The Pisgah Conservancy is joining together with several organizations to undertake an ambitious trail rehabilitation project that could be a model for future efforts throughout western North Carolina.

So far, the effort has received support and funding from the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority (TCTDA), Trout Unlimited (Pisgah and Land of Sky Chapters), REI, Backcountry Horsemen, Mills River Partnership, Mountain True and Pisgah Area SORBA, as well as The Pisgah Conservancy.


The Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited initiated this project when it began noticing increased sedimentation in Cantrell Creek, which is located in the Pisgah Ranger District between Wolf Ford and the Turkey Pen parking area in Transylvania County. In many places, Cantrell Creek Trail had merged with the stream channel, eroding soil material into the stream. The absence of riparian vegetation along the streambed also contributed to the problem.

Rare species such as the Eastern Hellbender and Southern Appalachian brook trout inhabit the South Mills River watershed, of which Cantrell Creek is a part. These species need clean, cold, well-oxygenated water free of excessive sedimentation. Field observations had noted elevated sedimentation in Cantrell Creek and the South Mills River.

“We noticed significant sedimentation in the stream,” said Charles Crolley, communications director for the Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited. “Aquatic insects are a critical part of a trout’s diet. Sediment fills the spaces between rocks where those bugs live and reduces the amount of dissolved oxygen available to these organisms, causing a decline in the bug population. Over time, this can affect the stream’s ability to support healthy populations of trout and other species.”

The Pisgah Chapter of Trout Unlimited worked with the United States Forest Service (USFS) to develop a proposal that now includes closing a portion of the old Cantrell Creek Trail, restoring riparian vegetation along the creek, and building a new, sustainable 2 ½-mile trail on a ridge away from the creek.

While closing a trail, restoring a creek, and building a new 2 ½-mile trail might appear to be a minor project, the reality is that this type of work in remote areas, is costly and requires substantial coordination and resources.

“I was talking to someone at the Forest Service about different projects we could get involved in and they mentioned the Cantrell Creek Project,” said John Cottingham, Executive Director of The Pisgah Conservancy.

The project turned out to be a perfect fit for the organization, allowing it to use its resources to recruit additional funding partners, coordinate efforts between several organizations, and work closely with the USFS to fulfill the necessary federal requirements before the project could begin.

“In essence, we’ve become the project managers, said Cottingham, “And while ours is an important role, none of this would be possible without the participation of the United States Forest Service and the passion of the many organizations who’ve come to recognize the importance of this endeavor.”

One of those is the Transylvania County Tourism Development Authority (TCTDA), which recently announced a $20,000 contribution to the effort.

“While tourism promotion is our primary goal, we are keenly aware that tourism has an impact, and we have an obligation as an organization to support projects that sustain and preserve our natural assets,” said Grant Bullard, chair of the TCTDA.

The TCTDA funded the Cantrell Creek Project based on a new program entitled Transylvania Always, which was created to support local sustainability efforts and other initiatives aimed at caring for the county’s natural resources and improving visitor experiences. Past efforts have included a waterfall safety campaign and an ad campaign focusing on the many local groups that care for Transylvania’s natural resources. This pledge marks the TCTDA’s largest contribution to a single sustainability project.

Outdoor retailer REI Co-op has also contributed $20,000 to the effort. The contribution to the Pisgah Conservancy is part of the co-op’s effort to invest in nonprofits and community organizations that share the REI mission to protect public lands and ensure access to the outdoors for all. As a member-owned co-op, REI annually gives back nearly 70 percent of its profits to the outdoor community and in 2017, invested a total of $8.8 million in non-profit partners to steward more than 1,000 outdoor places across the country.

“The addition of $20,000 grants from both the TCTDA and REI to the funds already raised by Trout Unlimited and others provided a huge boost to the project,” said Cottingham.

So far, the various partners have pledged over $80,000, most of which will go to a professional trail building company that will be responsible for relocating the trail, utilizing trail and stream restoration techniques, managing storm water, installing check dams and transplanting native plants.

Their tasks are complicated by the remote location of the trail.

“Whether the work is done by hand or machine, remote work is much costlier than doing the same work right on the side of the road,” said Dave Casey, district ranger for the Pisgah Ranger District. “It’s also not just about getting from point A to point B – how you get there also matters. That’s a big part of what we value about our trails, the character of them and how they move you through the forest.”

Despite the challenges, Casey is excited about the project.

“It’s always great to have support from a wide range of user groups,” said Casey. “But this is going beyond support – this is real buy-in.”

Next steps

Having publicly announced its interest in undertaking the project and inviting public comment, the United States Forest Service is currently engaged in reviewing comments and preparing for the environmental and cultural assessment required by NEPA. This National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis is required for projects like this before an official decision to proceed can be authorized by the Forest Service.

“This process is underway, but will take some time to complete,” said Cottingham, “Once complete, we’ll then select and contract with a trail builder and move into the implementation phase. Our goal is to complete the project in 2018.”

Looking Ahead

Once the Cantrell Creek Project is finished, the improvements will benefit practically every user group in the forest: fishermen, hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Additionally, decreased sedimentation will increase the water quality of Cantrell Creek and the North Mills River watershed, and improve the habitat for insects, brook trout and the Eastern Hellbender.

As abundant as these benefits are, they might be just the beginning of something much larger.

“The Cantrell Creek Project has given us a real sense of what we can accomplish by coordinating our efforts,” said Cottingham. “There are several different user groups and organizations who care deeply about our public lands. The Pisgah Conservancy can help bring together these entities to tackle projects for the good of everyone.”

“It’s great to have a partner like the Pisgah Conservancy because part of their mission is to enhance the recreational experience of all visitors to Pisgah and not just one user group,” said Casey. “Their presence can serve to increase the cohesive nature of any collaborative effort like this.”

“One of the reasons we’re so excited about this project is its collaborative nature,” said TCTDA’s Bullard. “Sharing resources is a great way to achieve truly meaningful results. This project would not have been possible without the commitment of many groups. We look forward to being a partner in many more such worthy projects – and to help recruit other willing partners.”

Cottingham believes that individuals can play their part by contributing to organizations that support efforts like the Cantrell Creek Project. He also has some simple advice about our public lands.

“Cherish them. They are part of our heritage that has been passed down to us. How we take care of them is going to be our legacy to future generations."