Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proved himself to be a friend of the Adirondack Park.
When he needs some peace and quiet, the governor often escapes to these woods, lakes and mountains - as he did recently when he headed for Lake Placid to work on his State of the State speech while his daughters were skiing at Whiteface Mountain. He also drove over to Saranac Lake and dropped by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise for a surprise visit.
Last August, the governor showed his desire to protect the wild beauty of the Adirondacks when he announced that the state will be purchasing 65,000 acres of prime real estate to be added to our "forever wild" Forest Preserve. Now, over coffee in the Enterprise office, he talked about the importance of tourism development and the need to hold more special events to attract more visitors to the Park.
Who could disagree? There's no question that Saranac Lake's Winter Carnival and Lake Placid's Horse Shows and Ironman triathlon are big draws. But why not take it a step further and develop a new tourist attraction that would function like a CONTINUOUS special event? Such as a multi-use, year-round recreational trail on the old Adirondack railroad corridor that could be a major tourist destination for bicyclers in the spring, summer and fall.
This 90-mile stretch of rail bed, built in 1892 and now owned by the state, connects Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake and Old Forge. The corridor has been sadly underutilized since passenger service petered out in 1965 and sporadic freight hauling ended in 1972. Now it's ripe to be converted into a world-class recreation trail that would attract droves of cyclists from May through October by catering to one of the country's fastest-growing outdoor activities. (Bicycling has now outpaced fishing, hiking, canoeing, camping and skiing as a favorite form of recreation, according to a New York state survey by the Outdoor Industry Association.)
Two comparable tourist destinations in the eastern U.S. are the 63-mile Pine Creek Trail through the "Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania" and the 35-mile Virginia Creeper Trail near the Tennessee border. The first one draws some 150,000 overnight visitors each year, and the second attracts more than 100,000 overnight visitors. Cyclists who gravitate to these trails buy food, clothing and outdoor gear, and they patronize restaurants, lodging places, museums, art galleries, grocery stores and bike shops. New businesses have sprung up along the trails, and new jobs have been created.
What we are calling the Adirondack Rail Trail would provide an even greater boost to tourism. With the old tracks removed, the rail bed would offer dramatically improved snowmobiling from December through March. This long, straight, scenic corridor runs from Old Forge to Tupper Lake, where it connects with a network of snowmobile trails extending north through St. Lawrence and Franklin counties to Canada. Communities like Tupper Lake, which traditionally shuts down in the winter, would benefit accordingly.
An excursion train has been operating on the 9-mile stretch between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake for a dozen years, with no significant economic benefit to the region. The state estimates that restoring the entire railroad line, as train advocates propose, would cost taxpayers $43 million for a service for which there is no funding and no demand.
The Adirondack Rail Trail, on the other hand, is the only major recreational amenity lacking in a region where hiking, paddling, skiing and snowshoeing trails abound. This safe, easy, multi-use trail would be free from road traffic and present no more than a 2 percent grade. It would give Adirondack tourism the big boost that Gov. Cuomo has in mind, enhance the quality of life for both visitors and residents, and cost little or nothing, thanks to the salvage value of the rails and ties.
The governor has the right idea. Protect the Adirondacks, and, at the same time, capitalize on its special attributes. Smart, coherent tourist development, based on the region's unique natural character, is a key to our economic future.
So what are we waiting for?
Dick Beamish is founder of the Adirondack Explorer magazine and co-founder of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates. He lives in Saranac Lake.