In 1994, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF) decided the state of South Carolina needed a greenway. Connecting the sea to the mountains, it would be a sort of interstate highway for hikers and mountain bikers.
In those days, South Carolina had a much different kind of state government. Then-governor Carroll Campbell allocated the first funding for what has now become the Palmetto Trail, and with the combined efforts of the U.S. Forest Service, state parks, and various corporate sponsors, the hope was to get the greenway finished in 10 years.
Instead, it's been almost two decades, and the existing Palmetto Trail is 100 miles shy of completion. One of 16 cross-state trails in the country, the Palmetto Trail starts with the seven miles of the Awendaw Passage (which begins at the trailhead at Buck Hall National Recreation Area) and winds all the way up the state to the Oconee State Park. It weaves through forests, battlefields, and metropolises, through four distinct ecosystems and varying elevation. But there's still plenty of work to do, and PCF doesn't have as many resources as it did in the past.
"The state cut us under the Sanford administration in 2007 completely," explains Natalie Cappuccio Britt, the executive director of PCF. "That really had an impact more on the maintenance than anything else, because while we were getting cut, other state agencies were getting cut that would partner with us to help maintain the trail."
The lack of state funding forced PCF to seek corporate support — in fact, much of the trail has been built with help from companies like BMW, outdoor supply chain REI, and Duke Energy. Things starting moving again in 2009, but PCF was still in need of a master plan so that they could start filling in the trail's gaps, and start improving existing passages too.
Now, thanks to funding from the Boeing Corporation, PCF will be able to develop that plan for the Palmetto Trail. They've hired Alta Planning & Design, a national company that helps develop biking and hiking communities, which will be working with the Mt. Pleasant-based Seamon Whiteside + Associates on the project.
To help put together the master plan, Alta and PCF have hosted public input meetings across the state, including one last week in Awendaw. It was the sixth and final workshop, following sessions in Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Newberry, and Sumter.
The goal of the meetings was to get one-on-one input on the trail from members of the community, whether they be hikers, volunteers, or government officials. The room at the Sewee Visitor Center was set up with stations, and guests were invited to leave comments about their vision for the trail's future, mark maps with possible trailheads, and offer adjectives to describe the trail that may be used in future marketing campaigns. After a short PowerPoint presentation from Alta, attendees raised their hands, offering suggestions for issues like lack of water sources and clarity in mapping and signage.
Alta is taking every single individual's input and compiling the information into a comprehensive report, which PCF will use to make the greenway better. Britt says these contributions are crucial, especially since different areas of the state want different things from the trail — the Upstate may need more bike access, but the Lowcountry just wants more people to know that the trail as a whole even exists. "Those are all things that are going to make it easier for us to work with our corporate funders to say, 'In your neck of the woods, this is what people really want, and we have a proven log of that,'" Britt says.
Now that the public workshops are complete, Alta will go back to the different communities and work with organizations like the Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Service to get even more information. "As a small nonprofit, we don't have the technology that they have," Britt says. "They're going out and actually doing all the field work."
The company will also come up with an economic impact study that will show the financial effect the trail has on individual communities and on the state as a whole. And if you've never heard of the trail, even if you're familiar with sections of it, that's exactly one of the problems that PCF is hoping to rectify. Once the trail is complete, marketing and branding will become a major priority — they want to create a cohesive trail. They also hope to install map kiosks and correct some of the out-of-date information that's available currently on guide websites.
"We're going to develop a whole new rebranding logo, everything, so that it becomes much more obvious that you're on a through-hiking or through-biking system," Britt says.
While there are no more public input sessions planned, the information-gathering phase will last until the end of the month, so users of the Palmetto Trail still have an opportunity to voice their opinions. Britt encourages them to visit finishthepalmettotrail.org.
Currently, there are 350 miles of Palmetto Trail available to the public for use, and PCF just recently opened its 24th passage on the route. With renewed interest in greenway options throughout the state, Britt thinks the time is right to finish the job.
"We just need a little bit of funding and a little bit of direction so we can open up a lot of great trails relatively quickly. We just need this plan to finish some of the key pieces," she says. "We're in the final stretch, and I think that this plan is the catalyst for us to finish it."