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Kudos to Gov. Cuomo for rail trail

A woman walks her dogs on the Virginia Creeper Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia. (Photo provided)

Thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his environmental agencies (Adirondack Park Agency and Department of Environmental Conservation), the long-awaited Adirondack Rail Trail has overcome legal roadblocks and is back on track. This means that Tri-Lakes residents and visitors should soon reap multiple benefits from the scenic travel corridor (the publicly owned rail bed) connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

Over the past decade, thousands of outdoor enthusiasts have petitioned the governor to convert this underutilized resource into a multi-purpose trail for bikers, walkers, runners and nature lovers of every stripe. It will also provide improved snowmobiling on a pathway well suited for this purpose.

What will this rail-to-trail conversion mean for the Tri-Lakes area and the Adirondack Park in general? Let me count the ways.

¯ RECREATION: Bicycling is perhaps the fastest growing form of active, outdoor pursuit for adults and families. And what better place for riding your bike than on the 34-mile Adirondack Rail Trail in a lovely natural setting? The Adirondack Rail Trail will be accessible every day in every way — and free of charge — to bikers, dog walkers, joggers, baby buggy pushers, wheelchair travelers, bird watchers, little kids with training wheels on their bikes, you name it.

¯ ECONOMICS: To judge by the economic impact of rail trails elsewhere, the Adirondack Rail Trail could be a bonanza for the Tri-Lakes. (Bicyclists are known among tourist promoters as “wallets on wheels.”) My wife Rachel and I have made a hobby of biking rail trails around the country, and we’ve seen firsthand how they stimulate business in rural towns. For example, the Virginia Creeper Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains — a region remarkably similar to ours — attracts some 250,000 trail riders a year. Many out-of-towners frequent local bike shops in Abingdon and Damascus, Virginia, eat at local restaurants, stay at local hotels and motels, patronize art galleries, bookstores, etc. Interestingly, the Virginia Creeper Trail is the same length — 34 miles — as the upcoming Adirondack Rail Trail.

Another great biking destination is the 20-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail linking Greenville and Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina. Both places — the revitalized city at one end and the little village at the other — have benefitted enormously from this rail trail. The Swamp Rabbit attracts more than half a million annual visits, according to a study by adjoining Furman University, whose students and faculty also make good use of this recreational amenity. Another favorite destination of ours is the Withlacoochee State Trail, which runs 46 miles from Citrus Springs to Dade City in central Florida. The state estimates “annual attendance” on the trail at over 400,000, with a direct economic impact of $30,139,500. The state also estimates that the trail supports 422 jobs and generates over $2 million in state sales tax.

¯ HEALTH: Rail trails also provide an easy way for people of all ages to stay fit and healthy. What a great way to get regular exercise and enjoy nature at the same time! It’s no surprise that the Swamp Rabbit Trail down south and the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail in Vermont are strongly supported by local hospitals. Rail trails are used for regular exercise (pedaling, walking or running) by folks of all ages and physical ability, from toddlers to centenarians. Many enjoy using rail rails for bicycle commuting. Others may bike before or after work (or school), or take a refreshing ride or walk on the trail during a lunch break. Those who are really gung-ho will be able to ride the entire Adirondack Rail Trail in one shot, pedaling from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake one day and back again the next.

¯ HISTORY: Rail trails are an ideal vehicle for celebrating our past, and the Tri-Lakes lends itself to historic interpretation. The Adirondack Rail Trail will start (or end) at the Olympic Village of Lake Placid, site of the Winter Games of 1932 and 1980 and the place where winter sports began in this country. Ten miles down the trail is Saranac Lake, once a world-famous center for the treatment of tuberculosis, with its unique cure cottage and cure porch architecture. Twenty-four miles farther on is Tupper Lake, once the center of the state’s lumbering industry and now home to the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks. On the way to Tupper, bike riders will skirt the St. Regis Canoe Area and other portions of the New York’s “forever wild” Forest Preserve, the nation’s first and most important experiment in wilderness preservation. The Adirondack Rail Trail can help celebrate this history by using interpretive signs and kiosks, and adapting station buildings for this purpose.

The Adirondack Rail Trail has been a long time coming, but it’s been well worth the wait. The old railroad, which did so much to open up the Adirondacks, operated from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries. Finally, it seems, our state-owned travel corridor will once again be put to a beneficial public purpose.

Dick Beamish lives in Middlebury, Vermont, and is a founding member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.