Submitted by Joan Ashley
Franklin is one of 10 incorporated towns considered as Monongahela National Forest (MNF) gateway communities, that have banded together to enhance local social, ecological and economic health and vitality. The towns are known as Mon Forest Towns.
“It’s exciting!” said Ciara Warner Lambert, MFT representative and executive director of the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce. “I see it as a new partnership. We’re beginning in stages, and we (Franklin) have a foot in the door. The MNF opened up this program with a Hub Group, and Franklin is one of the hubs,” Lambert said.
The MNF covers almost one million acres spanning across eight counties touching dozens of rural communities which are tied together by the forests, mountain streams and wildlife that have drawn people together for centuries. It provides hundreds of miles of land and water trails, unique camping opportunities, rugged topography and some of the darkest skies in the country for star-gazing, according to its website.
In 2016, MNF in partnership with West Virginia University and USDA Rural Development brought together stakeholders, sharing a recreation vision for each county and its surrounding area, to use the forest and community assets to facilitate rural prosperity and economic development. MFTs provide meals, supplies and lodging for the visitors. Connected to the forest and each other, they share a vision for a sustainable future where nature, visitors, communities and economies thrive.
On June 13, 2019, the group representing nine counties met at a Mon Forest Towns Summit to launch an official recreation economy-focused partnership. In October 2021, a strategic plan outlining the mission, vision, objectives and seven goals of the partnership was adopted.
The goals are to improve community health by promoting outdoor recreation activities and infrastructure improvement; to support the growth of local recreation and tourism-based businesses; to market the uniqueness of the MFTs and recreation opportunities; to develop world-class trails and outdoor recreation opportunities; to increase year-long recreation employment opportunities; to create enjoyable downtown experiences; and to develop a sustainable partnership framework.
A marketing committee was established in 2020 to develop and coordinate activities and a grants committee in 2021 to aid in identifying funding opportunities.
The MFT Partnership (MFTP) Grants Committee, chaired by Doug Arbogast, WVU Extension Service rural tourism specialist, includes representatives from the regional planning and development councils, Benedum Foundation, non-profit organizations, USDA Rural Development, AFNHA, and economic development authorities to leverage their resources to pursue grants for priority projects.
More than $460,000 has been awarded directly to the MFTs with another $1.5 million to the partners aiding regional development. Emphasis has been given to both the MFTs as a whole as well as each town individually.
Each of the 10 communities have installed MFTs gateway signs and are working on interpretive Wayfaring signs to help visitors find and understand local points of interest.
In partnership with MFTs with Benedum Foundation and WVU funding, a team from WVU’s Recreation, Parks and Tourism Resources Program and WVU Extension Service are developing a visitor survey and a resident survey.
The visitor survey targeted at Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and Washington, DC, is intended to gather information from the tourist’s perspective of recreation in and around the MNF area.
The resident’s survey is intended to learn more about regional collaboration on recreation economy from those who live in the eight counties (Pendleton, Grant, Tucker, Randolph, Greenbrier, Webster, Nicholas and Pocahontas).
Pendleton County’s gateway sign refers to satellite points of interest – Seneca Rocks, Brandywine Lake, Spruce Knob and Smoke Hole.
“As I said, it’s exciting! Covid interrupted us, but we’re starting up. Enthusiasm fires are getting lit a little bit more and community engagement is getting started,” Lambert said.
[In April, Seneca Rocks was admitted as a Mon Forest Town and is the first unincorporated town to join the partnership after four years of trying to be admitted.]