Trends favor a safe, scenic bikeway

Seems like much of the news these days is pointing in one direction. Here are a few recent news items with special relevance for the Tri-Lakes area and our economic and physical well-being.

The Sunday, March 16 New York Times carried an article headlined: “A High Line in Queens – Just Imagine the Food.” It was all about the move to create a 3-mile recreation trail on an abandoned feeder line for the Long Island Rail Road.

“For almost a century,” the writer noted, “American railroads have been shedding branch and feeder lines, leaving more than 100,000 miles of abandoned railways across the country. And for the last 50 years, conservationists have been working to re-engineer these railways into long, narrow strips of parkland. Nationally, more than 21,000 miles of abandoned rails have become trails, and now the residents of Queens want their own slender promenade.”

We here in the Adirondacks now have the opportunity to create a recreation trail that’s 30 times that length – through a landscape much more attractive than anything Queens has to offer!

It was also announced recently that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be stepping down. That inspired a notice from the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy alerting us as follows: “Secretary LaHood understands that biking, walking and other active transportation modes play an important role in building healthy communities and healthy economies. In fact, he singled out rail-trails in particular, saying they have ‘done more for health care than anything we’ve ever done in America.’ But he backed up his words with actions by fighting to preserve funding for trails and active (i.e., biking, running, walking) transportation as part of a balanced approach.” RTC’s conclusion: “Now we need to make sure the next Transportation Secretary continues in LaHood’s footsteps.”

Also in the news is Michelle Obama’s determination to halt an alarming epidemic that has been sweeping the country. Mrs. Obama points out that one in three children in this country is overweight or obese (a problem that applies even more to adults). If we don’t stop this epidemic, she warns, “one of three kids born in 2000 or later will suffer at some point from diabetes and obesity-related health problems like heart disease and high blood pressure.” Her campaign is aptly called “Let’s Move!”

Of course, we should be better off in the Adirondacks than in urban and suburban areas, thanks to our many miles of hiking, skiing and paddling trails. But we’re seriously lacking in one important way. We do not have a biking and walking path that affords easy access to our woods, waters, wetlands and mountains, a pathway connecting our communities that is suitable for children, families, adults and senior citizens, a trail that is well removed from the noise, fumes and hazard of road traffic.

In other words, we have it all except for a safe, easy, convenient place for kids to get regular, enjoyable exercise without the possibility of being run over. (I know a devoted father of two young children, for example, who drives his kids and their bicycles to the state campground at Fish Creek and Rollins Pond – a half-hour away – for safe biking on the trails around the campgrounds.)

Also in the news lately is the affliction known as “nature deficit disorder.” It’s the subject of a book by Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”), who laments the fact that most kids have lost contact with the natural world. He asserts that direct exposure to nature – and not just looking out at it through the window of a train or automobile, or watching it on television – is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional well-being of children.

Well, we’ve got the answer right here under our noses: an unused rail corridor in our backyard that could inexpensively be converted into one of the nation’s premier bike trails. What a great way to experience nature this would be! And not only for bikers, walkers and joggers, but for small children in strollers and people in wheelchairs, with interpretive signs along the way explaining about beaver activity, eagle nesting habits, how marshlands act as filters and wildlife habitat, etc.

It all points to converting the 90 miles of rail corridor from Lake Placid to Old Forge into a community connector and wilderness bikeway and walkway. If there’s enough money to build a side-by-side trail from Lake Placid to Saranac, and have both the train and the trail over this stretch, that’s fine. But let’s get on with it – we’ve wasted 40 years already, and we aren’t getting any younger.

It’s time to conclude the endless debate, revisit the state’s management plan and determine once and for all the best use of this corridor for the greatest number of people.

Dick Beamish lives in Saranac Lake and is a member of the board of directors for Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.