A recently passed bill in the North Carolina General Assembly could bring additional funding, recognition and access to the Haw River Trail by authorizing it as an official state trail.
Senate Bill 100 would allow trail projects along the Haw River to be competitive in state grant funds and give it further recognition.
“Achieving the designation of a state trail will increase the opportunities for grant funds and will encourage trail use by increasing awareness,” said Sen. Amy Galey (R-Dist. 25), the bill’s primary sponsor, in a statement to the News + Record. “Conservation efforts for the Haw River are very important in part because it feeds into Jordan Lake, which is a drinking water source for hundreds of thousands of people.”
The bill already has bipartisan support and is also sponsored by Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Dist. 20), who represents Chatham and a portion of Durham County in the General Assembly. A companion bill was also filed in the N.C. House of Representatives, House Bill 124, which also received bipartisan support, including from Rep. Robert Reives II (D-Dist. 54).
Update: S.B. 100 Passed unanimously in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon 46-0, the vote occurred after original publication.
If the bills were to pass, it would mean the N.C. General Assembly authorized the state trail. It would then be reviewed for designation after completion and inspection by a state trail planner and the N.C. Trails Committee.
The planned Haw River Trail corridor extends approximately 80 miles along the Haw River from Haw River State Park on the Rockingham-Guilford County line through Alamance County to Jordan Lake State Recreational Area in Chatham County.
There are 12 state trails in N.C. Being recognized as a state trail means it is recognized as part of a regional network and partnership. According to N.C. State Parks, a state trail is composed of multiple connected sections, and each section of the trail is sponsored by a state or federal agency, local government or private landowner.
That recognition also makes funding applications more attractive for grant applications. For example, in 2021 the General Assembly passed a one-time fund of $29 million to “Complete the Trails,” but the fund was only available to officially recognized state trails.
One of the people instrumental in bringing the legislation to the legislative floor was Gretchen Smith, president of Friends of the Lower Haw River. Two years ago, Smith helped form a steering committee to help Chatham County begin designing its portion of the Haw River Trail. She saw nearby trails like Deep River Trail get state authroizations in recent years and wanted similar recognition for the Haw.
“I had been working on a draft bill,” Smith said. “I always figured when you’re asking someone to do something, it’s easier to go ahead and do the work and draft something.”
She drafted her bill based on the legislation of other nearby trails that had been recognized as state trails, then brought it to the desk of Sen. Galey. The man who got it on her desk was Bill Holman, a Pittsboro resident and N.C. director of the Conservation Fund, which aids state and federal agencies with conservation projects
“I think the legislation really complements the efforts already underway by the county to provide more trails,” Holman said. “With the rapid growth in the county, it’s really important to conserve some areas and provide outdoor recreation.”
Holman said he believes the bills have bipartisan support because of growing interest in trails in the wake of the Covid pandemic. With people looking to get outside more, trails offered a refuge for exercise and recreation. Usage of trails has continued at high rates, even after the peaks of the pandemic surge have passed.
Smith said it was fitting S.B. 100 was introduced on Valentine’s Day because the bill was a labor of love for the trail she’s devoted so much time and energy toward. But the real symbol of love would be seeing the bill become official — making Haw River Trail the 13th official N.C. State Trail.
“There’s a status and recognition that you get from being designated a state trail,” Smith said. “It carries more marketing clout.”
Holman said Haw River Trail was worthy of becoming lucky number 13 because of the substantial investment already put into the trail by Alamance and Chatham counties. The trail also serves as a connector between two state parks: Haw River State Park and Jordan Lake State Park.
The other advantage is the Haw River Trail could work with N.C. State Trail Planners to assist with technical assistance, design, marketing and more on trail projects for the Haw.
Ben Rippe, Chatham County Parks and Recreation trails and open space planner, would work directly with state trail planners in the Haw River. He said getting the designation would bring a huge boost to the county by giving it outreach potential and a better way to engage with stakeholders.
“State Parks would kind of take [the trail] under their wing once sections are completed and designated,” Rippe said. “So they would have it on their maps, advertise access points, trailheads, destinations, etc.”
Rippe began working with Chatham County in January, and previously served alongside state trail planners as the Piedmont Regional Trail Specialist for N.C. State Parks. Recently, Rippe and the county partnered with the Triangle J Council of Governments to conduct a feasibility study for the Haw River Trail.
According to the county website, this study will identify opportunities for the development of land-based trails along the Haw River from the Alamance County border to Jordan Lake. It will also identify opportunities for further development of the paddle trail along the Haw River in Chatham County.
The extra resources a state trail designation would bring are sorely needed for the Haw River Trail, Smith said. That’s especially true of the Chatham County portion of the planned trail, which Smith believes lags behind the Alamance County portion because Alamance has employed a trail planner for the Haw River Trail for several years.
“The Chatham County portion of the trail is all private land,” Smith said. “The lack of public access makes it hard for people to come to.”
The trail does have limited public accesses provided by the county parks and recreation department, but some are less than ideal. For example, one public access is along Chicken Bridge Road, which Smith said is steep and occasionally dangerous after heavy rains.
“Having state trail designation would make it more appealing for private landowners to want to work with us,” she said.
Securing private properties through state funds is how the trail will continue to develop because land acquisitions and easements will be needed to build the trail corridor. Improving public access and bringing more funding to Haw River Trail would also allow for sustainable design by minimizing harm to existing ecosystems, Smith added.
“This designation would build some political will and some social will,” Rippe said. “This is a desired resource for the community and getting that designation really puts a stamp on the map for Haw River in Chatham, Alamance and Guilford County.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article said S.B. 100 could lead to state trail "designation." However, the N.C. General Assembly "authorizes" state trails and the designation happens only once the trails are built, have been inspected by the state trails planner and designation status is approved by the North Carolina Trails Committee.