November 20, 2008

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All aboard the bike trails
Riders envision statewide outdoor network
by Jeff Mucciarone news@hippopress.com

Rail trail advocates have a vision of connectivity between “linear parks” bringing residents up close to New Hampshire’s scenery, culture and maybe someday, just to work.

They see the criss-crosses of rail beds all over the state as a place to build a substantial network of trails to allow people to get outside in New Hampshire, while also as an economic stimulus and potentially an alternative method of transportation.

“They can connect communities in ways that have been bisected by highways,” said Erich Whitney, president of the Derry Rail Trail Alliance. “It’s a great way of getting people together. There are wonderful, very peaceful places to go to get a half hour workout. I really want it for my children.”

Activists met Saturday, Nov. 8, in Manchester to discuss a variety of rail trail issues, including funding, erosion, what to do with leftover rail ties and also beavers, which all too frequently in some areas look at drainage culverts as perfect for dams.

Piece by piece, rail trail groups look to make use of old, unused rail beds. A tough economy doesn’t make it easy. But it never really was anyway. Some say the incoming presidential administration could look to fund rail trail development as a means to stimulate the economy by creating jobs.

Speaking at a recent infrastructure summit in Manchester, Robert MacKenzie, who works with Manchester Moves, said that despite tough economic times, connecting rail trails could be as vital as ever. Manchester Moves looks to market and raise sufficient funds to extend and further connect the rail trail system.

“Many people need to spend more time outside,” said Jane Beaulieu, rail trail activist and Manchester state representative. “We need to introduce kids to these trails and being outside. It’s a great way, as a family, to be outside. Just walking and enjoying connecting to the wildlife, which there is still in the greater Manchester area.”

Officials have said a network of inviting trails might continue to attract a younger crowd to New Hampshire cities, such as Manchester. Others point to rail trail development around the country where restaurants, stores and naturally bike shops and other recreation-related retail outlets have opted to set up shop right along trails. But at the heart of the rail trail movement is a desire to provide an easy, even passive, recreational opportunity.

“Rail trails can handle a lot more diverse audience than mountain trails,” said Charles Martin, who wrote New Hampshire Rail Trails.

Martin has covered some serious ground on New Hampshire’s rail trails.

“It was really interesting,” Martin said of his quest in physically covering all the trails in the state. “We’d look at a map and try to figure out where the railroad ran and make up some kind of hypothesis. When I actually got out there, there were a lot of surprises, mostly positive.”

For example, Martin said the Fremont Branch of the Rockingham Recreational Trail had been rumored to be in terrible shape and not much fun. While the trail was in fact in rough shape, he said it had fantastic scenery and is now one of his favorites. In Cheshire County, Martin, who lives in New London, came upon a spectacular stone bridge on the Cheshire South Trail. “It was just gorgeous stone work,” he said.

A big part of Martin’s book was not only to push people to get out and enjoy the trails, but to push them to join a local rail trail group to help make some improvements on the resource, he said.

Martin and others would like to see the stretch of rail bed from Salem to Manchester turned into a trail. “It’s got wonderful potential,” Martin said. “There are all sorts of opportunities for improving trails.”

Further north in Andover, school children are using a small section of the Northern Rail Trail as a safe and efficient way to get to school, and the school uses it as a way to promote outings. The trail is 59 miles long, with 25 miles in Grafton County in pretty good shape, and with an eight-mile stretch in Merrimack County improved enough for four-season use, Martin said, adding that’s where a lot of his efforts have gone recently.

“We should keep in mind, by far the majority of usage is very local,” Martin said. “Walking dogs, families with little kids, kids on tricycles.”

But developing trails certainly isn’t free.

“Funding is a real issue,” Martin said. He said the state does have a bureau of trails within the Department of Resources and Economic Development that manages state-owned trails, but it doesn’t have a lot of money to work with. “They’re highly dependent on citizen groups to make things happen.”

Volunteer workers on the Northern Rail Trail received state grant money for $30,000 per year for three years. That will be good for fixing up about a two-mile section, Martin said.

“We’re all trying to figure out what’s going to happen when the new presidential administration gets in,” Martin said. “If there are work project kinds of things that the government sponsors, we think rail trails should be a focus of some of that money.”

Like advocates for the Northern Rail Trail, Whitney and the Derry Rail Trail Alliance are approaching trails one section at a time. The Alliance is looking to complete a two-mile section of trail from the Windham-Derry town line to Kendall Pond Road in Derry, where it would hook up with the existing Derry bike path. Whitney said in Windham, where activists have been particularly successful in developing trails, activists are looking to connect their section to Salem.

Activists walked away from the Nov. 8 meeting excited as attendance grew to about 45 people and attendees heard such a variety of ideas. One idea the group is mulling over is to decide how to set up a statewide umbrella rail trail group. Advocates say having a statewide resource for trail organizations could improve efficiency and productivity.

Beaulieu said a statewide group could be a clearing house of information. “It’s important for everyone to work regionally, so they can connect as efficiently as possible,” she said. 

The state did fund a 2003 study to assess the feasibility of connecting Salem to Concord through trails. It describes, logistically, how to make the connection, but there haven’t been any funding appropriations, Whitney said.

Beaulieu, who sits on the environment and agriculture committee at the Statehouse, hopes to be a voice for rail trail advocates in Concord. She also works with the Manchester Regional Trails Alliance and the Bike Walk Alliance of New Hampshire. She’s optimistic there will be federal money coming in for rail trail development in the Manchester area. If so, it would be funneled through Manchester Moves, she said.

Developing trails can be difficult depending on who owns the land. It hasn’t been tough in Derry as the town owns the bed, but in other places negotiations with land owners can prove difficult and lengthy, Whitney said. His group would like to take the trail north into Londonderry eventually, but he stressed that they’re thinking about one piece at a time.

“Windham’s trail gets tremendous use,” Whitney said, adding that his wife saw about 25 people out on the trail on a recent Monday afternoon. “Communities are getting the idea that it’s a good use of the land. It’s been idle for so long.”

In the Manchester area, things are happening with rail trails as well. Last month, Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail celebrated groundbreaking for a two-mile section of their trail. The trail connects to the Piscataquog Trail, which is also under construction. Construction was expected to finish up this month on the Goffstown trail (www.goffstownrailtrail.org).

While not every trail is finished to the extent rail trail advocates would like to see eventually, Beaulieu said there are substantial trail ways in place in the Queen City area. With a mountain bike, the Rockingham Trail, which parallels Candia Road, could be traveled all the way to the beach, Beaulieu said.

Complete and accessible rail trails could also make Manchester a more inviting location for travelers, Beaulieu said.

“If you want people to stay in Manchester, you want to offer some really good passive recreation options,” she said.

Rail trail groups are faced with some challenges just in physically clearing the way on trails. Many trails still have the old rails and ties left behind. The rails can sometimes have fairly significant scrap value and often, railroad companies pick up the rails and leave the ties, said Lowell Von Ruden, president of Friends of the Goffstown Rail Trail.

Other times, the state isn’t making it so easy to develop trails. Von Ruden said some people said at the Nov. 8 meeting that in the case of state-owned rail beds, the state wants the rails back but it’s not willing to go out and pick them up.

Beaulieu also looks at the economic aspect. “People really have to take a look at other parts of the country, and at development around trails,” she said. “They’re really going to stimulate more economic activity.”

Advocates say progress can be slow, but groups, small and large, are pushing forward.

“There’s a number of trails that connect together and a number of potential connections that are kind of in the works still,” Von Ruden said.


Rail trail resource links
Bike Walk Alliance of New Hampshire, www.bwanh.org
New Hampshire Rail Trails, www.nhrailtrails.org
Rails to Trails Conservancy, www.railstotrails.org
Windham Rail Trail Alliance, www.windhamrailtrail.org
Derry Rail Trail Alliance, www.derryrailtrail.org
Department of Transportation Bicycle/Pedestrian Information Center, www.nh.gov/dot/nhbikeped
Northeast Greenway Solutions, www.greenwaysolutions.org