Trails don’t build themselves and it takes a great deal of motivation and innovation to get trails on the ground. Beth Heile took it upon herself to champion trails in Valdese that have become a seven-figure asset to the local economy and provide countless benefits to residents in the community. What started as an idea has transformed not just Burke County, but was the catalyst for Year of the Trail itself. Read along to hear, in Beth’s own words, her story of trail innovation.
“Pure selfishness took me down the path to becoming a trail innovator.
In the summer before my son started first grade, we left Wake County to move back to my home county of Burke for small-town life. From then on, we hiked, biked, or paddled in western North Carolina every weekend. We started local, then hit all trails within a 30-minute drive, then an hour out, and so on. At the breaking point of doable day trips and some overnight camping trips, I learned about 300 undeveloped, forested acres on Lake Rhodhiss in my hometown of Valdese.
My immediate thought was, “If we had 300 acres in our backyard, we could play every day after school, and that would be awesome.” I was determined to find a way to acquire the property for a passive park with plenty of trails for my family and for everyone in Valdese.
Fortunately for me, outdoor proponents are extremely helpful and encouraging. As I was looking at how to structure an organization, how to fundraise (I knew nothing of grants), and how to create a basic master park plan, I received tons of advice and guidance. For getting started, I owe many thanks to Kate Dixon – Mountains to Sea Trail; Bill Blackley – Elkin Valley Trails Association; Susie Hamrick Jones – Foothills Conservancy; the late Doug Youngblood – Partners for Parks. I am grateful they were willing to share their wisdom with an unknown person with no track record, no position of authority, and no grasp of the lingo. I was just a local who wanted to bring a park and trails to her hometown.
In 2015, I founded the all-volunteer 501c3 Friends of the Valdese Rec (FVR), with the driving force being to acquire the property while at the same time supporting all town parks and providing programming. Fast forward to today, and Friends of the Valdese Rec has been instrumental in securing $1.23M in private donations and $2M in state grants (I obviously learned about grants along the way) for the land purchase and phase one amenities (2-mile greenway, 7 miles of other marked trails, restrooms, overlook, parking, kayak launch, fishing pier, picnic area). In addition, FVR has provided over 4,000 volunteer hours on hard labor, trail building, and maintenance, and that does not count the events promoting the park. We continue to work on the next phases, which include a pavilion and mountain bike trails.
With a daily visitation average of 400 people and an annual economic impact of $1.4M to the town, this park has made a difference. Aside from the numbers, the physical, mental, and social health of residents is the big win.
I may have been the lead driver for trails in my area, but I had a full load of help in the bus. And, not just a regular bus, but one of those with an accordion connector for even more seats for supporters, donors, and volunteers! Community effort sums up Valdese Lakeside Park.
How we became trail builders
The Valdese Lakeside Park master plan called for a tenth-mile section of trail out to the future overlook. I felt this would be a great place for FVR volunteers to learn to build trails. Out of what became ten regulars, I was the only one who had been “trained” and consisted of attending a Northwest NC Mountain Bike Alliance half-day trail maintenance class. But with the Trail Solutions book in hand, new tools community members had purchased as Christmas presents in the names of their loved ones, and a digital level to make sure we had the 3-5% outslope for the tread, we spent ten official work weekends and plenty of in-between hours hand building a 3-foot-wide natural surface trail that could be ADA complainant it was so smooth and so perfect.
Building on that, in May 2021, I was a student in the inaugural weeklong trail maintenance class at McDowell Tech. Steve Pierce and I attended as Friends of the Fonta Flora State Trail officers to support this exciting new program in western NC. With this training, I learned people did not take five months to smooth and overanalyze a tenth of a mile of trail. With that knowledge, I was confident that FVR volunteers could do longer sections.
As chance would have it, there was a section of legacy trail at Valdese Lakeside Park that was on a manufacturer’s property. While they had allowed it to be used for three years, they decided the trail needed to be shut down. Again, I was on the receiving end of kindness, as local trail icon Tim Johnson took my family under his wing to guide us in making a trail reroute possible. In developing this 0.35-mile section, he worked with my son Zakk on the basics of trail design, guided my husband Eric on excavator use, and helped me know what equipment to rent from Bobcat in Lenior (where we are now frequent customers). He certainly followed that old adage of teaching them to fish!! We get nervous when he comes back to “grade” our work, and our volunteers often ask, “What would Tim do?”
We were also fortunate to have the local Mountains to Sea Trail crew led by Doug Veasey and Tom Coffey work alongside FVR volunteers over a weekend. Seeing how another team toils together was inspiring. We have since completed another 1.6 miles of trail at the park and are awaiting NCLWF approval to do more.
How Trail Funding and Year of the Trail is helping
In February 2020, I became a board member of the newly formed Friends of Fonta Flota State Trail (F3ST). At the same time, I joined Judge Bob Hunter, F3ST Founder, in the beginning meetings of what would become the Great Trails State Coalition. The first round of trail funding we were able to secure for the Complete the Trails Funding is helping communities across our area.
There are obvious funds that assist the state trails with the capacity funds that allowed F3ST to hire a full-time executive director and project funds to get Fonta Flora State Trail on the ground. However, the land acquisition and easement funds are helping Valdese as Wilderness Gateway State Trail comes through our parks and town. A 5-acre parcel was purchased to serve as a trailhead that expands a local park footprint, plus the survey, legal fees, and trail design adjacent to another park are covered.
In 2020, NC Rep. Hugh Blackwell envisioned a trail that would bring economic development opportunities to small towns in Burke County. He and I have been working on this 20-mile Burke River Trail section by section, uncovering housing and business opportunities. The Complete the Trails Fund includes a competitive grant process to connect small towns to state trails. Most of the towns along this route will have connections to state trails and be eligible to apply, which will really create mini trail towns that once housed furniture and textile mills.
An incredible part of Year of the Trail has been the educational piece. Everyone is learning the importance of trails and wants more in their area. Elected officials understand what a trail can do for their community and want one in their town. Families are learning trails are for everyone, not just for the experienced outdoor adventurer. Branding has also been key. Friends of the Valdese Rec has been able to use the logo and message to elevate our events from the 365 Mile Challenge (participants move 365 miles on Valdese trails in 2023) to our regular weekly group hikes to our October 21 Great Trails State Day 1000 Mile Challenge.
After volunteering all these years as a trail advocate, a natural shift is taking place as I have become a champion in advancing rural NC communities. Trails are a big part of the effort as they are the path to many of the things rural NC needs – quality of life, housing, business, tourism, new residents, transportation, conservation, and jobs.”
Learn more about Valdese Lakeside Park at https://friendsofthevaldeserec.org/