By Tom Porter
Maine Public Broadcasting Network
Maine state officials will be joined by Republican Sen. Susan Collins and a host of outdoor enthusiasts at an event in the mountains of western Maine later this month to celebrate the long-awaited opening of Maine's newest multi-use trail. The West Saddleback Connector crosses the Appalachian Trail to connect two of the state's most popular recreation areas.
Chris Beach is with the High Peaks Alliance, a grass-roots organization dedicated to promoting recreational access in the area. He says the new route will allow hikers, bikers, and ATV riders to move freely among one of the biggest and most popular networks of recreational trails in the region.
"What it does is allow snowmobiles, ATVs and hikers to cross the Appalachian Trail high on the western side of Saddleback Mountain," Beach says. "And in doing so they'll be able to get from Rangeley area down into Sandy River/ Farmington area."
Beach says the mileage of the different kinds of trails in the Rangeley area matches or exceeds anywhere else in the state.
"You can paddle along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in this area, you can go on the snowmobile trails all the way from anywhere in Maine to New Hampshire and up to Quebec," Beach says. "The ATV trails-we've created recently a new 'Moose Loop,' which is over 130 miles long that allows ATV riders to circuit that whole area of the High Peaks."
And for hikers, Beach says a new 45-mile trail called the Fly Rod Crosby Trail-named after Maine's first registered guide, fishing legend Cornelia Crosby-is in the process of being developed.
Events in Rangeley over the weekend of June 25 will celebrate the new outdoor alternatives, as well as a breakthrough that has finally been reached following years of deadlock between the state of Maine and the National Park Service. The NPS owns and operates the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail connecting Georgia with Maine.
The stalemate goes back more than a decade, says Pamela Underhill. She's the National Parks Service superintendent for the Appalachian Trail, or AT.
"It actually goes all the way back to 1999 and 2000, when the National Park Service was negotiating with the then-owners of the Saddleback ski area for a protected corridor for the Appalachian trail across Saddleback mountain," Underhill says.
An agreement was reached in 2000 for the conveyance of the land, with the understanding that a portion would be handed over to the state of Maine so a connector trail could be established.
Holding up progress was one issue in particular: all terrain vehicles. "The issue was whether it would be appropriate to have an ATV trail there crossing the Appalachian Trail," Underhill says. "We kind of balked on the idea of there being an established ATV trail there."
Underhill says ATVs are not compatible with the use for which the Appalachian Trail is intended-namely peaceful hiking. But after discussions with the state and with ATV user groups, a compromise was reached.
"We met and got some assurances from all the folks involved that ATV trail use would be contained to the corridor, that there wouldn't be any opportunities for ATVs turning and going up or down the Appalachian Trail," she says. "That was the sticking point and that was the compromise that was reached."
"It was a very good solution to a difficult situation," says David Field, of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which oversees the 267 miles of trail in the state that ends-or begins-at Mount Katahdin. Field hopes the agreement will regulate the passage of ATVs across the trail.
He says ATVs have been illegally crossing the AT at Saddleback on a regular basis, because the federal park authorities cannot enforce the law.
"The National Park Service for the Appalachian Trail has two park rangers-one based in Harpers Ferry, WV, and one at Boiling Springs, MD-and it is impossible for them to police trespass from one end of the trail to the other," Field says.
However, Field says most ATV riders he encounters are not disruptive. Far from being young, noisy thrill-seekers, he says, they are typically middle-aged or older folks, heading off to fishing camp.