To the editor:
I was formerly on the board of the Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, which oversees operation of the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I've since retired from my position as chief of corporate communications for Amtrak in Washington and moved to Minnesota, coincidentally a place blessed with wonderful, unspoiled outdoor recreational assets similar to the Adirondack Park's.
Several long-abandoned former rail lines here in the southeast Minnesota region have been converted to bike, hiking and snowmobile trails. While there is considerable advertising and frequent public service announcements in the local media about these trails, my observation after two years' residence here is that they are very lightly used, despite a strong regional cultural predisposition to outdoor activity and exercise among a large portion of the population. This is not to say it was a mistake to convert these abandoned rail lines to their current purpose. But those former rail rights of way became available only after the railroads owning them voluntarily dismantled them, largely because of redundant rail lines that are still in operation.
This scenario is quite different from the one existing in the Adirondack State Park, where numerous trails already exist and where only secondary highway access is in place. Many of the arguments posed by those who would remove the rails between Saranac Lake and Thendara ironically support the alternative of keeping the railroad in place. For example, a large and aging baby-boomer population does, indeed, deserve easy access to the splendors of the Adirondack Park, but I submit that relatively few folks from this voluminous population would be physically able use that access - particularly with their grandchildren in tow - on foot, bicycles or snowmobiles. Passenger trains can provide that access better, and with minimal impact on the pristine environment. The hale and hearty of any age can use trains to get them to the best trails and lakes for whatever level of physical activity they wish.
Also, keeping the railroad doesn't eliminate the option of establishing adjacent trails, where it makes sense.
The Adirondack Park's current assets offer a unique opportunity for controlled growth that protects its fragile environment. A restored railroad with connections at Utica to the state's large population centers is a valuable asset. Communities along the line have voted for the train with their money and labor, at Remsen, Tupper Lake and elsewhere where volunteerism has made huge improvements in the existing line. Even as the debate over ripping up this asset continues, operations on the rail line are on the verge of extending northward from Carter to Big Moose, with a tie-replacement project expected to be completed in time for this year's fall foliage season.
For those who suggest that a dismantled railroad can later be restored if the need arises, the reality is that once a railroad is lost, it is almost certainly lost forever. With long-term forecasts pointing to dwindling energy supplies and increased fuel costs, an in-place railroad is a priceless asset that most regions would envy. Removing that asset - probably forever - would be a regrettable mistake.
R. Clifford Black