Report urges development of ‘recreation corridors,’ including 3 in Maine

Posted Dec. 27, 2011, at 6:24 p.m.

A recent report commissioned for the National Park Service is urging support for seven interstate “recreation corridors” in New England — including three in Maine — as a way to reconnect people with the outdoors and spur economic development in riverfront and trailside communities.

The report is not calling for the creation of new national parks or large-scale acquisition of private land for conservation. Instead, the authors are seeking to build public and private support for the completion or expansion of canoe trails, multiple-use trails and other multistate projects that would benefit residents and draw tourists.

The project grew out of a New England Governor’s Conference initiative on regional recreation opportunities. In April 2011, the National Park Service provided funding to compile the initiative’s work into a final report.

The seven recreational corridors or pathways that are the focus of the report are:

• Androscoggin River in Maine and New Hampshire.

• Northern Forest Canoe Trail in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Quebec.

• Champlain Valley in Vermont and New York.

• Merrimack River in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

• Connecticut River in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.

• Blackstone River Valley in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

• East Coast Greenway in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.

“These visions were borne of public and private actions to restore the nation’s waters and renew its pathways, to connect people to the outdoors for both recreation and resource stewardship, to honor the nation’s outdoor heritage, to revitalize local economies and create jobs especially for youth, and to create a more sustainable future,” reads the report, titled “Connect People to the Outdoors in New England.”

The project’s lead investigator, Richard Barringer, said he already has spoken with senior officials within the Obama administration about the corridor projects. Barringer said the report’s focus on both public health and economic opportunities dovetails with the Obama administration’s “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative, which seeks to combat the national obesity epidemic by encouraging people to spend more time recreating outside.

And while both federal and state funding for recreation projects is likely limited because of budget constraints, Barringer said he and others are guardedly optimistic that some of the seven projects could move forward based on feedback he has received from federal officials. Many of the projects proposed in the report also would involve private funding.

“I have the sense that a lot of these things will come to pass,” said Barringer, a University of Southern Maine professor and former conservation commissioner in Maine.

In the case of the Androscoggin River, the report calls for improving access to the river in key downtown areas — including in Lewiston, Rumford and Gorham, N.H. — as well as completing pathways linking the river to other towns. The authors also recommend extending Brunswick’s bicycle and pedestrian pathway to Bath and to Lisbon as well as acquiring land or conservation easements on key parcels, such as from Bethel Village to the New Hampshire border.

Barringer said the Androscoggin project offers a good example of numerous small public and private groups having success working together. But the Androscoggin also has “incredible opportunities” now that the river is recovering from the days when it was a national poster child for industrial pollution.

Jonathan LaBonte, executive director of the Androscoggin Land Trust, said the recognition of how far the river has come and its potential means a lot to people who live in riverside communities such as Jay and Lewiston.

“Having this type of regional recognition of this river and the recreational opportunities for us is really a game changer,” LaBonte said.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which stretches for 740 miles from New York State to Fort Kent, is gradually cultivating a national reputation among paddlers. But the report says better access in small communities all along the path would enhance the canoe trail’s economic value. The authors also recommend expanding the trail 200 miles beyond Fort Kent on the St. John River through Maine and New Brunswick to the Bay of Fundy.

Alan Stearns, a former deputy director of the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands who has been involved with the canoe trail, argued that the paddling on the Northern Forest trail is superior to that in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. But the Boundary Waters are better marketed, better packaged and therefore are better known, he said.

Stearns, who was involved in the discussions that led to the report, said both the Northern Forest trail and the Androscoggin project have the potential to help numerous small communities in Maine. Those potential economic impacts are magnified when projects cross state boundaries because of collaboration between governments and private groups.

“I think the report did a good job explaining that rivers and recreation on rivers provides great potential for tourism jobs and environmental restoration all at the same time,” said Stearns, who recently was hired as executive director of the Royal River Conservation Trust.

The third project that includes Maine, the East Coast Greenway, is part of a larger effort to link communities from Florida to Maine via multiuse pathways. Examples in Maine include the Kennebec Rail Trail between Augusta and Gardiner and efforts to link trail or path systems in Portland to those in Kennebunk and even Portsmouth, N.H.

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