Big chance to boost our economy

My wife and I recently returned from a biking vacation in the southwest corner of Virginia with an acute case of trail envy. Our envy is focused on the Virginia Creeper Trail, which follows an old railroad bed through some lovely landscapes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But how, you might ask, could we envy anyone else’s trails? Don’t we live in a region blessed with an incomparable network of beautiful backcountry routes for hiking, paddling, skiing, climbing, snowshoeing?

True enough, but there’s one kind of recreational delight still lacking in the Adirondack Park – a missing link that could easily be established on the old rail corridor that runs 90 miles from Lake Placid to Old Forge. Consider the Virginia Creeper Trail, an easy, scenic, compactly surfaced bikeway on a railroad bed that connects Abingdon with White Top. This popular tourist destination is 34 miles long, the same length as the section of corridor connecting the northern Adirondack communities of Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

More than 100,000 visitors are drawn to the Virginia Creeper Trail each year. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been corrected. It previously said “100,000 overnight visitors,” but the large majority are day users, according to a 2004 study.) Most are bicycle riders. They come in all ages, from young families to retirees. They buy food, clothing and outdoor gear, and they patronize restaurants and lodging places, museums, art galleries and outfitters.

The Virginia Creeper Trail contributes significantly to the economic life of Abingdon, where we stayed for three nights during our visit there. This trail has also been a lifeline for the tiny village of Damascus, halfway along the trail. Once a center for lumbering and mining, Damascus had entered its death throes before the rail corridor was converted into a bikeway. Now this village of 950 residents has four bike shops, six restaurants, dozens of rental cottages and B&Bs, and an annual Trail Day celebration that attracts thousands of visitors.

Based on the success of this and many other rail-to-trail conversions around the country, the Adirondack Park is clearly missing the boat. This situation is doubly puzzling because Andrew Cuomo, the one person who has the power to make this recreational trail a reality, has otherwise proved himself a champion of tourist development in the Adirondacks. Many local businesses and local governments have been urging the governor to review the management plan for the historic railroad corridor to determine its best use. Yet so far the call has gone unanswered.

Regular rail service on the corridor was discontinued decades ago. For the past 15 years, a tourist train has been operating sporadically, with negligible economic impact, along the 9-mile stretch between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. The next 75 miles of the corridor have gone virtually unused, the old tracks rusting and the ties rotting. This wasted public resource cries out for “adaptive reuse.”

The cost of removing the tracks and preparing the surface for bicycling could be largely offset by selling the rails for salvage. By converting this corridor to a world-class recreation trail, Gov. Cuomo and his relevant state agencies (the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Conservation) could turn bicycling into a major outdoor activity in the Adirondacks. Without the impediment of the old tracks, the corridor would offer greatly improved snowmobiling, with the attendant economic benefits, between December and March.

This safe, scenic, level trail would also be a joy for walkers and joggers, a place where people of all shapes, sizes and physical abilities could enjoy healthy exercise in a superb natural setting.

The governor has the right idea about strengthening the tourist industry in the Adirondacks by capitalizing on the region’s special attributes.

So what are we waiting for?

Dick Beamish, a resident of Saranac Lake, started the Adirondack Explorer magazine in 1998. He is a board member of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates.