At the annual Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau partners luncheon last Wednesday, Monongahela National Forest Service District Ranger Cindy San-deno gave a presentation on current projects and future plans for the Monongahela National Forest and the communities it encompasses.
The Mon is a special forest in that it consists of nearly one million acres of land spread throughout 10 West Virginia counties and is the fourth largest national forest in the eastern United States. It is home to low valleys and high peaks, as well as plant and animals species, some of which are only found in West Virginia.
With such an integral piece of land, Sandeno said the forest service is focused on creating an atmosphere that not only attracts visitors to the forest, but to the communities in which it continues to thrive.
“In Pocahontas County, the forest is definitely a huge backdrop when it comes to tourism and when it comes to recreation,” she said. “We’ve been working on this for about a year now, and we’re really trying to look at the communities that we serve, those communities that are surrounded by national forest and start looking at the recreational opportunities, and look at where there are other ways to grow.”
The forest service is collaborating with West Virginia University to collect data on ways the Mon can work with the local communities to create an all-inclusive experience for visitors. The information collected will go into a database and will be linked to websites of individual businesses and locations – for instance, the CVB’s and Watoga State Park’s websites – to ensure visitors get all the information possible when they plan a visit to the forest.
“We’re just starting that process and the idea being either one – we could export all of this into some sort of app that people could use when they come to the area – or, if they are other users that already have apps like one the one I’m going to talk about in a little bit – the International Mountain Bike Association – we can make sure our data gets into their applications so that when people come here, they’re looking at the data that we have, as well,” Sandeno said. “I think this is going to be a very important tool as we move forward.”
Sandeno said community meetings are happening now and two have taken place in Marlinton, so far. Once the meetings are finished and information is compiled, the forest service hopes to work with the West Virginia Division of Tourism to assist with marketing plans.
“It’s not about marketing the forest,” she said. “It’s not about marketing these individual towns. It’s about – how do we get this regional brand that will help us to sell these communities and these destinations? Talking with the Division of Tourism, they’re very interested in helping us to promote these communities, but they can’t do each individual community. So, if you develop this regional brand, then they’re going to help us tell the story and help get folks to come here.”
During the two Marlinton meetings, Sandeno said participants helped identify five key pieces on which to focus for the marketing of Marlinton. The first is becoming an International Mountain Biking Association Riding Center.
“IMBA is an international association that has a ton of members,” Sandeno said. “They do an incredible job of marketing mountain biking and in West Virginia, we have all these opportunities, but we just haven’t banded together to talk about our trail systems as a whole. So over the last year, with the leadership of [CVB executive director] Cara Rose, working with Doug Arbogast, working with Snowshoe, we’ve been trying to map and inventory all of these rails, finding out what criteria they meet, adding all the services because we’re going to apply in about a month to have a Ride Center designation.”
With the IMBA Ride Center designation, the bike trails of Pocahontas County will be advertised on an international level, attracting avid mountain bikers to visit the area.
“We’re going to be one of very few across the country of places that people come to specifically to mountain bike,” Sandeno said. “It’s not just people in Spandex who are really hardcore. Part of the application is making sure you have services for families because IMBA is interested in bringing the whole family to these places.”
After the initial designation, Sandeno said it is possible to rise through the ranks from bronze classification to gold classification, which is the goal for Pocahontas County trails. She added that there are hopes to create more Ride Centers in West Virginia to make a Regional Ride Center in the state.
“We would really like to work with some surrounding communities so that, potentially, we could have a ride center closer to the New River Gorge, we could have our ride center, we could have something up in Davis and Thomas, and then we could become a Regional Ride Center for International Mountain Biking,” she said. “If we had a Regional Ride Center, they could start in New River Gorge, spend two weeks [on the Ride Center] and never ride the same trail. That’s kind of what we’re working toward.”
The other four goals are: to have year-round sustainable recreational opportunities, recreation as a tool for education, connecting people to their heritage and being mentally and physically healthier by being outside.
Sandeno admitted she could speak for hours on the potential of the Mon and communities working together, but she narrowed it down for the meeting.
While the luncheon is used as a tool to connect tourism-based businesses and non-profit organizations in Pocahontas County, it is also a time to celebrate those who make tourism in Pocahontas County possible.
Each year, the CVB selects a Tourism Person of the Year and for 2018, that person was Mary Snyder, of Cass, who has had a 41-year career at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park.
Snyder was introduced by Cass Superintendent Benny McCune, who said he was pleased to bestow the honor on his friend.
“This person is very dedicated to tourism – has been for several years,” he said.
“She is very dedicated to Pocahontas County and has been for life. They were born here, raised here, raised a family here, worked here and like I said, they have done everything in their whole life in Pocahontas County. I’ve had the privilege of working with this person for several years, and we’ve become very close in friendship.”
Snyder was shocked by the honor and was nearly struck speechless.
“People who know me know I never have anything to say,” she said. “I want to thank all of you. It is an honor. I love tourism and even though I retired, I hope I can continue doing it. Thank you very much.”
During the meeting, representatives from Snowshoe Mountain Resort, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Watoga State Park and the Green Bank Observatory gave updates on the past winter season, as well as plans for the upcoming summer season.