ADDISON COUNTY — For almost 50 years, naturalists, hikers and government officials have dreamed of blazing a trail that would connect two of the country’s longest hiking routes: the Appalachian Trail, which runs along the East Coast from Georgia to Maine, and the North Country Trail, which stretches from Crown Point, N.Y., to North Dakota.
The missing link?
A roughly 40-mile stretch of prospective trail through Addison County.
But this month, the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT) and the National Park Service wrapped up a feasibility study for that missing link. And with that completed study in hand, the dream is closer to becoming a reality than ever before.
Bruce Matthews, director of the North Country Trail Association, is fired up about the prospect of making the link a reality.
“This would unite the northern people of the United States,” he said. “This would provide us some cultural glue that would give us something to be proud of.”
At an information session for the North Country Trail (NCT) extension last week, board members, scientists, citizens and federal and local officials gathered at the Weybridge Elementary School auditorium to discuss the study’s findings.
The NCT runs 4,600 miles from central North Dakota to Crown Point, N.Y. The Appalachian Trail runs 2,184 miles from Spring Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The feasibility study looked at making the link from Crown Point to the Appalachian Trail at a spot east of Rutland.
Although many specifics are still up in the air, the roughly 20 people at the Weybridge information session overwhelmingly supported a trail route that heads east from Crown Point through the town of Addison, south of Dead Creek, over Snake Mountain into Weybridge, along the Trail Around Middlebury, over to the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area in Goshen where it would connect with the Long Trail. Hikers could then head south on the Long Trail to the Appalachian Trail.
While Vermont officials and members of the Green Mountain Club openly support the trail today, this hasn’t always been the case.
HISTORY AND CONGRESS
In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Department of the Interior began to explore the feasibility of long-distance National Scenic Trails — hiking trails based on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails. The culminating report was called Trails for America.
One of the earliest proposals to emerge from this study was for the NCT. But it didn’t recommend a trail to terminate at Lake Champlain in the east, like the current one does. It called for a trail extended to the upper reaches of the Green Mountains, meeting up with the Long Trail, which would provide an established corridor to the Appalachian Trail. Those who proposed this trail also envisioned a stretch that included the Green Mountains.
At that time, however, Vermonters had a different view, with many in the public and private spheres against the Vermont portion of the trail. They were concerned that more hikers on the Long and Appalachian trails would threaten their pristine environments. The Green Mountain Club board of trustees passed a resolution that opposed the NCT and other national scenic trails in Vermont.
Consequently, the Vermont portion of the trail was erased from the NCT report. When the trail was authorized by Congress in 1980, it ended in North Dakota and New York, just across Lake Champlain from Addison County.
Almost 30 years later, the NCT Association called a meeting with MALT and other Vermont organizations to rehash the idea. The Vermont groups were receptive this time, and, in 2009, MALT and the National Park Service began a feasibility study.
But even though many Vermonters now strongly support this notion, there’s a hang-up. Before negotiations with landowners begin, Congress must amend the National Trails System Act to include Vermont in the NCT. Right now, the trail can only run as far east as Crown Point.
“We can talk about possible routes until we’re blue in the face, but until Congress says the NCT can connect to the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, we can’t do anything,” said Matthews.
THE TRAIL AND SUPPORT
The report proposed two main corridors that are both three to five miles wide, depending on the section. But MALT and the National Park Service only recommended one.
The less desirable corridor would head north from the Lake Champlain Bridge through Dead Creek to Button Bay State Park, east to Vergennes and Bristol, over Bristol Cliffs and then southeast to the Breadloaf Wilderness Area, where it would pick up the Long Trail. This route would require at least 60 miles of new trail construction and cost an estimated $1.8 million to $18 million.
The preferred route through Middlebury to Moosalamoo, on the other hand, would require only 13-19 miles of new trail construction and cost between $450,000 and $6 million. Much of the preferred corridor follows existing trails, like those on Snake Mountain, the Trail Around Middlebury and Moosalamoo’s Oak Ridge Trail.
Another route from Middlebury up through Abbey Pond and over to Skylight Pond has been proposed, but officials and scientists last week expressed concerned that it would bring too much traffic through environmentally sensitive areas — home to young forests, moose and other wildlife. The board of the Moosalamoo Association is also a strong proponent of the trail extension and is willing to help to see this idea through to fruition.
Bruce Acciavatti, a Moosalamoo board member, gave the board’s nod of approval last week.
“The Moosalamoo Association views the selected alternative by the National Park Service for routing the NCT through the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area as a great opportunity to promote the area by bringing more recreation-minded people there and, in turn, helping local tourism-related businesses, such as inns, restaurants and outfitters.”
The town of Middlebury has also extended its support for the trail.
“The Trail Around Middlebury has been nothing but a benefit to the town, and we think the NCT would add an even greater benefit,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington. “As the project moves forward, we want to work closely with the National Park Service and NCT Association to find a route that’s best for the objectives of the trail and town. The town and the planning commission supports the notion of this trail.”
MALT is also enthusiastic about the plan. Trail Director John Derick spoke succinctly about the proposal through Middlebury.
“It would show a community commitment to connecting to the Adirondacks,” he said.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]