Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pete Nelson: The Adirondack Rail Trail’s Benefits For Wilderness

Elroy Sparta TrailThe unfortunate war over New York State’s plan to turn 34 miles of the Remsen-Lake Placid Travel Corridor into an all-season recreational trail may not be entirely over; certainly no one has surrendered just yet. But for all intents and purposes, opponents of the State’s plan have had their Waterloo.

The Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Board has voted to affirm that the plan is consistent with the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), clearing the way to proceed. Barring successful lawsuits or an unlikely turnaround, the Tri-Lakes region is going to get its Adirondack Recreational Trail. 

With the APA’s decision it’s time to get to the work of maximizing the benefits of this new asset. I have championed the trail, having seen first-hand what a world-class recreational bike trail can do for the communities it connects. I expect the economic benefits to Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid to be significant. There is another benefit that interests me just as much however: this new rail trail will open the door for many to a deeper appreciation of wilderness.

The traditional definition of Adirondack wilderness, reflected both in history and in current practice, mostly excludes mechanized travel. I embrace the aesthetic handed down from Bob Marshall (and other Adirondack advocates) that cherishes wilderness as a haven from machines, and so I support the prohibition of bicycles in designated Wilderness Areas.

The modern bicycle may be a noble form of transportation –  healthy, efficient, and non-polluting – but it is a sophisticated machine. It is not of a part with wild terrain in any way I can see, historically or practically. To spend time in wilderness is to connect to a more primitive sense of self – to feel a oneness with the natural world that is transformative. The machinery of a bicycle underneath one’s body, itself neither primitive nor natural, can only impede this connection.

Yet there is a transformative power in bicycling too. For those who support and defend the values of wilderness, the coming recreational trail will offer an opportunity to maximize this power to the benefit of the Forest Preserve. That’s why wilderness advocates, not just advocates of bicycling, should be fully behind the trail.

Bicycling is a uniquely forward-drawing motion – and this draw is psychological just as much as it is physical. It fully involves the self as an engine that is natural and elemental. In this and in its beautiful circular rhythms, its wonderful quiet and its embrace of flowing air, it urges one towards a powerful sense of the natural world.  This magnetic movement towards nature is the unspoken magic of bicycle travel.

Wilderness needs allies. It needs to be relevant to more people, appreciated by more people, supported by more people. That is how its benefits and its protections are maximized simultaneously.  With that in mind, imagine for a moment how the magic of bicycle travel will work on the imaginations of people as they pedal past the miles of wild forest and wetlands bracketing the trail between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake, or the gathering high ridges on the way to Lake Placid. Imagine how silently gliding through these places increase their desire to experience wilderness, and to value it.

Those who have biked recreational trails know what I mean. The short stretch of woods, the passage through marshland alive with birds, the curve that takes one out of the view of telephone poles or streets – these are the desired spots and the memorable moments that bring people back. And they will bring people back to the Adirondacks to try an array of wild adventures.

Why should we care about bicycling in particular? Well, for one thing, numbers. Bicycling is America’s second largest outdoor recreational activity after walking – it’s enjoyed by 47 million Americans.  Furthermore, it’s enjoyed much more frequently than the most popular wilderness-based outdoor activities such as hiking. Recreational cyclists enjoy nearly 60 outings per year, more than four times the rate of hikers.  By even the most conservative estimates, thousands of people every year will have a new experience of wilderness on the Adirondack Recreational Trail.  As a result they will be more inclined to protect it.

I’m not suggesting that we cut bike trails through Wilderness Areas just to increase the goodwill and interest of cyclists in protecting wilderness. We don’t need to, and recreational cyclists don’t want us to. They want a wide, friendly, flat trail with low grades and nice towns as destinations. In other words, they want what the Adirondack Recreational Trail promises to deliver.

In addition however, they will get a lovely encounter with the wild Adirondacks, a discovery opened to them by their own pedal power. No railroad, car, or motorized vehicle can do that with the same magic.

So let’s get going and build this thing – our towns and our Forest Preserve will be the better for it.

Photo: Elroy-Sparta Recreational Trail, Wisconsin.


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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

124 Responses

  1. I am pleased with the states “compromise”on the trail. The”34 mile bike trail” as it is often refereed to . would more appropriately called a snow mobile trail,which can be used by bikers in the summer season,by hybrid and mountain bikers . It is short sighted , i think , that this trail will be of much benefit to “road bike”.. Stone dust is a poor surface for road bikes under the best conditions, late snow mobile riders and a.t.vs will break up the compacted surface it leave it not ride able, except for wide tired bikes .(speaking through experience) . So who maintains this trail?How are A.T.Vs kept off it ? And why do I seem to be the only person concerned about noise pollution from the snow mobiles ?? I am in favor of this project , but see a lot of issues that will need to be addressed
    Mark Swanberry

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I agree, the question of the trail surface is important. It has to be rider-friendly and impeccably environmental. Fortunately there are good options that do both.

    • Boreas says:

      FWIW, I rode my road bike for years on the Old Erie Canal towpath – which was stone dust where I rode. But it was built on a towpath, not a RR bed made of aggregate. The act of tearing up the ties will loosen the base, but with proper compaction, rolling and fill, it should be stable enough for a stone dust surface. But I would think it best to blacktop the first mile or so at each village where the usage will be heaviest.

      One advantage of the rail bed over the towpath for a base is that the rail bed should have better drainage. The towpath had low spots that would collect water after a rain. But it was maintained very infrequently and held up well with the exception of areas where horses were allowed around Rome. Their hooves tore it to shreds, not to mention dodging horse apples…

    • Todd Eastman says:

      Only several thousand miles of rail-to-trail conversions have successfully dealt with the trail surface issue. These are easily used with a road bike. Maintenance costs are low due to the slight gradients, massive under-bed, and the light weights of of vehicles.

    • chris says:

      I’m miffed that few people/articles mention the noise pollution from snowmobiles, which extends far, far wider than the trail. A single snowmobile can destroy the wildness quality of an entire valley for miles.

      • Mike says:

        Seek a law for sound limits for snow machines

        • Boreas says:


          There are already sound limits on most vehicles. Problem is, NY rarely enforces these regulations. Most likely the same would be true for snowmobiles. But I would think there could be federal incentives for sled/vehicle manufacturers who voluntarily reduce noise levels.

        • John Warren says:

          There already is one – it was essentially written by the snowmobile lobby.

          • Tom Payne says:

            Perhaps you should read it all John. It was supported by law enforcement as well to make a stronger legal procedure of testing against violators that will hold up in court. And the manufacturers have a sound standards setup by the US EPA.

        • Scott says:

          If you think snowmobiles are loud, the train is way louder.

          • Paul says:

            One or two trains per day or hundreds of high speed snow-machines? Go check out the old rail trail with all the snowmobiles out by Lake Clear if you wanna hear some serious noise on a winters day.

            • Scott says:

              I know that area well. For 7+ years I lived on property bordering the rail corridor just down from Lake Clear. My house was 300 feet from the tracks and my land went right to the state land. I don’t like the amount of snowmobilers but would definitely take the trail over the tracks.

  2. George L. says:

    Pete –

    I hope that bicyclists react to the trail as you believe they will.

    But I wonder why the Adks is not more of a bicycling destination at present (or is it?)

    • Boreas says:

      George L,

      It would be a great destination if the roads were wide with bike-friendly shoulders. But because of the 55 mph traffic, the more mountainous areas of the Park are simply dangerous to bikers and pedestrians. Where I live in the Champlain Valley section of the Park, there is a great deal of road biking – mostly because the roads are wider, flatter, and often have less traffic. Many National Parks get away with narrower roads by reducing speed limits. That would go over like a fart in church in the ADK Park…

      • Gillian says:

        George is right. My husband will cycle on the roads in the Adirondacks – he does the Ididaride every year, for one – but I find the traffic very intimidating and some of the shoulders are terrible. It’s definitely not a family-friendly option.

        • Larry Roth says:

          So wouldn’t it make more sense to widen and improve the shoulders? That could have been done years ago without all of this controversy.

          It’s always been about getting rid of the rails; bicycles are being used as the excuse, as this winter has kind of blown away the case for snowmobiles.

          • roamin with broman says:

            Larry, right now basically no one can use that 34 mile stretch. How wasteful!!

            • Larry Roth says:

              No one on snowshoes? Cross country skis? Given how little snowfall has been reported, plain old hiking is probably doable right now. I get a little tired of this idea that the tracks make the corridor completely unusable by anyone else.

              It might actually be better for people-powered activities right now, if they don’t have to dodge snowmobiles.

              Keep roaming broman.

              • Boreas says:


                Wouldn’t that be considered trespassing/illegal, since that section is still active?

                • Larry Roth says:

                  Nope – this is a misconception. When the trains aren’t running, and it’s only during the summer, as I understand it the corridor is open for any appropriate use. ATVs are supposed to be kept out, but snowmobiles are allowed – when it actually bothers to snow enough.

                  As I also understand it, DEC has done nothing to develop parallel trails in the corridor, despite that being the 1996 plan. While they’ve been very diligent at pointing out all the places it would be impossible, they’ve done nothing where they could have.

                  You’d almost think they were afraid of setting a precedent.

                  • Boreas says:


                    Just curious, is there a map showing where a parallel trail would be feasible? But I guess that would depend on the interpretation of ‘feasible’.

          • Smitty says:

            Hills and traffic. Hills are the bane of recreational cyclists. Traffic makes the experience unpleasant, even if the shoulders are adequate. And that’s why we love and flock to rail trails. Great analysis Peter. And great compromise APA. Now let’s do it.

            • Joe says:

              I think wider road shoulders would help, but safety issues will remain. The idea of a way to bike away from a highway is much more attractive

            • The idea that hills are an impediment to having an Adirondack biking experience is amusing. 🙂

              • Pete Nelson says:

                Yeah, well, there are hills and then there are hills.

                One summer when I was in pretty good shape, training for a riding a competitive century time, I made the idiotic mistake of going out for a ride with my brother, who was a national-caliber racer at the masters level. We rode from BML to Indian Lake and back, going at a pretty good pace. About 1/2 way back, with all those ups and downs, I started to feel gassed, then pained, then in the grasp of lactose-induced horror. My brother patiently slowed down into BML, then turned right on 30 and said “let’s finish with this” and effortlessly climbed to the crest on Blue’s shoulder. That hill left me for dead about 1/3 of the way up. I just pulled over and lay there.

                I love my brother so much…

                • Larry Roth says:

                  There was an article in the ADE the other day about the fat bike snow course added to the ESG winter games. From the article, I gathered the course was deliberately laid out to be demanding, with a lot of ups and downs. You don’t ride the course so much as attack it.

          • Boreas says:


            Wider shoulders are certainly safer than nothing, but with drivers spending more time on their smartphones and less time watching the road, I still wouldn’t feel very safe. Probably where the shoulder should be widened would be on back-roads that have less traffic or slower traffic. That way the bikes also have less of an impact on traffic.

            But keep in mind, widening a road isn’t as cheap as it appears.

            • joe says:

              Widening roads in forest preserve would be another controversy

              • Boreas says:

                Good point.

              • Larry Roth says:

                Not so much; there are places where the highway crews keep the grass on the margins trimmed back quite a bit. And I expect motorists would appreciate having more room to pull over in the event of mechanical difficulties.

                • Boreas says:


                  But there would have to be a certain distance from trees and boulders. If you pave the existing shoulder, you still have to push stuff back. It is probably the reason there aren’t a lot of wide roads in the Park. I think the last ones were widened before the Olympics.

                • Hope says:

                  We are not looking to ride along a highway with cars and trucks traveling at a high rate of speed. This is not what has been proposed or desired by the communities.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        Where in the Park do you see 55 mph driving?

        If that were the case, the roads would be safe…

    • Boreas says:

      Another comment about the upside to biking in the ADKS. There aren’t a lot of other ways to leave bugs in the rear-view mirror during bug season! About the only ones you can’t outrun on a bike are deer flies…

      • Paul says:

        There are plenty of those deer flies on the boggy areas that this RR corridor runs through. In my opinion this is more about a snowmobile trail than a bike trail. But I hope I am wrong and it sees lots of use.

        • Boreas says:

          Oh I am sure – they are ubiquitous at lower elevations. I was just saying I can’t out-walk any bugs, but on a decent surface I can typically out-pedal all but these beasts.

          • Paul says:

            Yes, they can fly fast. It is strange they will even follow a car (especially a blue one, deer flies seem to love the color blue!). I wonder it is something in the exhaust that makes them think there may be a meal available?

    • Curt Austin says:

      A non-cyclist will probably not be familiar with the diversity of cycling as an activity. The most sought-after sort of cycling is the bike trail – quiet, safe, and flat. Pure pleasure, no anxiety. Good for everyone.

      To serious “road” cyclists, the Adirondacks is heaven – on most roads, but not all. After the first 100 log trucks have flown by, you start to realize the next one will miss you, too. In my opinion, the worst roads are in the vicinity of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. I am a road cyclist, but riding past Cascade Lakes on Route 73 is way beyond my comfort zone. I am increasingly challenged by gravity, too.

      Then there are the many forms and degrees of cycling on bicycles with wider tires. Riding on dirt roads and some trails is family friendly. Bombing down Whiteface is at the the other extreme. Riding on gnarly, rocky, rooty trails is pretty gonzo, too. I was once semi-gonzo (Moab!), but I’ve aged out.

      I have four bikes I use routinely, for different purposes. If there were a stone dust trail near me, I’d get one just for that – moderately wide tires, and cheap: stone dust will eat your chain and gears.

  3. Bruce says:

    Great article Pete.

    I don’t want to say “build it and they will come,” but in this case, since the Tri-Lakes is already a prime tourist destination, and the 3 villages aren’t that far apart, a good trail connecting them will be a distinct economic advantage. If substantial numbers of bicycle users materialize, this opens the way for bicycle rental and repair shops, or perhaps bicycle-oriented drive-ins and motels. Did I mention snowmobiling and skiing in winter?

    There’s also no reason to assume that once the train to Tupper Lake gets going again, bicycle and other trail users won’t use it, much on the same order as ski trains.

  4. Larry Roth says:

    The rail trail may be great for wilderness (some of us beg to differ) – but it remains to be seen if its really going to be good for the trip-lakes.

    Don’t take your victory lap too soon Mr. Nelson. Nobody has come through with any money yet.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I don’t mind differences of opinion. But I have no personal dog in this hunt, thus I have no interest in a personal “victory lap.”

      However Tupper Lake is another matter.

      Hi Tupper Lake!

      I’m rooting for you all to take a “victory lap” someday, when the influx of interest in your community driven by this plan starts to remake your business environment. That’s the victory lap I’m after, not to mention all the new recreationalists who will appreciate this amazing asset we have in our Forest Preserve.

      But Tupper, for that to happen you, I and the larger Adirondack business community have to promote this trail. The current acrimony won’t help draw potential stakeholders that want to support the booming business of bike tourism. Do we really want to look this way to the outside world?

      Meanwhile, it’s time to do some research and begin to think about planning. ROOST, ANCA, Tupper Chamber, here’s a start with lots of links and great ideas:


      • Boreas says:

        I agree with Pete. If we just build a trail and sit back waiting for the cash to roll in, it ain’t gonna happen. It needs to be developed and promoted just like any other new asset. Same with the rail section from the south. The promotion will be expensive initially, but should only be required until people are aware of the assets that TL and other villages will have to offer. After that, the area will likely promote itself.

      • Lakechamplain says:

        Pete, first of all nice article. I’d noted in the post about the vote that it’s time to stop the acrimony and think of what needs to be done to make this a viable rail trail that is an asset to the Tri Lakes. I differ with you somewhat about the impact this trail alone will/would have on Tupper Lake. It by itself won’t be a game changer, but it certainly is better for TL than the current situation, where it’s virtually ignored. But I do see the trail, again if it’s developed by the 3 villages working together as being a part of a hoped-for revival in Tupper Lake. To me, the keys are getting the ski area operating again, but I don’t see that happening without the big resort, or something like it, coming into that community. You need to have reasons along with the Wild Center to go to Tupper Lake and spend some money and maybe hang out enjoying its natural assets(read lakes & mts.).
        Then you’ll see more small shops and restaurants be attracted to the village.

        There’s great opportunity for Saranac Lake & Lake Placid as well. No, hundreds of thousands of bicyclists are not going to descend on these towns. But with some savvy marketing with biking and vacation publications and their websites it will present another ‘thing to do’ for potential vacationers in the highly competitive tourist industry. And this trail has so much going for it with a level trail through natural
        wilderness with NO vehicular traffic(that’s why roads in this region are risky and dangerous, esp. for kids), and connecting 3 villages with a variety of options: LP to SL for lunch and back? SL to Tl for a good workout? It won’t work for everyone, for example Mt. bikers won’t be interested, high-end road bikes probably won’t care for the surface, but walkers/joggers should also find it appealing.

        I’ve suggested here before that the 3 villages form some kind of commission to work out what things would enhance the trail, like a shuttle service, bike rental and repairs, some sort of concession stands at the trail
        junctions, and developed routes from the trails to downtown businesses in the 3 towns. And if they get started at this sooner rather than later I suggest they could write up grant proposals that could provide some funding for this trail. Get people on board who’ve biked trails across N. America along with people in those communities and watch this Tri Lakes Trail become a positive and integral part of this beautiful place we live in.

      • Larry Roth says:

        If you’re going to include ROOST on that list, they can stop complaining about the lack of transportation options in the area.

  5. SwilliAm says:

    It would be nice if it were paved with a bituminous surface as the Mesabi Trail in Minnesota is, so it would accommodate inline skating, an activity I find much more pleasurable than bicycling.

  6. Larry Roth says:

    It is a bit of historical irony of this whole mess over the rails that Bob Marshall, patron saint of the wilderness advocates, died in his sleep while riding in a sleeper car on a train carrying him on a visit to relatives in New York City. Without rails into the Adirondacks, Marshall would likely never have spent his formative years in the region, never have become the seminal figure he is in the wilderness movement.

    And thanks to the APA, no one else will be able to have that experience in the future.

    • Hope says:

      Do not pin this on the APA. They just did their job. It was not up to them to decide on the merits of the plan. They only needed to determine compliance with the ASLMP.

    • Joe says:

      Nice story about Marshall. Two points. First, the APA does not make decisions on merit, only zoning law. Second, because someone died sleeping on a train is not a reason to preserve it. Put up a plaque people can stop and read along the bike route.

    • Boreas says:

      “And thanks to the APA, no one else will be able to have that experience in the future.”

      Have what experience – dying in a train?? I’ll pass.

      But I have been enjoying all areas of the park for decades without ever using the rail line. I drive a car.

      • Larry Roth says:

        My point was it was the railroads that really opened up the Adirondacks to ordinary people, including Marshall. I guess tearing up the tracks makes sense if you can’t appreciate the history they represent. Might as well save money and not put up those kiosks either, since nobody will be bothered to look at them.

        I’m glad you can enjoy the park because you drive a car. Those who can’t or don’t want to are going to be S.O.L.

        • Boreas says:


          I appreciate the history more than you might think. Rail was a main artery in, but then it didn’t go to LP in the early years. Many people also took steamers up Lake Champlain and entered the park from the NE. The trains and steamers then hooked up with other means of conveyance – stagecoach, mule, buckboard, and smaller lake steamers – all part of history. Should we still be using them since they have historical significance?

          Those who can’t or don’t want to drive a car are going to miss a lot of the US, including most National Parks – unless they take a bus tour. Are you saying the primary use of an excursion train is for handicapped access to the Park where nothing else exists?? I see a lot of vehicles driving around with handicapped plates – nowhere near the train – and they don’t have to pay a fare or follow a schedule. But let’s assume for a minute the only way for people with limited mobility to get into the Park is via rail, they will have access from Utica to TL – potentially the new transportation hub in the Park. Frankly, I don’t see the down side.

  7. roamin with broman says:

    Great news. Too bad this isn’t being also being done from Thendara to the north for 30 miles too. Much closer for those of us from Central and Western NY.

    • Larry Roth says:

      Don’t worry – ARTA is still on the case. That’s their goal. I expect they’ll be doing everything they can to make sure no money is spent on upgrading the tracks to Tupper Lake.

      • Boreas says:


        It will certainly be up to rail enthusiasts and villages to keep the State’s feet to the fire on their commitment to upgrade the tracks. This as just as true with the trail segment.

    • Bruce says:


      I’m curious where a trail along the line 30 miles north out of Thendara would go? Oh wait, it would connect to the station restaurant at Big Moose…any other major tourist destinations along the way I’m not aware of?

  8. Bellota says:

    I agree with all you have written about the rail trail, Pete. In addition, it is a wonderful way to get aerobic exercise, in a safe and esthetic terrain, which many of us need.

  9. Keith Gorgas says:

    Some are wondering where the funding will come from to build the trail. Given the millions Lee Keet has donated to corrupt politicians, PACs, and civic ventures, I don’t think funding to destroy the RR will be hard to find.
    Since the State already heavily subsidizes the Snowmobile sport, to the tune of millions of dollars of taxpayer money, ( for a sport that less than 1% of New Yorkers participate in), I’m sure the very powerful snowmobile lobby will help the State find lots of money to keep paying for trail construction and maintenance.
    However, when it comes to the public good of a railroad, I doubt very much that the State will ever find the money to rehab the tracks. Nobody to kick anything back to Andy “Pay To Play’ Cuomo.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Good morning once again, Tupper Lake, and hello to Sarance Lake and Placid as well. I have a few questions.

      In what vision for economic promotion and growth that is compatible with our beautiful Park do you suppose personal attacks have a role?

      In what ways does a sound strategy for promotion of the Adirondack Park benefit from the acrid smell coming from this argument, which has permeated the media throughout and beyond the region?

      In what way is the restoration of a rail asset to Tupper Lake, positioning it at a level that it has not been in decades, constitute “destroying the railroad?”

      How can we work together in the interests of the Park to take the combined plan and all that it can mean for tourism and for Tupper Lake as a hub, and really make it work? I got it! Loads of vitriol and maybe a couple lawsuits seem like a smart move.

      On a more personal note, I have met the individual under attack, though he is neither friend nor business partner to me. The smears upon him are beneath contempt and an affront to the dignity of the Adirondack Park.

    • says:

      Snowmobiling in NYS is not funded in anyway through tax payer dollars. Each of the riders pay a registration fee, which is in turn used to fund the trails and the staff from NYS Parks who administer that money back out to clubs who groom the trails and do all the work to maintain those trails. No kick backs.
      I am not a snowmobile rider but I find that having correct information about one of the many user groups is a great thing. Imagine if every sport who used the park had to pay a fee that would fund trail maintenance, enforcement, and administration. What an uproar there would be. Think twice get knowledge and be nice is a great way to make the Park a great place foe all of us.

      • John Warren says:

        I’m afraid you’re a bit late to the game. It’s been shown over and over again here at the Almanack that snowmobilers also get state taxpayer money. The lobbying organizations have done a good job of misinforming us all. So yes, you are right in that correct information about one of the many user groups is a great thing.

        We can start to do that by not simply taking what the NYS Snowmobile Association and their allies say as incontrovertible fact.

        • roamin with broman says:

          NYS Parks receives State aid from the Fund of about $5 million annually. The aid comes from snowmobile registration fees and penalties that individuals pay to Motor Vehicles. Parks then
          distributes funds to approved local sponsors, such as counties and municipalities, who administer snowmobile trail services.

          See page 5.

          • John Warren says:

            Correct. But that’s not the entire expenditures. I’m not going to spend an hour researching this for people who don’t use their own name, but here are a few examples, in addition to original construction costs (and those covered by state and local municipalities until the establishment of the current partial funding scheme), search and rescue costs, and lots of other incidental costs that have been identified over the years here.

            NYSSA Newsletter, 2009: “2009/2010 Fund Raising Efforts- RTP Grant Award The club was awarded $54,800 from the Office of Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation RTP grant toward the purchase of a 1998 Tucker 1000, and the board of directors recently approved the purchase of the mogul master drag that will cost an additional $14,000.”

            March 15, 2011 (Pine Bush, New York): The New York State Snowmobile Association (NYSSA) announced today that five NYSSA member snowmobile clubs will be awarded $637,000 for equipment to maintain snowmobile trails throughout the state from the Recreational Trails Program (RTP).

            NYSSA “Action Alert”

            “RTP UNDER ATTACK!! We need your help – right now — to save the Recreational Trails Program (RTP)! The Federal RTP program is one of the most important trail programs to our snowmobile clubs. It is the only source in New York for Clubs to apply for grants to buy grooming equipment. Over the years dozens of groomers have been secured by the clubs in NY through this program… Please tell the Members of Congress to vote no on the Carter and Yoho amendments. These amendments would take the federal gas taxes paid by non-highway recreationists away from the trails community and use them for other purposes.”

            There are a lot more examples. A little research by those claiming that “Snowmobiling in NYS is not funded in anyway through tax payer dollars” would easily dispel this misinformation.

            • Tom Payne says:

              Federal gas tax funds RTP funds are allowed for both motorized and non motorized in the granting process. Funny but the snowmobilers do pay that tax when putting fuel in to their sleds. Nice spin.

      • Boreas says:

        One should also take a step back and realize that the trails in the park that are on State land – that is, land that belongs to the taxpayers. So regardless of where the cash comes from to maintain and build them, the land the trails are on are essentially “donated” by all NYS residents.

    • roamin with broman says:

      Keith – trail funding dollars comes from NYS snowmobile registration fees, collected by the state then disbursed

    • Brian Mann says:

      I want to make a couple of comments in response to Keith Gorgas’s statements. He suggests (yet again) that ARTA board member Lee Keet has used his wealth to influence “corrupt politicians” in order to skew this public debate.

      It’s a serious claim.

      When I was reporting on this, Mr. Gorgas assured me that he had evidence to support his accusations. Similar claims were made by others involved on the pro-train side of the debate. None of them could provide any facts, documents, or evidence of any kind to substantiate the charge.

      Mr. Gorgas also declined to be interviewed.

      I have probed campaign finance disclosure forms and researched this to the best of my ability. I have also interviewed Lee Keet. I can find no evidence that there is any merit to these charges. The fact that it continues to be made without supporting evidence is an indication, I think, of just how toxic this issue has become.

      Here is a link to my story:

      Brian Mann

      • Pete Nelson says:

        Thanks Brian. Anything to keep this debate reasonable helps, like, for example, a recitation of facts.


    • Eric says:

      Could Lee Keet sue this guy for slander? If he can, he should. But perhaps he is not litigious.

  10. Evelyn Greene says:

    As I am a naturalist who needs to be able to stop, listen and look at any moment during every trip into the native wild forest, bicycles would be a frustrating way to move. Pete makes a convincing argument that bikers will appreciate the nearby wilderness despite the “green blur” that mechanized transportation, including bicycles, creates of the natural world. But he does not mention that a major argument for the trail is that snowmobiles will be able to use it. Snowmobile driving is usually about the ride itself, and as just driving is boring on a railroad tread, speed is going to make the fun. From our experience on the North Creek track going south, skiing or snowshoeing will not be compatible with snowmobiles because of the sound, smell, speed and danger that will result. And it seems that ATVs will be difficult to eliminate.

    Also because of our knowledge of the financial trials of the tourist train here (though it has been good for North Creek businesses and I love trains to actually travel somewhere), I support the rail to trail conversion proposed but not the motorized option because it is not the “healthful activity” rails to trails should encourage. The obvious snow trends ought to at least preclude any expensive infrastructure to make snowmobiling possible.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      You are quite correct that I made no mention of snowmobiling. Perhaps if I do it can be a little bit of an object lesson for those who think the only way to proceed on anything in these parts is to take sides.

      I am no friend of snowmobiling. I’ve done it and quite frankly I don’t like it. My desire for a speed and/or adrenaline rush finds expression in other ways – typically with a fast car or various risky things involving heights. It doesn’t involve speeding through the woods with noise and smell and machinery.

      As a policy I support the ban on snowmobiling in Wilderness or Primitive areas and I oppose the “gerrymandering” techniques of making corridors through said areas, such as is planned for the Essex Chain. I accept a place for snowmobiles in the Adirondacks but think we should be vigilant to preserve a Wilderness aesthetic here to the greatest extent possible.

      I don’t really have an interest in the snowmobile part of this Adirondack Trail plan. I’d advocate for the trail even if snowmobiles were not in the picture because the bicycling part has tremendous upside.

      But so what? I respect those who think snowmobiling is an important part of the equation. I appreciate that snowmobiling will come with an important economic benefit to these communities. I see the corridor in question as a travel corridor, designed for and appropriate to that use and I recognize that snowmobiles already use it. I have no reasonable cause to take a position against those interests.

      We’re getting ever worse in this country at making, sustaining and appreciating the nuanced arguments that are fundamentally a part of any complicated social or political issue. It’s all side-taking these days. One one side, people write off those who argue the nuances as milquetoast, as weak-spined equivocators. On the other side, people write off those who argue the nuances as abandoning their principles in favor, perhaps, of some sort of “kumbyah” approach. Both those positions are stupid.

      I recently wrote a column on how the term “balance” in the park has become rhetoric. There is a huge difference between that sort of thing, which bothers me no end, and the real, hard work to come to terms with the complexity and many dimensions of problems such as we have here in the Adirondacks, as we try to make this fifty-fifty public-private Park work for all. That’s hard stuff, deserving of better than rhetoric and mindlessly lining up on sides.

      The truth is that a reasoned, skeptical and ethical examination of a contentious issue necessarily lives in the hard, middle ground. Contrary to the pseudo-high-minded and pseudo-tough-guy critiques, that habitation requires more courage and more holding of principle than any of the facile, showy, outlying nonsense that passes for debate these days. I know lots of people here in the Adirondacks that work the hard middle ground every day. May they keep it up and set an example for me and everyone else.

      One other thing: I would not characterize bicycling on a recreational trail as producing a “green blur.” It can be that, certainly (though blissfully non-motorized), but in practice lots of people mosey. Moseying is a great way to appreciate one’s natural surroundings.

      Thanks for the good comment, Evelyn.


      • Boreas says:

        Thanks Pete. I am one who enjoys a mosey pace whether on a bike or walking. My enjoyment has never been the destination but the journey.

      • Paul says:

        “As a policy I support the ban on snowmobiling in Wilderness or Primitive areas and I oppose the “gerrymandering” techniques of making corridors through said areas, such as is planned for the Essex Chain.”

        This DOT “travel corridor” is basically the exact same thing. This plan will have snowmobiles (and groomers) buzzing through places like the Whitney Wilderness. I know that they can technically go there now when there is adequate snow pack but this is clearly facilitating this for snow-machine users.

        Not stating it in opposition to the plan just noting the facts.

      • Curt Austin says:

        You’ve nailed it, on both the specific and the general.

    • Bruce says:


      “The obvious snow trends ought to at least preclude any expensive infrastructure to make snowmobiling possible.”

      What expensive infrastructure? The infrastructure is already there, a well compacted rail bed. As proposed for ordinary two directional bicycle use, the nature of the trail will be well suited for snowmobiles as is.

      As for skier and snowshoer safety, you spoke of the sound. Machines will be heard coming. Based on my experience bicycling and walking on roads, the safety factor of the trail will be higher, because cars these days can easily sneak up on a bicyclist who’s not paying attention.

      I’m neutral on the snowmobile issue (I haven’t ridden since 1973), but since they are an allowed recreation in the Park, they should be treated as fairly as other forms. Idiots ride bicycles, too. If the climate continues as it has been, the question of snowmobiles will be settled sooner or later anyway.

  11. Henrietta Jordan says:

    Pete, good article! But update your bio. We in Keene are now proud to say that you live here full time!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Henrietta:

      Right you are! I’ve been scarce on these pages for a time; I’ve just been too busy settling here and attending to things like getting a job, having plumbing, etc. I’ll go update it right away, and look to see me more here.



  12. Dave Gibson says:

    Well expressed, Pete. I regularly experience the feelings you describe so well on a bike trail. And wilderness certainly does deserve a global fan base many of whom simply want to know it exists. Thanks for your advocacy and for keeping several thoughts in your head at once. And yes, hello Tupper Lake, and all who advocate well and persistently for the all- recreational corridor.

    I still believe the State Land Master Plan should be amended, with the necessary public hearings, to authorize an all-recreational use of the Railroad ROW. Bravo again to APA Member Booth for so respecting that plan’s integrity that he made that motion. It should have been seconded. And Bravo to APA Member Lussi and others who express a desire for greater in-service training about the Master Plan.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      For what it’s worth I’ve looked at this and agree with you and Richard Booth that this is an issue. As concerns the trail I’m less concerned with it than with the simple fact that it is another in a continued pattern of ignoring or torturing the SMLP. That pattern must be opposed.

      The in-service training is a great idea and should be pursued.

    • Steve says:


      Currently, the only use of this trail is recreation. There is no freight or passenger service. It’s a round trip excursion. Where the trai isn’t running trips, the only use it gets is snowmobiles or rail bikes. Do you believe the current all- recreational use violates the SLMP?

  13. My but you are waxing poetic today Pete. I don’t share your optimism about the trail attracting hoards of bicyclists who want to ride 34 miles (one way) from Tupper Lake to Lake Placid (and then 34 miles back?). Maybe they will come but I never liked the movie Field of Dreams much. I’m also concerned about ATVs. If you think that the ATV crowd is quietly going to accept that they can’t ride it but snowmobilers can, you probably believe Field of Dreams is a true story.

    • Eric says:

      That makes no sense. Saranac Lake to Lake Placid I believe is nine miles. If you start at Tupper Lake, there is no law that you have to ride all the way to Saranac Lake. You ride however far you like and you turn around.

  14. Pete Nelson says:

    Thank you for the poetic comment!

    I didn’t really like Field of Dreams.

    On the other hand if you do an independent review of the impact of bike trails, it’s reasonable to conclude that this trail has all kinds of potential. it doesn’t need “hoards” to succeed.

    I think the train terminus there makes it a bigger potential win than many other trails, but just its cachet as an unparalleled Wilderness bike experience will distinguish it. We need to market it intelligently and take advantage of companies like Trek who have shown an interest in supporting it.

  15. Bruce says:


    I agree about the potential for Tupper Lake as both a rail and trail terminus.

    What exactly does it take to amend the SLMP?

    I know the members of the APA are in for four years. Is it a total turnaround every 4 years, or are the appointments staggered to maintain continuity?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      From the APA (I added one comment):

      APSLMP Amendment Process

      1. Present draft SEQR assessment (DSEIS) & alternatives to Agency Board with request to accept the DSEIS and proceed to public hearings

      (comment: DSEIS stands for “Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement” and SEQR stands for “State Environmental Quality Review” – this is the formal mechanism for determining the environmental effects of the amendment)

      2. Host public hearings and accept comments on the DSEIS APSLMP Amendment Process
      3. Develop the record of Public Comment & Final DSEIS
      4. Present preferred alternatives to the APA Board
      5. APA Board votes on preferred alternatives
      6. APA Chairwoman & DEC Commissioner forward preferred alternatives to Governor
      7. Governor approves (or modifies or rejects) the preferred alternative

      Yes, appointments are 4-year staggered terms.


  16. Bob Meyer says:

    Here here Pete. Well said. Let’s get it done. And let’s hope Field of Dreams is correct. “Build it and they will come.”

  17. Bruce says:

    Thanks, Pete.

  18. Paul says:

    Sure bikes are sophisticated machines these days so are the skis we use in wilderness.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Sort of, they are. So are legs, technically. But skis are a different deal than bikes, on multiple levels.

      • Paul says:

        I think it really depends on the view point of the users. The high powered rifles with high tech optics that are also allowed in Wilderness areas for hunters is another one that comes to mind.

        And of course here for this trail we are talking about very sophisticated motorized machines.

      • Bruce says:


        For older folks like myself who can only walk a couple miles before being tapped out, modern bicycles allow us to go much further with their attendant healthful exercise, and they are quiet. I’m not talking about tearing up trails ala mountain bikes and the antics of mountain bikers, but just cruising along.

        How many trails of similar construction specifically for cruiser style bicycles are to be found in the Adirondacks? Where else could one be built with similar available services over a similar distance?

        • Paul says:

          The opened 20 miles of dirt roads in and around the Essex Chain lakes this past summer to biking? Most conservation easements have tons of public bike riding opportunities for just cruising like you describe. They have just never been really promoted.

          • Bruce says:

            Has the Essex Chain been officially opened to bicycles?

            What I was referring to is how many trails in the Adirondacks share similar qualities with the proposed trail, meaning how many of them actually connect busy and tourist-oriented villages within a reasonable distance where folks can ride and locate services such as restaurants, quick stops for a cold drink, motels, etc? Bicycle rental and repair shops would definitely be a plus.

            The Erie Canal Trail has cities, towns and villages every few miles along the route. Not everyone wants to ride out into the wilderness, carrying everything they will need for the day; in fact I’m betting most folks who ride for pleasure and a little exercise do not.

            The Virginia Creeper trail is a “retired” rail bed, is about the same length and connects several places where services may be found, most notably Damascus which is near the center.

            To get back to the thrust of Pete’s article…I could be wrong, but I see Saranac Lake becoming somewhat of a seasonal mecca for bike riders, much like Damascus, VA. and although the “season” in Damascus is longer, they do get snow and cold in winter.

  19. Will Doolittle says:

    Absolutely 100 percent right, Pete.

  20. bellota says:

    Here is a link to an article explaining the economic benefits of cycling and what a variety of US states and cities are doing to develop more cycling.

  21. Paul says:

    Snowmobiles don’t even need snow to operate anymore. Perhaps they can use the trail along with the bikes. Especially if it is graded and smooth like this will be.

  22. Curt Austin says:

    On the subject of the surface for this trail, I offer these general remarks without attempting to come to any conclusions:

    1. Surfacing is usually a matter of money for a new trail. In rare cases, there is money to immediately provide the desired surface. More often, a new trail slowly goes from “as-received” to smooth dirt, to stone dust and only then to asphalt – piecemeal, as money is found.

    2. Unless snowmobiles use an asphalt trail responsibly – that is, only when covered and with restraint regarding spinning their studded tracks – asphalt won’t work. It’s been a contentious subject on the Warren County Bikeway. Snowmobilers will resist asphalt as strenuously as the rails.

    3. Stone dust trails require a great deal of maintenance if the expectation is a smooth trail: a major smoothing once a year, spot smoothing after storms, and a complete repaving (it is installed with a paving machine) every 5-10 years (there is an extensive document about trail maintenance on the Rails-to-Trails website). Otherwise, it will slowly become a disappointment and less used.

    4. Asphalt allows many additional users – roller blading, roller skiing, easier wheel chairing. It will attract more serious cyclists with road bikes (in this context, all downhill skiers are serious skiers, a target we do not ignore). Asphalt reduces maintenance costs (as long as it lasts, which is roughly 20 years).

    5. High traffic zones of a trail will probably become asphalt, eventually, due to the imperatives of satisfying visitors and reducing maintenance costs.

    6. DEC paves campground roads, and bike trails, too (e.g., Fish Creek Campground). That is, they do not eschew the advantages of asphalt for aesthetic principles.

    • Phil Brown says:

      What about the newer permeable asphalt?

      • Curt Austin says:

        I don’t think there is a big drainage issue from a surface just 6 to 8 feet wide, but if so, the question becomes its durability in the face of the formidable studs used on snowmobile tracks. I was once a materials engineer; porosity is usually regarded as a defect.

        The drainage provided for rail beds is highly engineered. Unlike, say, the trail to the Bradley Pond lean-to.

      • Todd Eastman says:

        Permeable pavement of any type requires extensive maintenance with street sweepers…

    • Lakechamplain says:

      Nice post Curt. These are the kind of issues that we and the people involved in making the trail we should be engaged in. I didn’t know that asphalt was such a problem for snowmobilers so thanks for that.
      So if there’s no asphalt, which surface will best serve the biking public? I know mt. bikers and their knobby tires won’t like the trail much anyway. But how about the other types of bikes that people have? That’s one reason that I hope included in the planning are bike rental businesses located at the trail junctions in each of the 3 villages so their efforts can be coordinated. For example if someone wanted to go from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake and take the shuttle(another need) back, could they leave their rental at TL instead of having to cart it back?
      My main concern is about the same one that cities and towns dealt with in the settlement of this country: can we get a hard surface that will still be able to function in wet conditions?

    • Paul says:

      Really depends on what kind of riders you want on the trail. It sounds like the idea is a multi-use kind of thing (although I can’t see why anyone would hike or take a stroll with the kids on such a boring trail when we have so many other more interesting hikes in the Adirondacks) then maybe you don’t want a paved trail where road bikers can crank down it in a peloton doing 30MPH.

    • Curt Austin says:

      This may be the next contentious issue. There’s only one way to go to promote the trail as truly world-class: asphalt. I once looked back on four years worth of trail-of-the-month stories on Rails to Trails’ website. Not many stone dust winners.

      Leisurely, non-serious cyclists can harbor resentment towards the speedy lycra set (they may even favor stone dust to keep them away). The speedy lycra set will object to dogs and roller bladers. Walkers will be annoyed by everyone, and annoy everyone. But the users of the trail I once rode frequently in Ohio were remarkably tolerant; the feeling was that trails are for everyone. Even in SW Ohio!

      People will absolutely walk on this trail, run on this trail. Near a popular parking lot, there will be all sorts of users; it might be crowded. It will thin out to cyclists only a mile or two away. It is these miles that will probably be paved eventually.

      I’ve had many conversations with Carl Knoch, former RTC guy for our area and developer of the often-cited Pine Creek Trail. He thought stone dust is the right surface for a wilderness trail – more natural. I don’t think it’s very natural; dirt is a better choice if you really want natural – and it’s fine with a mountain bike. But I find that a weathered asphalt surface with a sprinkling of leaves and pine needles is attractive. A heavy rain will produce rivulets of stone dust, which I do not find attractive.

      ANY trail is wonderful, no matter what. No one should get wrapped around any axles about surfacing.

      And Pete: you missed the Market Street Brass in Keene Valley! More important than plumbing.

      • Pete Nelson says:


        Almost more important than plumbing!

        New options for surfacing a trail have developed recently. This need research. The ability to stand up to the weather is a big part of this in my mind.

        • Joe Smith says:

          I rode a converted rr bed that had been black topped over in Upper Michigan. Tree roots were a problem there. Multiple times it was though we were riding over masses of mole tunnels. Very un-nerving. Don’t know if that would be a problem here though.

          • Boreas says:

            Odd – it almost sounds like they removed the aggregate bed as well and dropped it down to soil level. I can’t imagine tree roots growing upward through rocks. Or possibly it was just a crummy rail bed to begin with. Possibly it was an old trolley bed that may not have been designed for heavy rail.

          • Curt Austin says:

            My experience is that the biggest factor is whether the asphalt lies on top of a rail bed and its rocky ballast, or is just laid down on top of a few inches of gravel in a forest or field. A good example of the latter is the trail in Albany alongside the Hudson.

            Another factor is the type of trees along the side, and how far away they are. On the rail trail I used to ride a lot (Loveland, OH), root bursts were rare except near one particular type of tree. I often had ideas of going rogue with a chain saw….

            The Warren County Bikeway is the nearest relevant rail trail. No root burst problem of any significance, if I recall.

            • Boreas says:

              I guess that makes sense as well. Trees that spread by runners and shoots would tend to send shoots upward through most anything that was in their way.

            • Paul says:

              Do any of these other trails used for comparison have trail groomers and snow machines using them? Remember here the idea is to be able to use the trail with minimal snow pack.

      • Paul says:

        I find it hard to believe given where it is that people would walk on this trail much. It isn’t like a bike trail in Cape Cod or Hilton Head where folks can hook up with the trail to walk to the beach.

        Good luck getting the environmental lobby to agree to paving this corridor through things like Wilderness etc. This ain’t Ohio.

    • Curt Austin says:

      I left out what unexpectedly may be the biggest factor in choosing a surface:

      Variable state budgets mean variable maintenance. Stone dust will show ill effects within a year, while asphalt will be fine.

      Academic, however, since as a snowmobile trail, it can’t be asphalt without a herculean effort to protect it from studded tracks.

  23. Tim says:

    Nice, Pete. As someone who has the Great Allegheny Passage in his backyard, I can vouch for the quantity and quality of bicycle tourists. I know in just “my” little stretch, contractors have been put to work building or rehabilitating a half-dozen new bistros and B&Bs, which themselves provide seasonal employment. That many more businesses have probably been saved by bicycle tourism.
    There are interesting aspects to learn: Many bikers are freshly retired Baby Boomers interested in fine wines. Many shops have had to learn to ship (artwork, for example) their products, because cyclists travel light. Many cycle well off the trail to visit interesting communities. Most are really neat people in their own right, and will, I would predict, become advocates for the Adirondacks once they’ve gotten a taste.
    Cycling isn’t a golden goose. But it’s a fairly ample piece of the puzzle.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Right on the money, Tim!

    • Paul says:

      I would not compare a 150 mile trail that starts in a major metropolitan area (Pittsburgh) with this 30 mile planned trail. You will see some economic activity generated but it will probably be minimal given where this is. The other trail you describe also hooks up with a longer trail that goes to Washington DC. This is apples to oranges.

      • James Falcsik says:

        I don’t live far from the Great Allegheny Passage that Tim mentions. I see it a little differently. We do have a tourism market here; it is called the Laurel Highlands.

        Folks in West Newton complain trail patrons won’t bother to cross the river into town to buy even a cup of coffee. I drove through West Newton a couple weeks ago. Many store fronts are empty. When I survey the licence plates in the trail head parking lots they are usually all from local dealerships. We often ride the segment from West Newton to Cedar Creek Park, about a 4-5 mile round trip; the people I pass going east are the same folks I pass going west. Mostly local riders, just like we are.

        I see and talk to cyclists from other states that ride the GAP in our area. I was in Rockwood, PA, having diner with friends at an old mill renovated into a dinner/theater venue, and I talked with some guys from Iowa who were working their way to Washington DC. They surely stayed the night somewhere close by, but nobody is building new hotels in the area for bike trail patrons. There are just not large quantities of cycle tourists from out of the region that so many trail groups promote.

        The contractors mentioned by Tim might be working on properties that have received special low interest loans and start-up help by a group called The Progress Fund. They are based in Greensburg, PA, and they specialize in finding and supporting businesses targeting trail-side locations; using public financing.

        These small trail town populations have been decreasing steadily for decades, and this trail has been in extant for almost 30 years. Does a B&B or a small eatery do OK right on the GAP? Sure, in good weather. Is it making a large region-wide economic impact? No, not by a long shot. The GAP can draw riders from Pittsburgh and the surrounding tri-state population. I believe Fayette County has the lowest population density along the GAP at 45 persons per square mile. One of your counties in the AP has only 3 persons per square mile.

        There is an industry that is booming in the region of the GAP, and probably bringing more permanent folks into the area, and some of those new residents are surely finding their way to the trail. It is called Marcellus Shale.

  24. Phil Brown says:

    After Franklin County voted against the rail trail plan, the village of Tupper Lake voted for it–with the mayor, who is also a county legislator, abstaining.

  25. Tom Vawter says:

    The jury is still out. This trail will be most frequently used by snowmobiles–machines with none of the aesthetic attributes you lay on bikes here, Pete. I hope, once the trail is built, that someone will keep reliable data on how much and what kind of use it gets and by whom.

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