National trail may soon be extended through area

ADDISON COUNTY — Ambitious local hikers may soon have a big new opportunity lying right in their backyards. The U.S. House of Representatives has unanimously passed legislation that would officially extend the North Country National Scenic Trail from Crown Point, N.Y., into Addison County, Vt.
The 4,600-mile North Country Trail was federally recognized in 1980, and currently runs through seven states from North Dakota to New York. Original plans for the trail called for it to continue all the way to Maine, but opposition from Vermonters who feared an influx of backpackers into the Green Mountain State halted the trail at the New York state line.
Now, it seems, such opposition has all but disappeared. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., co-authored the bill that was OK’d June 5. If passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump, it would fulfill the original dream for the trail. The bill would fund the connection of the North Country Trail to the Long Trail, which links to the Appalachian Trail (AT), running from Georgia to Maine.
In order to connect the New York terminus with Vermont’s Long Trail, the North Country Trail’s national organizers had to look locally. In 2013, they brought in the Middlebury Area Land Trust (MALT), which built and maintains the Trail Around Middlebury, known as the TAM.
“We’re sitting in the middle of this really important gap,” explained Jamie Montague, the executive director of MALT. The TAM covers about 11 miles of the distance between the North Country Trail and the Long Trail.
Most of the brand-new trail that MALT still needs to construct lies between the New York state line and the TAM entry point near Snake Mountain. But because that area is mostly privately owned farmland, Montague acknowledged that this leg of the North Country Trail will likely contain some road walks — at least in its early stages.
On the east side of Middlebury, MALT would connect the TAM with the Long Trail via the Oak Ridge Trail and some land for which easements are already in hand.
“Over years of time, developing relationships with people, we might be able to get trails built, in those flatter farmland areas,” Montague said.
North Country Trail devotees hope that the proposed extension would increase popular awareness of the relatively under-used trail.
One such devotee is Luke Jordan, a hiker from Minnesota who in 2013 became only the fourth person to through-hike the entire North Country Trail. He’s excited to see progress toward completing the trail.
“Having our terminus right there with the Appalachian Trail will be huge for bringing in more users,” Jordan told the Independent.
He said hikers on the AT might notice the signage for the North Country Trail, and that could spur them to traverse that trail, as well.
“If it fully does pass, it’s definitely a good thing,” Jordan said.
The North Country Trail, according to Jordan, is distinguished from other American scenic trails by its free-form path and its East-West orientation.
“The North Country is one of the few that doesn’t follow a specific land form,” he said. “On the AT you’re following the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the North Country is kind of unique in the sense that … there’s nothing specific that you’re following, so it just strings together the best of the best in that region.” Highlights from his time on the trail included the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and the Finger Lakes and Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Jordan feels confident that the Vermont extension will be a success, because he’s already hiked it himself: When he reached the New York terminus during his through-hike, he unofficially followed the same route that may soon become official, joining up with the Long Trail and continuing on to the Appalachian Trail.
“The portion in Vermont was very, very pleasant,” he said. “It’s definitely worthy of being incorporated into the national scenic trail system.”
Montague said that if the legislation is ultimately approved, the new trail and signage could be finalized quickly — within a year or two.
“But the idea of continuing to improve it, getting as much trail as possible and not using road connectors — that will be an ongoing process,” she said, noting it could easily take another 50 years.
If the extension passes Congress and that long process begins, MALT would assume responsibility for a small but important section of the longest national scenic trail in the country.

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