Recreation Trails: Biking, Walking, Roller-Blading, Snowmobiling . . .

(from Maine Townsman, June 2005)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

The date recreational trails became a subject of statewide interest can’t be fixed precisely, but it may well have been when a three-mile bike path opened along the new Coastal Connector in Topsham and Brunswick just over a decade ago.

The paved path had been constructed with federal transportation funds that came along with the new road – a bypass for congested Route 1, which then ran through downtown Brunswick. While too short to interest many cyclists, the path was an instant hit with walkers of all ages. It became so popular that the towns added trash containers and, eventually, regular police patrols. A new form of low-impact, all-season recreation had been added to Mainers’ routines, and soon trail projects were being proposed all over the state.

While the Topsham-Brunswick trail was not the first of its kind — trails in Saco, Portland and many other communities had been attracting recreational walking, as distinct from the traditional mountain hiking — it seems to have put the concept on the map, so to speak.

Now, more than a hundred municipalities around the state are hosting trails, or hope to soon, as the movement grows in size, popularity and economic impact. The trails themselves are diversifying from urban paths, which feature walking, biking, cross-country skiing and roller-blading, to longer rural trails, where snowmobilers and in some cases ATV users hope to join the fun.

A sign of the movement’s maturity was the organization last year of a statewide coalition called Trails for a Healthy Maine (www.bikemaine.org/trailsbond/) that lobbied for a $10 million trail bond, and received an endorsement in March for a $5 million stand-alone bond from the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. (As of early June, the proposal remained before the Appropriations Committee.) The bond was in addition to the $1 million contained in the Baldacci administration’s transportation bond proposal, which would leverage an additional $2 million in federal funds.

Trail advocate and coalition organizer John Andrews, a retired engineer who lives in Biddeford, points out that at least four major trail projects of statewide significance have started construction or received state funding: the Eastern Trail in York and Cumberland County; the Mountain Division Trail, which follows an abandoned rail line to the New Hampshire border; the Kennebec River Rail Trail from Gardiner to Augusta, and the Sunrise or Downeast Trail, which would follow the old Calais Branch for more than a hundred miles, from Ellsworth to at least as far as Machias. These “shared use trails,” most of which would allow some seasonal motorized uses, are in various stages of planning and completion. But they all need new sources of funding, Andrews said.

“We’ve identified at least $58 million in immediate construction needs,” Andrews said, “trails that can be built right now.” At present rates of state and federal funding, “They’d take decades to complete. We can’t afford to wait that long.”

Part of the coalition’s idea is to link trails in a statewide network, with the major trails furnishing a backbone and encouragement for local extensions, much as highway and rail systems developed, or, to use a recreational example, the International Trail System for snowmobiles in Maine and Canada.

The rails-to-trails movement, which has furnished many valuable rights-of-way for new paths nationally, came relatively late to Maine. Northern industrial states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota have been converting abandoned rail lines to recreational paths for nearly 30 years. Much has been learned from trail projects elsewhere, and from the pioneering Maine efforts. Organizers have learned to expect resistance from neighboring landowners, at least at first, and the necessity for being patient – sometimes very patient.

Along the Kennebec

The Kennebec Rail Trail, one of the first to receive federal funding, provides much of this history in a nutshell. Conceived more than a decade ago, it received its first federal grant almost 10 years ago. Andrea LaPointe, who chairs the Friends of the Kennebec River Rail Trail board, points out that the trail was approved not for recreational use, but for congestion relief along the busy Route 201 corridor between Augusta and Gardiner. While some might still find the idea of commuting by bicycle eccentric, it is commonplace in much of the world – not only in China, but in urbanized Europe, and even in American communities in the Pacific Northwest and the college town of Davis, California.

Whether it will catch on in Maine is still unknown, but there’s no doubt about abundant recreational use of the completed sections of the Kennebec Trail, two miles in Augusta and Hallowell, and a bit more than a mile in Gardiner. The middle four miles, in Farmingdale and Hallowell, are now scheduled for construction in 2006.

“It takes a long time, it really does,” LaPointe said. While trail advocates elsewhere doubtless hope for quicker progress, she said that things often take longer than anyone expects.

The Kennebec project did face obstacles not present elsewhere. At the time it began, the Augusta branch was an active rail line, though just barely. The rail operator conducted a heated campaign against the trail project on safety grounds that ended only when the state did not renew the operator’s contract. Several abutters in Hallowell also filed suit against the project, contending it was a “structure” in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance. A Superior Court judge ultimately rejected that claim, a precedent trail builders may find useful elsewhere.

Municipalities varied in their attitudes toward the project, LaPointe said. “Some stepped forward to help in various ways.” Gardiner and Augusta both provide trash pickup and occasional police patrols. Hallowell and Farmingdale have varied in their responses. Initially, there was concern that additional burdens might fall on taxpayers – concerns met in large part by the Friends group, which provides all required maintenance.

The trail has been popular since it opened. Even in its incomplete state, it attracts hundreds of users on every seasonable afternoon. Paved sections are even available in winter, with snowplowing initially provided by an anonymous volunteer, an arrangement now formalized by the Friends group.

Capitalizing on the trail’s local popularity, Gardiner has obtained a new federal grant of $500,000 to construct a branch trail along the scenic but mostly inaccessible Cobbossee Stream. Site of an abandoned branch line, the new trail will connect most of Gardiner’s neighborhoods, and extend to both the regional middle school and high school, if all goes as planned, according to City Manager Jeff Kobrock. The source of the federal money is different from the Kennebec Trail’s; this one is so-called “mitigation” funding from the expansion of Route 201 to include a center turning lane in Farmingdale and Hallowell, a project under construction this summer.

While the branch trail will undoubtedly provide new routes for fitness seekers and those simply out to admire the scenery, Kobrock sees it as a new transportation link, reinforcing the neighborhood feeling that’s attracting new residents to Gardiner. Walking to the grocery store or the pharmacy – virtually extinct even in many Maine cities – could be due for a revival.

Community is a big part of the attraction of trails, LaPointe observes. Since, unlike sidewalks, they are separate from vehicle traffic, trails encourage informal contact. Amid bedroom communities and big-box retail developments, trail users make new acquaintances and stop to chat with neighbors.

“It also provides a safe place for kids to learn to ride their bikes,” she said. In a hilly downtown like Hallowell’s, where she lives, that’s an important consideration. “We hope that we’re building a new generation of ardent bicyclists,” she said.

Municipal enthusiasm

Some municipalities have lost any wariness of trails and embraced them enthusiastically. Mark Johnston makes no secret of his love of trails. During his earlier four terms as Saco’s mayor, from 1989-97, and in his current stint, which began in 2003, he’s promoted trails at every opportunity.

Saco benefits from a two-decades-old stewardship group, Saco Bay Trails. The growing city, which also features an Amtrak train stop, may now have the most formal trails of any Maine municipalities – 24 of them, covering 26 miles, and more in the works.

While Saco has provided policing, trash collection, and occasional help from a highway crew, Johnston doesn’t see direct taxpayer support as a requirement for a robust trail system. Volunteers, horsetrading, and a timely request to developers can often do the trick, he said.

He’s particularly pleased by a deal with the developer of the old Cascades mill, sited along a series of falls previously inaccessible to the public. The city has a new 13-acre recreational site, donated by the developer, which offers spectacular views and carry-in boat access to the Saco River. It may soon have enough money for a new pedestrian bridge, thanks to another donation. Of talks with developers, Johnston said, “At first they’re not too sure, but after enough talking they begin to see the way to do it.”

Donations of various kinds will always be a key to successful trail-building, in his view. By the time Johnston leaves office, he wants to have completed the entire Saco section of the Eastern Trail, which will then run north through Old Orchard Beach and Scarborough to South Portland. “Central Maine Power, the water company and the gas company have all been major players,” he said. “Without their help we simply wouldn’t get anywhere.”

The mayor owns a sandwich shop downtown, and sees the city’s trail system as a major draw for tourists, visitors, and prospective residents – and hence for economic development. Saco has been adding residents at a far faster pace than neighboring Biddeford, success Johnston attributes in part to the train stop and the attractions along various trails. The Saco Heath, where moose visit daily along with a host of shorebirds and songbirds, attracts visitors from miles away, according to the logbook that Johnston makes it a point to examine regularly.

The trails guide offered by Saco Bay Trails has become a local bestseller. “Believe it or not, people come up by train from Boston, and the first question they ask is where the trails are, and a lot of them bring their bikes” he said. “Fortunately, we have good answers.”

State studies back up Johnston’s contentions. In 1999, bicycle tourism was found to add $36 million directly to the state economy, and $66 million indirectly.

Recreation for all

Skowhegan is another town with major ambitions to develop tourism as a cog in the local economy. It is currently seeking funding for the Kennebec Run of River Project, which would enhance whitewater kayaking and canoeing in the spectacular gorge that, ironically, was smoothed out in the 19 th century in the interest of log driving. The project would bring back obstacles – rocks and boulders – to create more challenging kayaking, as well as attracting spectators for everything from afternoon trips to, possibly, Olympic trials.

Along the river and in the nearby woods, a growing trail network is also part of the town’s plan. Recreation Director Denise Leblanc has begun to integrate trails into her programs, relying on volunteers, some town assistance, and a small state grant to get things going.

The town now maintains three of the seven marked trails in Skowhegan, and has made significant improvements to one, the Philbrick Trail, located on a tract owned by the Somerset Woods Trustees. Conceived as a nature trail, it is also a challenging hike, “quite a workout,” as Leblanc put it – a one-mile loop including steep slopes as the trail traverses gorges of the Kennebec’s tributaries. A $2,500 “urban trail” grant from the Department of Conservation was stretched through town highway department and volunteer labor to cover signs, benches, and soil stabilization. Leblanc is hoping to get another grant to cover a new bridge.

The town also maintains the Heselton Street Walking Trail on land known as the town forest, a 2 1/2 mile excursion over glacial moraines and woodlands.

A trail through Debe Park on the south side of the river gives close-up views of the Kennebec gorge – and doubles as a portage trail.

Ultimately, Leblanc would like to link up all the trails to help promote their use. “At this point, I’m not sure how many people know they’re there,” she said. One recent attempt to change that, a local celebration of National Trails Day on June 4, included tours of the trails and presentations by the Somerset Heart Health group, New Balance, the shoe manufacturer that has a Skowhegan plant, and the public library.

“A lot of people got to go down to see the trails for the first time, and they were amazed at what they saw,” she said. Over time, she envisions local walking and cycling clubs. While the trail has no volunteer group specifically devoted to maintenance, Leblanc finds that there are plenty of community groups willing to help out.

Making the trails part of the regular recreational program seems well within reach, she said: “That’s my goal.”

A long way Downeast

Perhaps the most intriguing current trail project – involving two counties and more than a dozen towns and cities, plus unorganized territory, is a rail-to-trail plan for the Calais Branch line, known to supporters as the Sunrise Trail or, in some cases, the Downeast Trail.

The Calais Branch, built as a competitor to the much more direct Maine Central line through Bangor, heads south from Brewer to Ellsworth, and then wanders east along the coast through Cherryfield and nearly uninhabited areas of Washington County, then to Machias and finally to Calais. Much of the route is through near-wilderness, and the 100-mile stretch from Ellsworth to Machias is considered a prime candidate for a rail trail in which the tracks are removed and the trail constructed over the old rail bed. The Calais Branch right of way is narrow, and trying to construct a parallel trail, as is being done for the Kennebec and Mountain Division trails, is not considered feasible. A 2001 study of a possible parallel route estimated a construction cost of $29 million, far more than anyone thinks feasible. As a replacement trail, though, it could done for at little as $3 million.

This being Maine, any such change creates controversy, and the Department of Transportation, which owns the line thanks to a 1986 bond issue that purchased it for the state, along with the recently rehabilitated Rockland Branch, has yet to decide what to do. Train buffs have proposed an excursion train from Ellsworth to Green Lake, although funding is a question. DOT will ultimately decide whether to redesignate the line for trail priority – with future rail use guaranteed if rebuilding the line becomes feasible – or retain it as a rail corridor.

Trail advocates, meanwhile, have been hard at work, convincing both state senators who represent the area, Dennis Damon (D-Hancock County) and Kevin Raye (R-Washington County) to support the trail, as well as the various representatives. Municipalities along the route have almost unanimously endorsed the trail project as well.

Sally Jacobs, a University of Maine professor who’s been working on the plan for years, says that this could be a world-class, long-distance recreational trail. At the moment, all interested users, including hikers, bikers, skiers, horseback riders, snowmobilers and ATVers, have been promised access to at least portions of the route.

Michele Gagnon, Ellsworth city planner, sees a great deal of potential in the trail, both for local residents and for the millions of tourists who go through Ellsworth on the way to Acadia National Park.

“The rail line goes right by the high school, and it connects most of the town in one way or another,” she said. Since the trains stopped running 20 years ago, the line has been neglected, and the city is anxious find a use for it. It would provide a safe way to walk or bike to school and, as the start of a major east-west trail, would provide Ellsworth with an asset not even Mount Desert Island can claim.

Cadillac Mountain Sports, a large outdoors outfitter, in interested in connecting to the trail, and would likely offer bike rentals and other services for hikers. While it would take time to develop, the trail project has the potential to develop the local economy and give people an alternative to cars, both for commuting and recreation, she said.

“It’s a great project,” she said. “We consider it one more tool in the box” of economic development.

Near the other end of the line, in Machias, the town and the Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce are collaborating on a long-stalled project to renovate the old train station, strategically located across the street from Helen’s Restaurant, a local landmark.

The long-vacant station, after a $155,000 renovation, would become the chamber headquarters and local information center, and host a small museum highlighting rail history and the Downeast blueberry and logging heritage. There would also be a small community room for local gatherings.

Helen West, the chamber’s executive director, said the project would bring together a lot of desirable features, not least a more visible and central location for her organization. With the addition of public restrooms, available 24 hours a day, it would replace a now-closed state rest area in Jonesboro. As a trailhead for the Sunrise Trail, it would attract many visitors; the old rail line closely parallels Route 1 traversing through town.

Already, local backers are working on extensions. A footpath along a tributary stream would attract those interested in a nature walk. “It’s quite lovely upstream, still a beautiful area,” West said.

West draws hope from a recent fundraising event where a couple from the Bath-Brunswick area came by. When they found out about the local plans they talked about what an asset their local trail is to the community, and said, “We’ll help you build a trail up here.”

At the town office, Town Manager Christina Therrien said that private fundraising for the railroad station project is progressing, and she hopes that the project, first envisioned in 1995, will finally happen soon. “We’re optimistic that we can start construction this summer and be finished by fall,” she said. So if the trail isn’t quite ready, the trailhead will be.

Thinking big

Other areas of the state are closely involved in the trail movement. The Trail for a Healthy Maine coalition also spotlights trails in Portland, Waterville/Fairfield, Fort Kent, Newport/Dover-Foxcroft, Bath/Brunswick and the Aroostook Valley. Some 14 municipalities, from Arundel to St. Agatha, have endorsed the trail bond issue. Some of the trails, such as the Eastern Trail and Sunrise Trail, are part of a much larger project known as the East Coast Greenway, an attempt to build a continuous, off-road trail from Calais to Key West, Fla. While the plan is often described as visionary, if not fanciful, backers recall that the famed Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, was once no more than an idea in a magazine article.

To those who’ve worked on trails for a long time, the movement is succeeding because of public demand for recreation and healthy lifestyles, and also because trails can provide transportation and a boost to local economies.

Jeff Miller, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, which promotes both off- and on-road paths for cyclists, says municipalities have a key role to play. “There’s clearly a big demand from residents, and visitors, for more and better trails. They’re already coming here and looking around,” he said, noting that the Saco Amtrak stop features “a whole wall of brochures” about bicycling and other trail promotions. “The more connected trails are to neighborhoods and schools, the more they’ll be used and become part of the fabric of the community,” he said.

Though the need for patience is not yet at an end, he sees signs that trail-building is picking up speed. “If you look at the last 10 years, a lot has changed,” Miller said. “And if you look forward another 10 years, you can see a doubling or even a tripling of the trails we have now.”