and governments in the rail towns and trail areas, and the ERTF works to ensure that the needs and desires of these different interests are met whenever work on a trail project begins. The committees identify projects they believe would help improve the state of the Elk River Trail and then seek out funding for the project. The organization must also get approval from the DNR to do any projects on the trails. If the DNR disapproves of a particular project, it must be canceled or changed. If a project gets approval from the DNR, the board votes yea or nay, and if they vote in favor of the project, the committees then secure funding for the work and oversee the projects until they are completed. 

The ERTF is working on several different projects on the trails right now. One project Tawney highlighted is an effort to put mile markers on the trail along the river from Sutton to Charleston, roughly 101 miles. Another project is putting up river access signs along the river, better-helping people traversing the water to know where they can get back onto land. The foundation also wants to put small bike repair stations at every trailhead. Tawney described that the most significant project the organization is currently working on is utilizing a 1.365 million dollar grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to make improvements to the trails and the rail towns and encourage economic development. 

Tawney said the organization’s ultimate goal is to continue improving and upgrading the existing trails and rail towns they run through. This includes lengthening the trail into other trails and towns, encouraging the construction of campgrounds along the trail, and providing free architectural help to business and building owners in the rail towns to beautify the buildings in the towns. Tawney said their ultimate goal is to make the Elk River Trail an outstanding state park. 

“We want to continually do things to improve the trail and make it one of the best in the United States. We don’t think small” Tawney said. 

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