National Scenic Trail could bring long-distance hikers to county

WEYBRIDGE — Some day in the future, Addison County residents may be able to hop on a trail in their hometown and walk on it all the way to North Dakota.
That’s the vision put on the table by the Middlebury Area Land Trust last week at two open houses that gathered public opinion about extending the North Country National Scenic Trail, which is planned to run from North Dakota to Crown Point, N.Y., into Vermont.
Josh Phillips, the executive director of MALT, which maintains the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM), hopes to pick up the North Country Trail in Addison and connect it with the Long Trail in Ripton. From there, hikers could walk on U.S. Forest Service trails all the way to the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine.
Phillips sees the North Country Trail as an opportunity not only to connect local trails with the interstate trail, but to connect trails within Addison County. He told a small audience at the Weybridge Congregational Church on Thursday that he hopes to connect the trail as much as possible with trails and destinations that are already established, so that it would be easy to maintain. These could include footpaths through Snake Mountain, Weybridge Caves, Otter Creek Gorge and Dead Creek, as well as the TAM.
Of course, there is still a long way to go on the current North Country Trail. Although Congress authorized the building of the trail in 1980 after nearly a decade of planning, to date only 1,850 miles — about half of the trail — have been built. The trail was originally intended to connect with the Long Trail at its eastern terminus, but three decades ago the Green Mountain Club declined involvement and Vermont was taken out of the plans.
National Parks Service North Country Trail Superintendent Tom Gilbert, who has been involved with planning the trail since the early 1970s, gave a PowerPoint presentation on its history at the MALT open houses. If the trail were to be extended into Vermont, it would fulfill one of Gilbert’s long-held goals.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “Now we’re putting back together the original design of the trail system.”
This goal, however, could be a long time coming. The National Parks Service relies on regional conservation and trail maintenance groups to build and maintain individual parts of the trail, and they pay for the signs, equipment and markers, as well as for some of the maintenance costs — bridges on the trail, for example.
But until Congress officially amends the trail’s route to include the Vermont spur, MALT or other sponsor will not be able to get any funding to build the trail. Gilbert is working on a new feasibility study, and he plans to request a reevaluation as soon as September.
Until the amendment comes through, MALT will have to go it alone. Phillips has already made up the conceptual trail maps, designating a variety of routes for the trail. Now he is gearing up to speak with landowners and to find those who will agree to have a trail on their land. Interest from landowners will, in large part, determine what route the trail takes through the county.
After the route has been defined, though, it will be a waiting game.
“The actual building is pending Congress’s approval,” said Phillips. “And before we get started, we’ll need to build up volunteers and gather funds.”
For funding, MALT will look to private donors, as well as the Green Mountain Club, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Parks Service.
And to those who fear that the increased foot traffic from outside will put an unnecessary strain on the county’s wild spaces, Phillips and Gilbert are both quick to clarify the trail’s purpose.
“It’ll be a small part of a very large trail, and you can walk that all the way to North Dakota” said Phillips. “But county residents will treat it as a cross-county trail.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]

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