Friends of the Cheat (FOC), the non-profit working toward restoring the health of the Cheat River, was awarded a $3 million grant on Monday, December 10. The grant is federal dollars made available by Congress to the Office of Surface Mining and then funneled through the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The state DEP administers this grant program named the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program.
With the funds, FOC plans to implement a layered project with environmental, recreational, and economic implications. This multifaceted project also has a daedal title to match.
“The title of the project is probably the best acronym I’ve ever come up with in my life,” FOC Executive Director Amanda Pitzer said. RE-CREATE: Reclaiming the Cheat River as an Economic Asset through Trail Enhancement.
By way of trail building bolstered through a community enhancement program, FOC plans achieve their goal as an economic asset to these communities along a portion of the Cheat River.
The foundation of the project is the Cheat River Rail-Trail. The majority of the grant funds, around $2 million, will be used to construct the trail. The proposed route parallels the Cheat River Narrows, a popular class two and three whitewater paddling spot, for about 8.5 miles.
Re-decking and improving a preexisting 430 foot trestle bridge over the Cheat River is included in the trail project plans.
FOC purchased this property from CSX and are required to address contaminants in the soil. “So it’s really likely that the trail will be paved,” Pitzer said. Paving makes the project more expensive, but it also makes the trail more user friendly. “It’s kind of a risk that became an opportunity, so we’re excited that the trail will likely be paved,” Pitzer said.
In addition to the rail-trail, a hiking trail will spur off and lead up Lick Run. The spur trail will run from the Preston Site, cross over Rt. 72, and lead up property owned by FOC that leads to the Lick Run Portals. The portals are abandoned mine land, half of which is reclaimed, half is not.
“It makes it a really unique place for people to learn about acid mine drainage and mine reclamation,” Pitzer said. The dichotomy between the two halves is startling. On the left there is a reformed hillside with grass. On the right are three open portals discharging hundreds of gallons of polluted water. “It’s an otherworldly scab of metals,” Pitzer said.
Additional project plans include an outdoor learning park at the portals for tours and school groups to hear from mine reclamation experts. Because Lick Run is the largest source of acidity flowing into the Cheat, FOC wants to conduct bench testing experiments at Lick Run to implement acid drainage management.
The Trail Town component of the project complements the other facets as the large economic driver. The Trail Town component is simulated after the Great Allegheny Passage Trail Towns project. “We’re going to bring experts in to Rowlesburg, Kingwood, Albright, and Tunnelton to work with community groups, small businesses, volunteers, to help prepare for our new trail economy,” Pitzer said.
Experts will facilitate the towns’ work to take advantage of the economic opportunities provided by trail and recreational access by conducting assessments to address community needs. To further economic growth, $50,000 of the grant funds will go back to the businesses and groups involved in the program. “That is the homerun. That’s what we’re most excited about,” Pitzer said.
“We’re not going to just build a trail through the woods and expect to change the economy in Preston County. But with this Trail Town component, we really can,” Pitzer said.