Another big year for Adirondack Rail Trail

As we approach the end of the third year in the Great Adirondack Debate over the best use of our historic rail corridor, it’s encouraging to see how far we’ve come in a relatively short time. This fall, more than 400 businesses signed up in support of converting the 90-mile corridor between Lake Placid and Old Forge into one of the nation’s premier rail trails for biking, walking, running, nature study, history appreciation, and much improved snowmobiling. Business people see an economic advantage in having thousands of trail users coming through our communities. Lodging places, restaurants, bike shops, art galleries, and other businesses up and down our main streets will all benefit.

It was also a banner year for gaining local-government support. In the Tri-Lakes Area we now have the support of the elected boards of North Elba and Lake Placid, who voted in favor of removing the tracks and installing the trail. The town of Harrietstown has requested a rail-to-trail conversion, while Saranac Lake village petitioned the state to reopen the management plan for the corridor to determine its most productive use. Farther along the line, both the town and village boards of Tupper Lake voted to convert the corridor to a recreational trail that will attract large numbers of bicycling tourists in the warmer months and large numbers of snowmobilers in the winter. The next local government on the corridor-the town of Piercefield-also voted unanimously for the recreation trail.

This was another year in which an unrelenting stream of commentaries and letters appeared on the opinion page of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Three of the letters have a place of honor on my bulletin board, partly for their brevity and partly for the powerful points they made.

“Enough nostalgia,” wrote Deborah Ritz of Old Forge. “It is time to consider more than a few train buffs. Become realistic: it is time to dismantle the rails between Old Forge and Lake Placid and make it a trail for everyone to use. Not the few people who will ride it once, at a designated time for an amount of money, but for the adventurous and not-so-adventurous travelers who will use it year-round. It just makes sense!”

Another letter came from Timothy Mount of Elizabethtown who said it all in a very few words: “To all those who want to see an expanded tourist train from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and beyond: Have you ridden the Lake Placid to Saranac Lake train? I have, and I found it mildly interesting-once. I have no interest in ever riding it again. If it was a trail, however, I would bike it repeatedly.”

The third letter came from Rob Davidson of Saranac Lake, who reminded us that the Adirondack Rail Trail will do much more than serve our economic interests, it will also improve the quality of life for people who live here.

“There has been a lot of commentary regarding the rails-to-trails initiative,” he wrote, “most of which has focused on the economic benefit that one option or another brings to the area … What seems like a much more relevant discussion topic is what benefits the majority of residents. Seriously, how many locals ride the tourist train, how many actually benefit from seasonal tourist-train-related knickknack and snack sales, and then how many would benefit year-round from a safe bike, ski and snowmobile trail connecting Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, the St. Regis Canoe Area and Tupper Lake. For me it’s a quality-of-life issue. Let’s talk about that.”

And then there was this telling comment at the conclusion of a Wall Street Journal story on the subject, which appeared on Nov. 30: “The railroad doesn’t have a great track record, pun intended,” said Alan Heywood, 67, a pick-your-own blueberry farmer and volunteer conductor on the Adirondack Scenic [Railroad]. “But it is one that refuses to die.”

However the corridor is resurrected, something needs to be done about it without more years of delay. It is expected that the state will soon announce its decision to revisit the corridor management plan, weigh all the data and determine the best future for this most promising recreational amenity in the Adirondack Park.

Dick Beamish is a resident of Saranac Lake and a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.