The Transylvania Times -

TNRC Hears Hellbender Trail Update – Transylvania County, NC


Last updated 2/1/2021 at 2:49pm

A bike and pedestrian “interstate” system, with over 150 miles of greenways, could eventually connect Transylvania with Buncombe, Henderson and Madison counties if plans for the Hellbender Trail come to fruition, according to Vicki Eastland, with the Land of Sky Regional Council (LOS).

Eastland was the guest speaker at Friday’s Transylvania Natural Resources Council (TNRC) meeting and presented a PowerPoint, with information about the project’s prospects in Western North Carolina. Additionally, in the meeting, Mike Santucci, DuPont State Recreational Forest’s assistant forest supervisor, updated the council on DuPont’s visitation numbers for 2020, which topped 1.1 million visitors despite being closed for two months in the summer.

Eastland said the trail’s completion is still several decades away and hinges on cooperation from the counties and municipalities included in the trail’s path, as well as access to funding for its implementation. Through collaboration with the four counties involved now, LOS hopes to create a plan that would eventually help secure federal funding.

LOS is a multi-county, local government, planning and development organization. LOS provides local governments in Western North Carolina with technical assistance to administer projects and programs that benefit the region’s citizens.

“We were thinking that we needed to make more regional connections connecting community to community, county to county,” Eastland said. “We thought it would be a good idea to basically pull together all the great planning work that’s been done around the region and try to get that into one consolidated plan to represent our regional trail aspirations.”

Connecting different county greenway and trail plans with each other into one regional plan allows Land of Sky to better be able to secure Department of Transportation (DOT) funding.

“When DOT funds a project, or selects a project for funding, that project needs to be identified in a local plan,” she said. “While there were a lot of local plans that were adopted, we wanted to make sure that any of these connections that might get a little fuzzy at county boundaries, because most things are done at the local and county level, we wanted to make sure we provided a plan that could capture all those potential gaps that were missed. Because as we submit projects and we prioritize sections, we want to make sure that they were planned, so that we could, hopefully, potentially, take advantage of some DOT funding in the future.”

The Hellbender Trail would also help increase public safety, Eastland said, as in the past 20 years both pedestrian and bicycle accidents have been steadily increasing, and the trail system would reduce pedestrian and bicycle user’s conflict with automobiles on the roadways. In the Hellbender Trail plan, Transylvania County would be part of the “blue line” and the “gold line,” which would eventually connect Rosman to Mills River and Brevard to Hendersonville, respectively.

The Brevard bike path already exists connecting downtown Brevard with the entrance of Pisgah National Forest along the blue line, and the rest of the line would follow along next to N.C. 280 from Pisgah Forest to Mills River and along U.S. 64 from Brevard to Rosman.

The blue line is still speculative and would need input from the City of Brevard, the town of Mills River, the town of Rosman, Henderson County and Transylvania County to be implemented.

Connecting Brevard and Hendersonville with the gold line of the Hellbender Trail would rely on the Ecusta Trail to make up that connection.

Most of the Ecusta Trail’s construction is planned and funded on the Henderson County side of the rail-to-trail line, but Transylvania County has yet to find a way to fund the Western section of the trail, and Transylvania County commissioners have yet to come forward to commit the county to the project.

According to Land of Sky, the majority of the Hellbender Trail’s greenways are either already built or are part of an existing county/muni-cipality’s plans to build in the future. The Hellbender Trail’s purpose is simply to stitch together plans from local plans to assemble clear regional connections. There are only 17 miles (or around 11 percent) of the Hellbender Trail that are not a part of a locally adopted plan.

Land of Sky plans to hold Hellbender workgroup meetings and consult with local governments and nonprofits to create partnerships for fundraising and promotion. So far, Eastland said Land of Sky has received 363 public comments, 339 of which were in support, five of which were against and nine of which were neutral.

New Business

In the new business portion of the TNRC meeting, Santucci was the only public land manager in attendance and provided a brief update on the forest. Visitation numbers topped 1.1 million in 2020 according to Santucci, which, factoring in the two-month closure of the forest due to COVID-19 last summer averages out to about another 110,00 visitors a month. Santucci said December 2020 was one of the busiest Decembers on record for the forest, with over 64,000 visitors. This spring, DuPont will be working on several parking lots in the forest, including at Lake Imaging, Hooker Falls, the visitor’s center and at Guion Farms. Santucci said visitors may experience lot closures in the coming weeks. DuPont is also close to finishing the renovation of the Lake Julia ranger station. In the Hickory Mountain Road area of the forest, there will be an 80-acre timber sale this year, with a focus on thinning some of the white pine plantation growth in the area and promoting natural plant community growth. Public facilities remain closed in DuPont due to COVID-19, Santucci said, and the state Forest Service is working to fill three vacancies in DuPont, which Santucci expects to be filled in the next few months.

Outside of the land manager update, TNRC chairman Kent Wilcox welcomed a new member to the council, Eric Caldwell, who previously served on the council when he was the county extension director. Caldwell now works with the Transylvania Economic Alliance. Council member Owen Carson gave an update on efforts to add a layer to the county GIS maps to include natural heritage areas at no additional cost to the county.


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