DEC commissioner strikes a chord

Words of wisdom can be found in the latest issue of the Conservationist magazine, published bimonthly by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

In his introductory letter to readers, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens makes the following comments that have special resonance for Adirondack residents and visitors. Following the commissioner’s comments are observations of our own.

1. “You probably believe, as I do, that outdoor recreation is good for the body and for the soul.”

We couldn’t agree more. It is the range of recreational opportunities in a superb natural setting, combined with the appeal of small-town life, that has attracted many of us to spend our lives here. The Adirondack Park has almost everything an outdoor enthusiast could desire – except for one glaring omission. We do not have a year-round, multi-purpose recreation trail for bicycling, running, walking, strolling, fishing or just hanging out and enjoying nature – well away from the noise and hazard of road traffic. Yet we could easily remedy this deficiency.

2. “Did you know that recreation on public parks and lands also contributes to the health of our economy?”

Yes, indeed. Living in the Adirondacks, we are keenly aware that our recreational attractions undergird the regional economy. Millions of tourists come here each year to enjoy hiking, paddling, skiing, and other outdoor pursuits in an unspoiled natural environment. But we have been missing the boat on a great opportunity for recreational and economic development in the Adirondack Park.

3. “New Yorkers and visitors spend millions of dollars every year in pursuit of outdoor experiences, whether it’s on gas, groceries or gear, providing a boost to regional economies. This spending helps grow businesses and create jobs in communities across the state.”

This also explains why we should, without any more dithering, make the decision to convert 90 miles of a little-used rail bed into an incomparable recreation trail. This Adirondack Rail Trail will directly benefit the economy of the Tri-Lakes, just as other rail trails have pumped new life into other rural areas.

My wife and I typify many others who seek out these tourist destinations as a preferred way to see our country up close and personal. Later this year we plan to head south to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail, which skirts the Blue Ridge Mountains for 34 miles in southwest Virginia. We also plan to ride the 57-mile New River Trail in that same state, along with the 78-mile Greenbrier River Trail next door in West Virginia. We’ll do this at a leisurely pace of no more than 30 miles a day. We will eat at local restaurants, stay at lodging places, visit museums, attend music festivals, buy books and patronize bike shops and outdoor outfitters.

These popular trails are part of a growing national trend to convert old rail beds into tourist magnets, creating jobs and business opportunities in places like the Adirondacks that once relied on railroads, logging and mining as their economic base. These trails do more than just generate revenue, however. They also add immensely to the quality of life of local residents.

4. “Governor Cuomo recently directed DEC to enhance public access to New York’s amazing bounty of public parks, parklands and waterways.”

And what better way to enhance public access to the Adirondack Park than a recreational trail that is easy, safe, scenic and suitable for outdoor lovers of all ages and physical capabilities? A gung-ho cyclist will be able to pedal the entire distance from Lake Placid to Old Forge in a couple of days, while a less ambitious biker (or walker, jogger, bird watcher) can commune with nature on a small section of the trail close to home, enjoying our beautiful outdoors before breakfast, at lunch time, after work and on weekends.

Commissioner Martens and Governor Cuomo have the right idea, but the time has come to translate ideas into action. The state needs to review the management plan for the entire 120-mile Remsen-Placid rail corridor to determine its most beneficial public use. Questions must be answered and decisions made.

Should government funds be spent to restore rail service between Old Forge and Lake Placid, as some have advocated? Or should the rusting rails and rotting ties be removed so the rail bed can be transformed into an all-season recreational trail that could make bicycle riding a major attraction in the Adirondack Park from May to November? Without the tracks as an impediment, the corridor will also provide much-improved snowmobiling (with minimum environmental impact) from December through March.

If greater public access is indeed the goal of our state government, the Adirondack Rail Trail will accomplish that. If boosting our regional economy is also an objective, the Adirondack Rail Trail will do that, too.

A resident of Saranac Lake, Dick Beamish is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates and founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine.