Forest collaborates with communities to create Mon Forest Towns

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The Monongahela National Forest consists of 919,000 acres of protected land in 10 West Virginia counties. Along with maintaining the land, the U.S. Forest Service is tasked with creating opportunities for locals and visitors to enjoy the beauty of the forest as well as the amenities in surrounding areas.

The latest effort – Mon Forest Towns – is a new tool implemented by the forest service to attract visitors to the small towns that are surrounded by the forest.

“It was an effort for the forest service to kind of step outside of our boundaries and to step into the communities that surround the forest and really start working on a relationship in terms of how we work together and the services that we provide that impact the surrounding communities,” Marlinton District Ranger Cindy Sandeno said. “We were really surprised by how much people were interested in working together and what a big economic driver recreation on the national forest is to these small communities within the forest.”

The forest service has partnered with West Virginia University Extension Office and USDA Rural Development to help build and maintain an economy built off of recreation, tourism, healthy landscapes and active land management with 10 towns – Thomas, Petersburg, Davis, Parsons, Elkins, Franklin, Durbin, Marlinton, Cowen, Richwood and White Sulphur Springs.

“All ten of the incorporated towns that we have as Mon Forest Towns right now have signed the Memorandum of Understanding, so it’s official as far as the towns are concerned,” resource assistant Clinton Gabbert said. “Now we can move forward with these towns and work with them to see what kind of projects they would like to work on as Mon Forest Towns.”

The forest service hopes the new initiative will not only attract new visitors but also encourage them to stick around and patronize the towns, or visit a neighboring town after they take in what the forest has to offer.

“I think at the end of the day, what we’ve learned by working together is that all of these communities have just these really cool things that make them unique, that make them special,” Sandeno said. “If somebody is going to travel to, say, Marlinton, maybe they’re only going to spend a day or two, but if we can connect all these communities together as a region – as a tourism region – then folks may start in Marlinton, but hopefully, we’ll be able to encourage them to check out things in Cowen and in Elkins.

“So, really, the idea is to get people to come here and spend more time exploring all the wonderful things the forest and these communities have to offer,” she added.

Bringing together communities that are so wide spread can seem like a daunting task, but Gabbert and community outreach liaison Megan Mason Dister have been able to bridge those gaps with meetings with each town’s officials to plan for the future.

Gabbert is the resource assistant for the southern towns, while Talia Schwel-ling is doing the same for the northern towns.

“Clinton and I have been able to attend town council meetings in White Sulphur Springs and Marlinton; virtually in Cowen because it was a snowy day, and then Clinton has been able to have meetings in Richwood,” Dister said. “Our role is to try to continue to develop these relationships and meet with the towns individually and see what is going on in their communities, what projects they are working on and how we can connect them to each other.”

Part of the initiative is creation of gateway signs to be installed at the entrances of the towns. The signs were designed to showcase the individuality of each town, while maintaining the same overall design.

The signs state – Mon Forest Towns – and each “O” is filled with an icon that showcases attractions, recreation related activities and other things the towns are known for having.

“They are not installed yet,” Sandeno said of the signs. “They are actually in production right now. The plan is that each of the towns will be able to install them after April 8. I know Petersburg in particular is super excited about their sign and they are planning a big ribbon cutting. We’re hoping that each of these communities will do something like that.”

With such a big undertaking of bringing 10 towns together to become one big marketable destination, partnerships are key and Sandeno has been pleased with the amount of work put into developing the initiative.

“What has been amazing about this whole effort is how many people have been excited and started to work together that haven’t worked together in the past,” she said “One of the partnerships that we’ve developed in the last two years is with the Woodland Development Group. They secured funding for business development in the ten counties where the Mon Forest falls.”

WDG received a grant for $1.3 million for three years, and it is geared toward business development, business coaching and business loans within the Mon Forest Towns partnership.

“So far, they’ve worked with twenty-one different communities,” Sandeno said. “They’ve worked with forty-eight businesses to help them with everything from getting a loan to getting registered with the state, to building a business plan for a new business. In 2019, they were able to provide almost one million dollars in loans for businesses. They’re providing capitol and training, so that’s just something that’s going to continue to grow over the next couple of years.”

The West Virginia Hub also applied for a grant to provide additional assistance to develop downtowns and work in the communities. That grant will be used to help six of the Mon Forest Towns.

Along with working on the initiative, the forest service is also focused on maintaining and creating new programs for forest visitors. Sandeno credits Gabbert and Dister with being major assets to the forest service and the programs they offer.

“I haven’t taught Megan and Clinton to brag about themselves enough, yet,” Sandeno said. “They are the boots on the ground. They are making the meetings happen. They’re making sure that we have a presence in the community, but they’re also working on some pretty darn exciting projects.

“Clinton right now, is working on a birding trail that’s going to have stops in all of the four towns in the southern part of the forest and, hopefully –  next year – we’re going to be able to include the northern towns, too,” she continued. “He’s going to identify ten prime birding spots because birding is such a growing recreational activity that we want to bring folks here. We’ll have stops close to each of the four southern Mon Forest Towns so people can stop and spend time in the communities, as well.

“Megan’s been involved in creating signage – interpretive signage for the Greenbrier River Trail,” Sandeno added. “Basically, there will be interesting and historical and natural history facts on some of the signs. But there will also be signs saying, ‘Hey, Marlinton is up ahead. Here’s some great things Marlinton has to offer.’”

Dister is also working on establishing bike repair stations which will include information about the trails in Pocahontas County, as well as have tools to make minor repairs to bikes of all sizes.

Encompassing all that can be done and experienced in the Mon Forest, and the towns within, has been a great effort on the part of all those involved, so much so that it was hard to have just one tagline for the Mon Forest Towns initiative.

“There are two that I love,” Sandeno said. “I really think they encapsulate what the area is about. The first one is, ‘Rural in Nature and Epic in Adventure.’ I think sometimes, living here, it’s easy to forget all of the amazing assets that we have –fishing, waterfalls, hiking trails. This is a pretty amazing place to be and Mon Forest Towns is really about making sure it stays that way, but also introducing new folks to that.

“The other one that I really love, because I think it really ties the forest and communities together so well, is, ‘Surrounded by Nature and Rooted in History,’” she continued. “All of these communities – they were tight and they were built because of the timber resources that were here and because of the rivers, so they’re all still rooted together in that long history.”

For more information on Mon Forest Towns, visit https://publicinterestdesign.wvu.edu/mon-forest-towns

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