A state-proposed land swap with the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in Errol would open the way for an ATV trail connecting Jericho Mountain State Park with the Pittsburg area.
The 175-acre piece under consideration is situated just east of the Seven Islands Bridge, and borders the 13-Mile Woods Community Forest. The refuge is willing to trade that piece for a similar parcel, either with the state or the town, to allow the ATV trail access to Errol from the park in Berlin. The refuge is not open to ATV traffic under its Comprehensive Conservation Plan, the drafting of which included a public review process.
Refuge manager Paul Casey attended the January 11 meeting of the 13-Mile Woods Association to advise the group of the state's proposal, and on his efforts within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to get things started. A land exchange is "the quickest way to go," he said. "I'm going tomorrow to the regional office and make a proposal. That will get the process going for an appraisal."
Charlie Kurtz, president of the 13-Mile Woods Association, observed that if the connection is accomplished, "this will be the only trail in the U.S. where you can go from town to town to town." He also noted that ATV riders and area clubs want this kind of riding experience, and "they'll go west [through other areas] if we don't do this--this is the only opportunity we get to bring it to Errol."
There is an existing road through the 13-Mile Woods that would have to be "upgraded dramatically" for use as an ATV trial, Mr. Kurtz said. "Is there a better way?" asked association member Pierre Rousseau. "I don't want to get halfway through this and find out that it's not."
Umbagog Snowmobile Assoc-iation trail administrator Frank Roy called that route "the easiest, most practical way to get to town," and noted, "The biggest thing is there are no wet areas." Mr. Kurtz agreed that any other route through that area would encounter wetlands.
From the refuge's standpoint, however, wetlands are attractive for a swap. "It has to be of equal value, but also have an equal or higher value with regard to wildlife habitat," Mr. Casey explained. An environmental assessment will be completed to ensure that the property being traded offers "better wildlife habitat than what we'd be exchanging out."
Mr. Casey said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will require that the proposal includes "multiple alternatives, including no action. I'm going to move forward with some data gathering so we're not behind the eight-ball." He advised keeping several options active at the same time, so that if one doesn't pan out, the proposal can move on with another.
"I'd say we want to push this as fast as we can," Mr. Casey said. "There's an automatic 30- to 60-day review process mixed in. The survey's got to be done by fall, and the appraisal will also take time." When asked about a realistic time frame, he characterized completion by the end of this year "a longshot."
The N.H. Trails Bureau is behind the proposal, which will be the subject of a meeting next week between the state, the Town of Errol, the refuge and the 13-Mile Woods Association. Mr. Kurtz confirmed just yesterday that the meeting is set for 6 p.m. next Thursday, February 16 at the Errol Town Hall.
Trails Bureau chief Chris Gamache said the idea of "linking the pockets of riding together has been a plan for close to eight years," and that the Town of Errol, the Coös County commissioners, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Trails Bureau have been discussing the possibilities for this particular trail for more than a year.
The bureau completed a state-wide plan for ATV and bike trails in 2004, which identified the need for connector trails. "The Jericho Master Plan also made recommendations to link riding areas in the North Country together," Mr. Gamache said. The state already has landowner permission for this connector trail "for all of the other mileage needed at this time," he said, adding that "landowner patterns and existing roads" were used to develop the current plan.
"This proposed land exchange is absolutely vital to creating a regional trail to link the existing riding opportunities in Coös County," Mr. Gamache said. "We have not identified a specific property yet, but have several options to look at in the area. The town, county, refuge, clubs and the bureau all want to see this connection made. Having us all on the same general page at this point is great."
ATVs, Mr. Roy observed, "are coming on stronger than snowmobiling ever did, and in this economy, the town needs this." Mr. Kurtz agreed, noting his and Mr. Roy's concern that Errol not miss the benefits an ATV trail through town might provide.
"Another town will welcome them," Mr. Kurtz said, "so it's Errol's decision, do we want them or not?"