Many belonged to some of the 200 people from across Alabama who had convened at JSU to talk about developing and popularizing recreational trails in the state.
The Alabama Trails Conference, which continues today, is being held in Calhoun County in part because organizers want to showcase trail development in the area. Conference organizers planned an opportunity for conference attendees today to check out the Coldwater Mountain Trail and the Chief Ladiga Campground where three area trails converge.
“Northeast Alabama has been bubbling for quite a while but now it’s begun to pop in regards to outdoor recreation,” said Rob Grant, with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.
But community leaders in attendance didn’t say they were interested in mimicking Calhoun County’s emerging trail system. Instead, they hope to find ways to fund trails that suit their own communities. The chief aim of the conference, in its second year, was to bring developers together to network and share ideas.
Comments from community leaders at the meeting indicate that the conference is achieving that aim. Thomas Tartt, mayor of Livingston, said he learned for the first time about the Alabama Scenic River Trail. Now, he said, he’s going to try to have a local waterway adopted into the 2,000-mile trail of navigable waterways.
Tammy Perry of the Heflin Parks and Recreation Department said she learned about grant opportunities for trail development. And because of the conference, she’s interested in developing a trail for all-terrain vehicles in her community.
“I’ve realized the tourism opportunities of ATV trails,” she said.
Erin Wiggins, with Tuscaloosa County’s Parks and Recreation Authority, and other leaders made a discovery of sorts at the meeting. Looking at a map of developed and emerging mountain biking trails, they realized there is a network of such trails within a short drive of their city, including the Coldwater Mountain Trail.
“Sitting there looking at it, you kind of put that together,” Wiggins said. “And somebody said ‘That’s like the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.’” That chain of golf courses, developed by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, has been marketed as a tourism draw for the state.
Officials like Wiggins, Perry and Tartt said they see trails as more than recreational pathways; they can also be money-makers.
“We’re starting to realize outdoor recreation is not just fun and games. It’s also an economic engine,” Grant said.
Calhoun County isn’t the only area in Alabama developing a network of trails. Baldwin County, home to Orange Beach, and Jefferson County are gaining recognition across the state for trail development, attendees said.
So too is west Alabama, and the Huntsville area, Grant said. And many more communities, including small cities like Livingston, want to get in on the act. The end result, organizers hope, would be a connected web of trails throughout the state.
With a panoramic view of the Appalachian foothills just outside the conference room windows on the 11th floor of Houston Cole Library, developers at the meeting touted the state’s geographic diversity. Alabama boasts coastal terrain and a freshwater river system high in biological diversity, in addition to the foothills local residents are familiar with.
“We can do almost anything in Alabama, trail-wise, that you can do in any other state,” Grant said.
Organizers expected just 170 attendees, a number that would have exceeded the roughly 125 who went to the first conference in Fairhope last year. They were surprised at the 200 who showed up.
The meeting is sponsored by multiple agencies, including the Alabama Trails Commission, developed in 2010 to establish one organization to facilitate trail development across the state.
“We noticed some things that were happening in Alabama that were fantastic, but they were all regional,” Grant said. ADECA, he said, is the commission’s parent organization.
The meeting — open only to those who’ve registered — resumes today with breakout sessions on small business opportunities and governmental requirements associated with trail development. Speakers also will discuss Alabama’s Forever Wild program, building volunteer groups and developing trail towns.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.