Meetings discuss river trail designation

John Burchett, a member of the Williamson Planning and Zoning Board, discusses access to the Tug River with representatives of Thrasher Engineering Tuesday morning during a river trails planning meeting. Burchett and other board members have taken the lead in eliminating hazards caused by a low-water dam in Williamson that is the only obstacle along the river’s path.

A series of three meetings were conducted this week to gather information and resources in an efforts for plans to proceed in gaining a West Virginia River Trail Designation for the Tug Fork River.

The meetings, conducted by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority and Thrasher Engineering, were held in Welch, Matewan and Williamson. Christie Bailey, executive director of the NCHAA, said meetings have been encouraging and were held as a follow up to a similar series of meetings held last December when the project first began.

“This all developed because of the excitement and the love people have for this river,” she said. “We have a master plan for our region but we also work where there is energy and there has been a lot of interest in the Tug Fork River. It is an important part of our history and for recreational tourism.”

She said the Commonwealth of Kentucky has already named the river as a Kentucky Blue Way and is hoping the West Virginia designation will be granted by the end of the year or by next spring.

She said her agency is gathering information and seeking state designations that will help to open the river up to tourism promotion and lead to recreational and economic development opportunities along the river from Welch to Ft. Gay. However, she said that the true potential of river activities and development will ultimately fall into the hands of local county and municipal governments, civic organizations and private entrepreneurs.

“Flatwater paddling (kayaking, canoeing, floating, etc.) is the biggest tourism opportunity for areas right now,” Bailey said. “It is a way for communities along the Tug to attract new audiences or to entice visitors to stay an extra day if they come for trail riding to other events.

David Hafley, of Thrasher Engineering, agreed with her. He said his company had completed a study of in 1995 for the Corps of Engineers — which is the basis for the new Tug Fork River Water Trail Access Plan — which included tennis and basketball courts and other traditional recreational areas.

“Over those 25 years, things have changed. Now, we are seeing an entirely different use for the river,” he said. “It is a dynamic environment. Nothing is static.”

He said the unique factor about the Tug River is the way in which it changes from the headwaters to its confluence with the Levisa Fork. He said the types of fishing changes from the cooler to warmer waters and as the river becomes larger as it heads toward the Big Sandy that small watercraft opportunities such as kayaking and floating abounds.

“We hope to create a master plan for the river and then hand it over to local communities to develop it into an opportunity for economic development,” he explained.

A survey conducted by Thrasher indicated one of the biggest needs in developing the river further was additional access points. During the three meetings, local leaders and private individuals provided information, based on their use and experience with the river, which included potential access points, parking areas and potential campground sites.

All information gathered at the meeting will be combined with the current access plan and will be used to help obtain the water trail designation.

“People love this river,” Bailey said. “We hope to make it a recreational and economic opportunity for our region.”

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