As a volunteer for the National Ski Patrol - 53 years and counting - I spend a good part of each winter with the Nordic patrol team at Mount Van Hoevenberg cross-country ski center. In spare moments during the past season, I obtained the names of more than 1,000 individuals in support of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates' rails-to-trails initiative to establish a bicycle and snowmobile trail running 90 miles between Lake Placid and Old Forge. (One my of most recent sign-ups was five-time Olympian Brian Shimer, now head coach of the U.S. men's bobsled team, which had just won two world championships at Van Ho.)
While some of the petitioners hail from the surrounding area - "locals" by definition - the vast majority come from elsewhere. These rail-to-trail advocates include residents from all across the Empire State, from neighboring Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, from as far away as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, even from distant Montana and California - plus many from just across the border in Ontario and Quebec. These demographics are indicative of widespread and powerful interest in a multi-use recreational trail through the heart of the Adirondacks.
When I asked if they would sign a petition in support of such a trail between Lake Placid and Old Forge, I was sometimes told, "I don't live here. Can I still sign?"
"Absolutely," I would say. "You're a perfect example of the very kind of person we hope to attract to the region. You come here to recreate and take advantage of what we have to offer. When you do come, you usually spend more than one day. You sleep in our motels and B&Bs, eat in our restaurants and shop in our stores. You spend money and contribute to the economy. If we had a recreational trail, our hope is that you would come back often to use it."
Nordic skiers tend also to be avid bicyclists. It therefore came as no surprise that most of the people I encountered loved the idea of a multi-use recreational trail. These are but a sampling of the many comments I received:
"An absolutely terrific idea."
"We have this where I live, and I can't tell you how successful it is."
"I can't wait for it to happen."
"To me, it's a no-brainer."
"Thanks for working so hard on this."
Larry Jewett, an avid rails-to-trails advocate who belongs to the 700-member Halton Outdoor Club in Burlington, Ontario, put it this way: "If you folks can get this trail off the ground, I promise you it will become a destination for Canadian bicyclists by the thousands."
Shirley Thomas from Webster, near Rochester, speaking for herself and three companions, had this to say: "Let me tell you something. We're all retired. We all ride bicycles. We are the kind of people you are looking for. We'd come here in a heartbeat if you had something like this. And we'd stay longer than just a day."
Finally, a woman - and mother - from Lake Placid who preferred to remain anonymous told me in no uncertain terms: "We desperately need a trail like this so our kids will have a place where they can ride their bikes safely. The roads around here are just too dangerous."
The message comes through loud and clear: "If you build it, we will come."
Meanwhile, North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas and several other "economic development" organizations named in my previous Guest Commentary (Enterprise, Feb. 13) remain steadfast in their support for the tourist train that runs from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake a few months of the year, and steadfast in their commitment to one day restoring freight and passenger service to the North Country. And yet, as promoters of economic development, shouldn't these same organizations be throwing their weight behind something far more realistic and beneficial: namely, the creation of a world-class recreational trail with the potential to bring tourist dollars in the millions to the region?
For their part, the Adirondack Scenic Railroad, encouraged by Tupper Lake businessman and developer Tom Lawson, is looking "to work with DOT (state Department of Transportation) officials to win a long lease (10 years or more) for the railroad operation," in an apparent maneuver to tie up the entire rail corridor for their private use for yet another decade (Tupper Lake Free Press, Feb. 22). The ASR insists that the tourist train operating between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake is profitable, though an examination of its most recent tax returns suggests otherwise (Enterprise, Feb. 1).
But even if it is making money, the question remains, "Who is it profiting?" According to Railroad President Bill Branson, "All profits in recent years were reinvested in upgrading rail stock and paying off old bills," (Tupper Lake Free Press, Feb. 22). As for the tourist train's anticipated economic benefits to the Tri-Lakes community, we are still anticipating.
In less than seven months since its inception, Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates has signed up more than 5,000 supporters. Public support for this trail is overwhelming, and it continues to build. If you believe in what we are trying to do and would like to help, I encourage you to visit www.TheARTA.org.
Joe Mercurio is a resident of Saranac Lake and a member of the steering committee of Adirondack Recreational Trails Advocates.