Fostering Community & Connectivity on NEPA Trails

Helena Kotala, Program Manager Central Region

This May, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) released NEPA Trails: Assessing Community and Connectivity in Northeastern PA, which focused on assessing the cycling “ecosystem” in an eight-county region of northeastern Pennsylvania. While the region that “NEPA” encompasses varies depending on whom you ask, for the purposes of this report, PEC focused on the counties covered by the NEPA Trails Forum – a loose alliance of those involved with trail development in the region. 

Those counties are Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne, and Wyoming. It is an area perched on the eastern edge of the Appalachians, replete with mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. It is also home to one of the largest reserves of anthracite coal in the world, and the region’s history is steeped in extractive industries. The coal boom brought thousands of immigrants who settled in the region, contributing to the culture and heritage it boasts today, but with the waning of the coal industry in the 1950s, the area felt the strain of economic decline. 

More and more, similar communities are looking to outdoor recreation to fill the void left by industrial and extractive industry and provide resilience to downturns in the economy. Outdoor recreation is already a part of economic diversification efforts in NEPA, and it can continue to spur development and tourism as well as provide a better quality of life for those who call the region home. 

The original intent of the assessment was to examine the feasibility of connecting communities by converting abandoned rail corridors into trails. However, once work began, PEC’s project team realized that the obstacles facing trail development were longstanding issues that wouldn’t be solved by looking solely at railroad corridor connectivity. Many feasibility studies have already been done, and the region already boasts dozens of multi-use trails, more than 100 miles of single-track mountain biking, and almost unlimited gravel/mixed surface riding opportunities — but the region could benefit from more work to foster connectivity, culture, and a unified regional brand.

With that in mind, the project team took a broader approach to the assessment, not only examining all the unbuilt trails and trail gaps, but also assessing the region as a whole through the lens of a cyclist. This included collecting data on gravel and low-volume roads, long-distance connections and neighboring trails, complementary assets, events, organizations and advocates, and more. 

Local stakeholders were engaged via in-person mapping and “visioning” workshops, interviews, and a public survey. They also had the opportunity to comment on the region’s strengths and opportunities, as well as areas where improvements could be made. A year’s worth of research and information gathering culminated in the publication of the 180-page document, which is meant to be a roadmap and resource for stakeholders in moving forward with funding and implementation of the provided recommendations. 

Some of the recommendations coming out of the report include:

  • Identifying a lead organization: The need for a coordinating entity to drive the work forward through coordination, convening, collaboration, and communication was heard loud and clear during public outreach. 
  • Conduct an economic impact study: Measuring current and future impact of cycling and outdoor recreation in the NEPA region will be a key tool to garner support and foster buy-in for trails and other cycling assets from elected officials, community leaders, and others. 
  • Develop a regional cycling brand and network identity: A cycling-centric form of branding would help the region develop a reputation as a destination for trails, amenities, and a thriving cycling culture. 
  • Work to fill critical gaps in the multi-use trail system: The “spine” of the interconnected multi-use trail system in NEPA is a north-south corridor spanning the D&H, Lackawanna River Heritage Trail, and D&L Trail. Closing the gaps in this corridor would create a continuous trail from New York to Philadelphia, connecting into the Circuit Trails network and East Coast Greenway. 
  • Create and promote gravel connections and routes where appropriate: With the increase in popularity of gravel riding, low-volume roads pose a viable solution for connecting trails as well as standing on their own in the form of mapped gravel roads, especially in the northern half of the NEPA region where gravel roads are numerous. 
  • Foster buy-in from communities and create a culture that is welcoming to cyclists: In order for NEPA to thrive as a cycling destination and a better place for cycling for locals, the recommendations laid out in the report need to have buy-in from community leaders and the public, and the culture needs to foster a welcoming environment for cyclists — pieces of the puzzle that are just as important as physical connectivity. 

Read more about these recommendations as well as explore the planned trails and trail gaps, existing assets, and public engagement results in the full report here

Funding for the assessment came from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER (POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative. POWER directs federal resources to communities affected by job losses in the coal industry.