When it is, according to several biking and tourism experts familiar with the property's potential, Coldwater Mountain could become a regional, if not national, draw for mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians and other nature lovers.
Georgia's Mike Riter, president of Trail Design Specialists and a well-known figure in the world of mountain biking, sees the "potential for this trail system as one of the best in the South, if not the country."
Riter cites the Coldwater Mountain wilderness' proximity to roads, restaurants, motels and other facets of urban life, usually a rarity for bike trails that are challenging yet remote.
Situated near several state highways and Interstate 20, Coldwater Mountain could attract thousands of eco-tourists, an outdoorsy segment of the population that pumps an estimated $700 billion into the U.S. economy annually, according to a study done by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and The Conservation Fund.
"This is going to be a premium thing," said Greg Lein, who oversees the state's Forever Wild Program, the agency that purchased the Coldwater property in 1998. "It's an ideal location for a recreational user-group that's used to traveling," he said.
Calling it a "great opportunity," Betsy Bean, executive director of the Spirit of Anniston, said, "We could also capitalize on the interests of that group of people by developing public art and landscaping that reflect various outdoor interests such as bicycling, hiking, bird watching, etc."
During a Wednesday visit to the Forever Wild property by a reporter and photographer, a chill hung in the air. Below were rarely seen views of Anniston and Oxford. A rock-strewn path was free of litter, evidence of how few have visited the tract since it became a preserve 11 years ago.
The long journey to protect the property from developers and then open it for public recreation contains enough twists and turns to satisfy (or in this case, frustrate) any thrill-seeking mountain biker.
The Forever Wild program was supported by then-state lawmakers Doug Ghee and Jim Campbell of Anniston in the early 1990s. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the program exists "to acquire and protect selected wildlands having special recreational, scientific, educational and natural values."
Once ratified by constitutional amendment in 1992, the program began purchasing property for the public's recreational needs.
In early October 1998, the Anniston City Council agreed to a land transfer that would create a nature preserve on Coldwater Mountain. Under the arrangement, the city annexed the Coldwater Mountain property and the Alabama Forever Wild Trust purchased the land from several owners. As it does with all Forever Wild tracts, the Alabama State Lands Division manages the property.
By 2001, Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club members, with the help of trail-designer Riter, launched an ambitious plan to create a system of trails. By 2002, the first stage was complete.
Those plans hit a snag, though.
As the years rolled past, lethargy set in. No more trails were constructed. A public road and parking lot to reach the land were never constructed.
According to the state, the Coldwater Mountain property is virtually the only inaccessible Forever Wild tract out of 200,000 acres acquired since 1992. It turns out that proximity to cities — a rarity for Forever Wild properties and considered a bonus by trail enthusiasts — turned into a drawback as city hall politics led to multiple delays.
Since the tract's boundaries did not touch a major public road, a path to the property was needed, as was a place for visitors to park their vehicles; despite years of trying, neither the city nor private landowners could come to terms.
Also, the cost to the city to build a parking lot and an access road from Alabama 202 is estimated to be $389,000, an increase from an original estimate of $200,000. No money is set aside for the project in Anniston's 2010 budget. So far over the life of the project, the city spent $42,000, to conduct an engineering study.
Making things more difficult, the parking lot proposed by the city includes a steep ascent to reach the trail, a climb that would discourage any novice cyclist, according to Preston York, mountain biking vice president of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Club (NEABC).
When Forever Wild began looking for alternatives in 2006, Anniston officials asked the state for more time to pursue the city's plans.
Pete Conroy, a one-time member of the Forever Wild board and a member of the Jacksonville State University faculty, said the location of the parking lot is "a self-defeating argument." Conroy says let all three cities surrounding the Coldwater preserve — Anniston, Oxford and Hobson City — build their own access to the 4,000 acres.
"At some point, a reasonable person has to say, 'Enough is enough,'" Conroy said.
That point has come, according to Forever Wild's Lein. He was growing concerned about fulfilling Forever Wild's aims. Lein said the Coldwater property was "acquired to keep it from being developed and also to have a recreational component."
Chris Oberholster, state director of The Nature Conservancy, said Forever Wild properties weren't set aside to remain untouched by humans. The expectation is that the land would be used "eventually to have whatever public recreation that can be accommodated."
In late 2009, Forever Wild drew up a proposal for access via an alternate trailhead. It would be at the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board's Coldwater Springs location off Alabama 202. The property is inside Anniston's city limits but near Oxford.
The proposal calls for the Water Board to agree for a gravel road to cut across part of its property. The road would end on Forever Wild's preserve, where a parking lot can be constructed. The funds to pay for the road and parking lot would come from Forever Wild. The agreement bypasses the need to negotiate with private landowners, a difference from the city of Anniston's proposal.
"After all these broken promises and our board's frustration … we basically resolved that we're going to go to the Coldwater Springs property," Lein said late last month.
Jim Miller, general manager of the Anniston Water Works Board, last week called Forever Wild's proposal "essentially a done deal." Miller said the board agreed to the arrangement and that he was working out the fine details.
Miller said the gravel road will cut through a sliver of Water Works' property, away from the water treatment facility, which is secured.
Lein said Forever Wild's decision doesn't preclude Anniston creating an entry point at its preferred location overlooking downtown. In fact, the property is large enough to accommodate multiple places to park a car and enter the woods, he said.
Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson said he would like to proceed with the city's entrance closer to downtown. He said other pressing "basic infrastructure" matters must take fiscal priority before the city can turn to funding the Coldwater Mountain project, which he termed "a luxury."
Robinson prefers to rethink the plan's particulars. He proposed forming a committee of local residents and city officials along with engaging Toby Bennington, Anniston's city planner, to further discuss the plan. He said last week that he planned to put the matter on the agenda for Tuesday's council meeting.
Ben Little, the Anniston councilman whose ward includes the Coldwater property, is a proponent of the project. He expressed frustration with the time it has taken to make the land available to the public.
"This is just one of things that have been delaying this community for a long time, but I am definitely for it," Little said.
While granting Lein's point, the mayor invited the Forever Wild to visit the city to see "the new leadership" in Anniston.
Robinson said the city project would likely take years, not months.
Lein estimates work on the Coldwater Springs road and parking lot could be finished by this fall, if enough volunteers from the bike club pitch in.
For their part, local cyclists are ready to do what it takes at the Coldwater Springs site.
"Members of our club would appreciate and welcome the opportunity to volunteer and work with the State Lands Division to build a trail system on Coldwater Mountain," said Mike Poe, an NEABC board member. He predicted construction on the initial trails could commence in late fall/early winter.
Trail-designer Riter mentioned Coldwater Mountain's 4,000 acres alongside famous eco-tourism spots, including Moab, Utah; Sun Valley, Idaho; Boulder, Colo.; and Flagstaff, Ariz.
Those areas "are all nationally recognized recreation areas, not just because of their particular location, but because of the diverse opportunities so close to an urban center. Coldwater Mountain offers the same potential," Riter said.