Mile by mile, WVU is trailblazing recreational paths for current and future Mountaineers to enjoy.
It’s an unseasonably warm February day in Morgantown, but a cool breeze is moving through a wooded valley tucked away in West Virginia University’s downtown area.
At the end of Outlook Street, less than one-half mile from the Mountainlair student union, Vaike Haas, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and a group of her students are taking advantage of the nice weather to work on a project near and dear to her heart.
Donning hard hats and carrying shovels, garden hoes and spades, the students walk down a dirt trail leading into a forest-like area.
Today's task is to work in teams of two or three to uproot invasive, non-native plants and replace them with persimmon.
Their efforts are part of the Falling Run Greenspace project, an ongoing University-wide venture that began in 2012 with the acquisition of the Falling Run Valley property.
The vision evolved into a strategy to turn over 94 acres of underutilized wooded space into a series of trails connecting WVU's downtown area to the Organic Research Farm on Route 705 and Mileground Road.
In the spring of 2014, as a relatively new faculty member at WVU, Haas was approached by Dan Robison, dean of the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, about serving as the lead designer on the new initiative.
Robison and Bob Jones, then dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, advocated finding a way to utilize the newly acquired University property — which is adjacent to Falling Run Road — to complement the University’s land-grant mission and strengthen ties with the Morgantown community, the Core Arboretum and the Farm properties.
“We brainstormed ideas including the possibility of the space being an extension of the Core Arboretum or of the farm properties,” Robison said. “The only thing we knew for sure was the need to form a committee of stakeholders who might find this exciting and identify a faculty member — or members — who would really embrace this project.”
Although a vision for the space had yet to be identified, it was obvious to the deans landscape architecture was going to play a pivotal role in helping the project come to life.
"As someone with a strong disciplinary interest in natural systems, Vaike was the perfect choice to take the design reigns," Robison said. "Additionally, she was a new faculty member, and we saw this as a great opportunity to get her engaged right away."
When Haas talks about the project, you can see the excitement, dedication and pride in her eyes.
"This is a legacy project," she said. "We're creating an accessible, vibrant oasis with the potential to become a central park for Morgantown.”
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Haas has worked with a small committee of WVU personnel to spearhead the planning efforts, including faculty and staff from the Eberly and Davis Colleges, Facilities and Planning, and the Office of the Vice President for Administration and Finance.
As the project scope has grown, the Center for Service and Learning has embraced the Falling Run Trail project and highlighted the opportunity in its programming.
With 13 offices involved, the effort can truly be defined as OneWVU.
Since 2014, Haas has dedicated over 963 hours to analyzing the space, conceptualizing and developing the design, and developing the master plan.
She even involved several of her landscape architecture classes to help identify vegetation, develop restoration strategies and align, grade and pin flag trails.
And that's a fraction of the total time — and workforce — invested University-wide.
One of the staunchest supporters has been Vice President for Administration and Finance Narvel Weese, who saw the potential for the property when it was acquired in 2012.
“We saw an opportunity to establish a natural space that could serve as a potential complement to the Core Arboretum and as student recreation,” he said. “This is one of the last large undeveloped tracts in central Morgantown. We have a real opportunity to create something extraordinary and of lasting value for generations to come.
“It is wonderful to see the enthusiasm that students have for participating in the building of the trail network. We hope this will serve as a real connection to the community.”
To help bring an administrative voice and knowledge to the table, he tasked his senior advisor, Julie Robison, with serving as the initiative's project coordinator.
Robison, who has a background in urban planning, was particularly eager to step into the role.
“When all is said and done, this will be a place where you can really go and get away and experience a very pristine nature close to campus,” she said. “I think that all people need that. They need to be rejuvenated by nature, and this will be a beautiful place for that to be.”
In early 2016, the project’s master plan was presented to both college deans and then to Weese, who proposed engaging students in trail-building as part of new service learning initiatives.
In May, the University Planning Committee approved a construction budget for the initial phases of the Falling Run Greenspace.
What had been theoretical until this point was now becoming a reality.
Every August, thousands of new students descend on WVU’s Morgantown campus; the University greets them with a variety of Welcome Week activities to help ease the transition into college life.
The 2016 event included, for the first time, a service component for all freshmen.
“It was a deliberate choice to involve freshmen,” Haas said. “When they helped build it, whether or not they take to trailbuilding, they know it’s something that’s going to be there for the next four years and beyond. That’s a huge advantage to this style of volunteer coordination. The sense of ownership dramatically increases.”With assistance from the Center for Service and Learning, Kate Bolyard, a graduate assistant in Weese’s office, mobilized 495 volunteers — including recruitment and training of crew leaders — to help with trail construction.
“After such a successful Welcome Week, I started planning fall 2016 volunteer sessions to keep moving forward in the trail-building,” she said. “So far, we’ve been able to build roughly 2.8 miles of trail with the help of 153 crew leaders and 727 student volunteers.”
Additionally, the sheer volume of volunteer hours dedicated to the project has allowed for the dedicated $104,000 budget to remain, as of right now, to go untouched. The teams can put those funds toward bridges, gravel paving, and boardwalk and ramps to make the primary trails ADA accessible.
A grand opening and ribbon-cutting is scheduled for April 29 at 3:30 p.m. at the
trailhead at the end of Outlook Street.
By the Numbers:
Total Volunteer Hours
WVU Departments Involved
Number of Trails
Total Length of Planned Trails