In his recent commentary concerning the best use of the 90-mile section of rail bed connecting Lake Placid and Old Forge, Dan McClelland expressed his suspicion that I have "ulterior and selfish motives" for wanting to replace the rusting rails and rotting ties with a recreational trail for bicycling, running, strolling, etc. and for a much-improved snowmobile trail in the winter. What he and his associates seem to believe, to judge by rumors circulating around Tupper Lake, is that I harbor a hidden agenda for wanting the tracks to be removed. Once the tracks are "ripped up," so the scare-story goes, I and the other "preservationists" will manipulate the state into placing the entire rail bed in the Forest Preserve.
Why would we do this? Because, according to the rumors, it will enable us preservationists to realize our dream of creating the "Bob Marshall Great Wilderness," a diabolical land grab that will swallow up the old railroad right-of-way in a state land classification (wilderness) that prevents any motorized use. The corridor would disappear into the forever-wild Forest Preserve, never to be seen or heard of again.
These suspicions have given pause to the snowmobile lobby, whose constituents would dearly love to have the tracks removed. But the snowmobile clubs and the state snowmobile association are hesitant to force the issue because they fear they'll lose the corridor altogether.
It's time for a reality check. The board of directors of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates consists of eight individuals. Four of them are devout snowmobilers, including Jim McCulley, who is president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club. (They are also bikers, walkers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.) The other board members, myself included, do not, as far as I know, engage in motorized sports. But all of us recognize that this rail corridor could easily and inexpensively be converted into one of the great recreational trails in the United States, and one of the principal tourist destinations in the Adirondack Park.
But if the suspicions of Mr. McClelland and his cohorts are correct, I am secretly scheming to undermine my colleague's efforts to create a world-class recreation trail between Lake Placid and Old Forge. These suspicions, like most other arguments for restoring rail service between Lake Placid and Utica, make absolutely no sense. The rail corridor is managed by the state Department of Transportation; a state management plan sets forth alternative recreational uses for the corridor if the tourist train does not prove a marketing success (which it has not at the northern end of the line). The plan clearly states that the rail bed will remain a "travel corridor."
There is no move, by any individual or group, to eliminate the corridor by adding it to the Forest Preserve. The Adirondack Council, which conceived of creating the Bob Marshall Great Wilderness, has stated in writing that it will respect the integrity of the corridor if the tracks are removed.
Granted, I do have a history of opposing snowmobile use in the Forest Preserve. I believe that "forever wild" should be the prevailing principle governing the use of these lands and that motorized use there should be minimized. But the rail bed, which has been used for snowmobiling for decades, seems the perfect place for this winter activity. The route is long, straight and scenic. Without the tracks as obstacles, the use and enjoyment of this corridor for snowmobiling would be multiplied. There would be no harmful effects on the adjacent Forest Preserve. As for noise and pollution, snowmobiles are becoming quieter and less polluting with each passing year, as new machines replace the old ones.
Nor can we deny the positive impact of snowmobiling on otherwise moribund winter economies, Tupper Lake being a good example. With the tracks removed, Tupper would share some of the economic benefits of snowmobiling with Old Forge. Large numbers of snowmobilers would ride north from Old Forge to Tupper, and from there connect with hundreds of miles of trails in St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. In short order, Tupper Lake could become a major hub for snowmobiling in the northern Adirondacks.
And in the spring, summer and fall, in the course of a year, hundreds of thousands of bicyclists (no kidding!) would pedal into town.
Mr. McClelland labeled me a "preservationist" and noted my association with various environmental groups. I'll admit it. He's got my number. I am a card-carrying preservationist who believes that we must preserve what's left of our finest natural areas, such as the Adirondack Park. But I also believe there's plenty of room for compatible economic development, as exemplified by the proposed Adirondack Rail Trail. The benefits of this one-of-a-kind recreation trail, to communities like Saranac Lake, Lake Clear, Tupper Lake, Beaver River, Big Moose and Old Forge, would be substantial. In fact, recent studies (including one by the Adirondack Scenic Railroad) show that the potential benefits of the Adirondack Rail Trail to our tourist economy would be 30 times greater than the economic benefits from extending the train from Lake Placid to Utica! Beyond that, and equally important, the recreational, health and quality-of-life benefits for residents and visitors alike would be immeasurable.
Regardless of what Mr. McClelland might be telling people, I would like to see more snowmobile use of the rail corridor for the reasons noted above. And yes, I'll admit this too - my motives are at least partly selfish. I want to ride my bike on the Adirondack Rail Trail someday soon with my wife and friends and grandchildren. I want to be able to bicycle regularly and easily from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid, well away from the noisy, dangerous traffic on Route 86. I want to bicycle in the other direction to Tupper Lake, past beautiful lakes, forests and wetlands of our "forever wild" Adirondack Forest Preserve. And after a good meal and overnight rest in Tupper, maybe pedal on down the line to Horseshoe Lake, Lake Lila and Beaver River on the Stillwater Reservoir.
I suspect I will have plenty of company.
Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is on the ARTA board.