Capitalizing on natural blessings

A bicycling family absorbs local history along Pennsylvania’s Ghost Town Trail, one of more than 2,000 rail-to-trail conversions in the United States. (Photo provided — Patricia Tomes)

Rail trails are catching on all over, and not just in this country. Take, for example, the recent story in the New York Times under the headline: “Success of Irish trail shows that maybe you can eat the scenery.”

A long-standing lament by those who live in scenically splendid but economically challenged places is that you can’t make a living — and feed your family — on natural beauty alone. Sound familiar? But the old complaint that “you can’t eat scenery” overlooks the fact that many tourists are attracted to beautiful, unspoiled places — and the cumulative effect of these folks can mean a big boost to local economies. This is especially true of bicycling tourists, a breed of vacationer and weekend adventurer known in the tourist trade as “wallets on wheels.”

Great Western Greenway

The Times story described a rail-to-trail conversion in the west of Ireland, a 26-mile pathway for cyclists and walkers that stretches from sheltered Westport harbor to the wind-blasted rocks of Achill Island on the wild Atlantic coast. The rail-trail is known as the “Great Western Greenway.” Constructed on the bed of an old railway, it is “one of a growing number of country routes that aim to improve recreation, health and job opportunities by tapping into Ireland’s love of the outdoors, whatever the weather.”

The response to this recreational development was described as “highly positive.” According to local officials, the trail had already attracted enough new tourist money to cover most of its cost of $9.3 million only a year after it opened in 2010. “At least 200 new jobs were created in pubs, hotels, bicycle rental and other tourism-related businesses, and over a quarter-million people now use the trail each year.”

There are instructive parallels between the Great Western Greenway and the greatly anticipated Adirondack Rail Trail, a 34-mile bikeway planned for the little-used rail bed connecting Lake Placid, Ray Brook, Saranac Lake, Lake Clear and Tupper Lake. For example, the usage projections for the Adirondack Rail Trail equate almost exactly with the actual experience of the Irish rail trail.

Extending the season

The Times story continues: “There is a rueful saying in the west of Ireland that ‘you can’t eat scenery,’ but it’s only half true. During the summer, tourism is the lifeblood of the beautiful Atlantic seaboard. Some hope that new walking [and biking!] trails and greenways can extend that season into the rest of the year.”

Extending the tourist season is something the Adirondack Rail Trail can also do for the Tri-Lakes. Think of how many bicyclists will gravitate here in the spring and fall, as well as summer, as word gets out about this delightful new bikeway in the northern Adirondacks. Think about the intensified winter use of the trail by snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers. And think of the long-range benefits of the Adirondack Rail Trail as we increasingly lose our snowy winters to global warming — a process that is unfortunately well underway. The bicycling season may eventually run almost year-round.

Widespread support

More than 400 local businesses have called on the state government for quick action on creating this much-needed tourist amenity. So have eight of the nine municipalities along the route. Ditto with 13,000 petitioners — this being where we stopped gathering names some years ago, having made the point that a great many people support rail trails. (Had we kept signing up supporters, we could easily have amassed 100,000 names by now, thanks largely to the growing popularity of bicycling as an outdoor activity that can be enjoyed by almost everyone over 5 years old and under the age of 90.)

The Adirondack Rail Trail will be a boon for public health, fitness and safety. It will open a new pathway for enjoying our natural bounty and thereby enrich the quality of life for residents and visitors alike. Last but not least, it will serve as a year-round stimulus for local economies.

So let’s get on with it!

Dick Beamish is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and founder of the Adirondack Explorer news magazine.