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Norwich residents worry Appalachian Trail will close unauthorized offshoots

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/9/2021 9:39:03 PM
Modified: 7/9/2021 9:39:15 PM

NORWICH — The public comment period on the U.S. Forest Service’s “proposed action” to close at least seven side trails along the Appalachian Trail ends Saturday, the latest step in a controversy over new trails in the area created by mountain bikers.

As of Friday, over 50 residents had signed a petition arguing that more crossings and side trails should be authorized.

And on Wednesday, the Norwich Trails Committee resolved to ask the Forest Service for a pause that would give more time to find a solution amenable to residents.

In Norwich, several authorized roads and trails cross the AT, which Green Mountain National Forest officials manage from the forest’s edge to the New Hampshire border.

However, historical trails and forest roads that were never officially authorized also intersect with the AT, and in recent years mountain bikers cut more trails.

That activity drew the attention of AT management to unauthorized offshoots from the iconic hiking corridor.

Officials at the AT Conservancy and the Forest Service said they are concerned about how side trails that hikers, skiers, cyclists and equestrians use to make loops impact the “primitive aspect” of the AT, local wildlife and erosion.

The Forest Service decided several needed to be closed, which a number of residents viewed as too drastic.

“To have someone say all these trails be closed, that really feels like a bit of an insult,” said Doug Hardy, a trail runner. “It just seems that a better approach, and maybe this is idealistic, would be for them to say, ‘These are our concerns, can you help us through education and policing to prevent future trails from being built?’ ”

He pointed to mountain biking on the AT in the past year as the real problem.

“This is illegal, something well-known to just about everyone,” he said. “This is what the Forest Service is concerned about and wants — needs — to stop.”

The Forest Service asked the Norwich Trails Committee and the Upper Valley Mountain Bike Association to identify a narrow, necessary set of authorized crossings. A year and a half ago, the organizations submitted a joint proposal asking for five trails to be authorized.

This June, the Forest Service responded with a “proposed action” that would authorize three out of the five requested trails and close at least seven side trails.

Last week, UVMBA withdrew its support for the proposal because Norwich is not part of its member network.

On Wednesday, Hardy presented a summary of the petition he wrote along with over 50 signatures to the trails committee. He and other concerned residents asked the committee not to endorse the plan.

“Let’s have a pause and identify issues that need to be addressed,” said Elliott Fisher, a Norwich resident whose land abuts the AT corridor.

With more time, concerned residents argued, they could find a solution with more robust support from the people who use the trails regularly, which in the long run would help management enforce the closures.

At the meeting, the trails committee agreed to add a paragraph to its response to the Forest Service asking for more time to find a solution that satisfied the community.

Forest Service District Ranger for the Rochester and Middlebury districts Chris Mattrick said that some respondents during the comment period were concerned that the plan did not allow for horses to cross the AT and so the Forest Service was considering an additional crossing.

Other respondents were more worried that historic walking paths connecting their homes to the trail would be removed.

He said that some historic trails likely would be closed. However, he added, the Forest Service has no interest in ticketing people walking through the woods to the corridor.

He said that there would be an additional opportunity for public comment if changes to the proposed action were extensive.

“It’s deliberative. We’re moving slowly for a reason,” Mattrick said. “Not everyone is going to like the decision, but we want to make sure that we make the best decision that we can.”

John Wiggin’s family has lived on their 100-acre property that abuts the corridor since the 1860s.

He added his name to the petition.

“I hope to see no signs in the woods, no cutting new trails, and the trails that have existed, and long existed, stay,” he said.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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