Blackwell

Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-86)

RALEIGH — A bill to add two trails to North Carolina’s state trails system has passed both houses of the N.C. General Assembly and been presented to Gov. Roy Cooper for approval.

House Bill 532, introduced by Reps. Hugh Blackwell (R-86), Mitchell Setzer (R-89), Chuck McGrady (R-117) and Josh Dobson (R-85), authorizes the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to add both the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail (a federal trail that runs through Morganton) and a new Wilderness Gateway Trail to the state’s trails system.

Blackwell told The News Herald in April that Wilderness Gateway would be a new trail with an undetermined route, but that he wanted it to provide more access to South Mountains State Park for those traveling on Interstate 40. Blackwell said at that time Wilderness Gate likely would travel along either the Henry Fork River or Jacobs Fork River into Catawba County, and go west toward Henderson and Rutherford counties. Blackwell also said he would like the trail to connect areas north of I-40 to the park and that the trail also would give Catawba County access to South Mountains State Park.

He also said that adding North Carolina’s portion of the Overmountain Victory trail to the state trails system would provide more access to the state park. Blackwell said that since the trail runs along U.S. Highway 64 near the western border of South Mountains, he hoped that adding the trail to the state system would invite collaboration between the federal and state governments to make the park more accessible.

H.B. 532 includes a feasibility study by the state’s division of parks and recreation of connecting the town of Valdese, the city of Hickory, the Overmountain Victory trail, natural areas within Burke and Catawba counties, and other communities and places of interest to Wilderness Gateway. The study also would include a specific directive to consider improving access from I-40 to portions of South Mountains State Park.

According to Section 2.(b) of the bill, parks and recreation would be directed to report its findings to the Environmental Review Commission and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources no later than Dec. 1.

The bill also directs that natural and cultural resources department to support and facilitate the establishment of segments for both trails on state park, state-owned, federal-owned, locally owned and privately owned lands. The bill says there will be no required appropriations for these additions, but the state can receive land donations and purchase other needed lands for the trails with existing funds in the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and other available sources of funding.

Section 3 of the bill also makes several technical, clarifying and conforming changes to the State Parks Act and the North Carolina Trails System Act:

» A clarification that the natural and cultural resources department has responsibility for the planning and coordination of state trails, as components of the State Parks System, authorized by the General Assembly.

» A change removing references to "scenic" and "recreation" trail classifications.

» A change to the definition of "trail" to remove the "park," "designated," "scenic," "recreation," and "connecting" classifications.

» A requirement that the natural and cultural resources department must post any selected trail route both online and at the proposed trail location, removing the current requirement that the selected trail route is published in a newspaper of general circulation and the appropriate courthouse.

» A clarification that segments of state trails that cross property controlled by agencies or owners other than the Division of Parks and Recreation shall be governed by the laws, rules and policies of those other agencies or owners.

» A clarification that nothing in the North Carolina Trails System Act would preclude a component of the national trails system from becoming part of the state trails system.

Section 4 of the bill would formally transfer authority to administer the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund from the Department of Environmental Quality to the natural and cultural resources department. The section also would designate the director of the Division of Parks and Recreation as having the authority and responsibility to accept or administer funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, subject to the State Budget Act.

The bill passed 110-5 with five excused absences in the N.C. House of Representatives and 46-0 with four excused absences in the N.C. Senate.

Justin Epley can be reached at jepley@morganton.com or 828-432-8943.

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