Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Jeff Lusk was all smiles as he drove a four-seater All Terrain Vehicle through a portion of the newly opened Pocahontas Trail section of the Hatfield McCoy Trail, but as soon as the traveling party stopped on Windmill Gap, Lusk was hard at work returning text messages on his BlackBerry.
“It does get a little stressful just before we open a new section of the trail,” Lusk, 42, said. “There are a lot of things that need to come together, and it can get complex.”
For the past six-plus years, Lusk has guided the fortunes of southern West Virginia’s Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, and has pushed the system from its relatively humble origins 12 years ago, to a booming business that has breathed new life into coalfield communities that were on the verge of disappearing all together, and created a new class of budding entrepreneurs with rooms to rent and breakfasts to cook.
The seeds of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system were planted in 1990 when Leff Moore and John English recognized that the number of people coming to West Virginia to ride off-road vehicles appeared to be growing every day. The unregulated access to privately-owned inactive and active coal mining lands in southern West Virginia was a problem for mineral resource development companies, and riders seemed to push the elements on their rides with some ending in tragedy.
Four-wheeling is still dangerous in West Virginia where the average number of deaths is 40-50 per year, but during the 12-year period that the Hatfield-McCoy Trails have been open, more than 200,000 permits have been sold, and only three deaths have happened on the trail. “Speed, the use of alcohol and a lack of safety equipment is usually associated with each ATV fatality,” Lusk said. “We address all of those issues.”
During the past nearly seven years, Lusk has marshaled the trail system’s dramatic growth and has maintained the system’s commitment to safety as well as environmental stewardship.
“We build less than 10 percent of the roads in the system,” Lusk said. “Most of the roads already exist as logging roads, coal haulage roads or trails that have been in use for a while. Some of them may be overgrown and we have to cut the brush back. When we come upon open dumps, we clean them up. Sometimes, if we can find an address or information that leads us to the people who used the dump, we contact them and make them clean it up. We have found many open dumps, and have cleaned them up.”
Lusk is a child of the West Virginia mountains. A native of Cyclone, Wyoming County, he is the son of James and Beulah Lusk, a retired coal miner and caterer respectively. “Now that my dad’s retired, he works with mom in the catering business,” Lusk said.
After graduating from Oceana High School, earned an undergraduate degree from Penn State University in State College, Pa., and was on his way to take a position in the health care management field when his barber — also a member of the Wyoming County Commission — asked him to consider staying at home and serving as the county economic development director.
“I liked the idea of being able to stay close to home,” Lusk said. “I made a deal with the county commission that I would work as economic development director, but I wanted them to pay for my schooling to get the proper training for the job, let me work four days a week and do my college work on the fifth day and give me a car to travel to Huntington and back.”
He said it was difficult, but he earned two masters level degrees from Marshall University in political science and public policy, plus he earned advanced certification in economic development fields and for 11 years, shared an office with State Senator Richard Browning, who is also executive director of the Coalfields Expressway Authority.
Despite the incredible intensity that he brings to the position of executive director of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, Lusk is a people person. The national network of associates he has nurtured in just six years has given him an incredible resource of people to contact and spread the word about developments on the system.
A few weeks before the trail opened, Lusk invited his friends, Melissa and Brian Fisher of the Outdoor Channel’s popular series, “Fisher’s ATV World” to visit the Pocahontas Trail for an up-coming episode of the show. As Lusk showed the Fishers — a husband and wife team from Pennsylvania — through Bramwell, it was obvious that they had become very good friends.
Lusk said that the Fishers have done 12-14 shows from the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, and said they have done a preview of each of the trail openings throughout the six years he has been associated with the trail.
“We love it!” Lusk said “We can’t reverse the impact that the extraction industries had on the region, but we can make strides with truly reshaping our future and do it in a way that it brings new opportunities to entrepreneurs in many ways. We can never replace the jobs that the extraction industries employed, but we can bring thousands of jobs to the region. We’ve already brought hundreds of jobs here and more are on the way.”
Lusk is proud to say that the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System is the safest managed trail system in the U.S., while operating in the second-most dangerous state in the nation in terms of ATV accidents and fatalities. The system has been recognized nationally for its safety record, is tops in safety in the northeastern U.S., and third nationally, according to Lusk.
“The Pocahontas Trail is in a great position with several miles of great trails and a lot of history,” Lusk said. “What we can do right now is get lodging and infrastructure here to meet the demand. People who come to this trail want to be able to park their trailer, unload their ATV and not load it back up until their ready to go back home,” Lusk said.
“What we really need now is people — entrepreneurs — who can invest in a facility that will serve ATV riders,” Lusk said. “They need to have property and access to the trail. Right now, there are several entrepreneurs who are fixing up a couple of rooms for riders to use and I think that’s great. But in the near future, we need some large lodging facilities at the trail head. ATV riders won’t want to stay at motels in Bluefield or at Exit 9 in Princeton and travel back and forth to the trail. When that kind of development happens, there will be no limit to the potential for growth here.”
Lusk praised the efforts of his deputy executive director, John Fekete, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail crew and the area cooperation for getting the trail ready for its opening. During the preview ride earlier this week, Lusk and Marie Blackwell, of the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau spoke about the potential for the trail. Blackwell is a member of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail board of directors.
“We opened in 2000, and we were in ‘USA Today’ this morning (on May 21). We have grown a lot in just 12 years,” Lusk said during a brief break on the preview trail ride. Lusk said that the land owners of the region have been good to work with as well as Mayor Louise Stoker and the Town of Bramwell, the Mercer County Commission and local entrepreneurs and residents. Everyone on the preview trip was excited about the trail and thrilled with the experience.
Lusk smiled briefly, shook the thoughts of the abundant blackberry bushes the group passed during the three-hour tour, picked up his BlackBerry and resumed communicating with the outside world. The Hatfield-McCoy Trail System has arrived in Bramwell.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com