Officials are estimating that a new system of hiking and recreational trails under development in The Forks will be completed by September 2015.
They say the trails along the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway would boost the tourism industry in the area, which is already near two major Maine trail systems — the Appalachian Trail and the Maine Huts & Trails System.
The byway, which stretches 78 miles from the Solon-Madison town line to the Canadian border, is one of four National Scenic Byways in the state, roads that have been designated as having cultural, historic and natural importance. There are 125 such roads across the U.S.
Since 2006 byway organizers have been looking to develop trails in The Forks as well as along other parts of the corridor, which runs along U.S. Route 201 and the Kennebec River. On Thursday, the Somerset Economic Development Corp., a group that oversees economic development in Somerset County, invited the byway’s coordinator and the owner of a white-water rafting company along the road to speak on the benefits of trail development.
Jim Batey, director of the development group, said recreation is an important part of the economy in northern Somerset County. Trails not only can bring people to the area, but also can entice them to stay longer and spend more money, he said.
“It is disconcerting that it hasn’t happened quicker, but the important thing is that it is finally going to happen,” Batey said. “Sometimes when there is federal money involved in projects, it can take longer. Not always, but sometimes. At this time next year, we should have completed trails that will hopefully lead to similar investments in the area.”
Bob Haynes, the byway’s coordinator, was joined by Russell Walters, owner of Northern Outdoors, a white-water rafting and adventure resort in The Forks, who also spoke about the benefits of having trails for the tourism industry.
“There’s a number of obstacles that have come up,” Haynes said. “Until everything is done and signed, you don’t have a project. It’s funded and ready to go, but we’re still working on all those details now.”
The byway received some funding in 2006 and was also the recipient of a grant from the Federal Highway Administration in 2009 that provided more than $200,000 in funding for development along the road. Because state requirements mandate that such funds support handicapped-accessible trails, however, the project was delayed.
“Some people thought this was kind of a negative, but now it’s available to everybody,” Haynes said. “The upper regions of the Kennebec will now be open to everyone.”
The federal funding also requires the byway to raise enough money to match the grant, some of which can come from the Maine Department of Transportation, although the group is still looking for other available money. “The completion date for the opening will be September of 2015. We’re working to fulfill all of the obligations, and in the meantime there is a lot of excitement around the trail,” Haynes said.
The trails will consist of about 10 miles along the Dead River and the Kennebec River, including a connecting point to the Maine Huts and Trails System, a 30-mile system of trails that connects the Carrabassett Valley to the West Forks.
That type of connection and connections to other trails in the area, including the nearby Appalachian Trail, are critical to both residents and tourists, Walters said.
“If we don’t create these trails that bring people downtown into our neighborhoods, we’re not really serving our communities well,” Walters said. “I think it’s critical that these trails connect our communities.”
Since it’s establishment as a National Scenic Byway, the Old Canada Road has seen numerous aesthetic and recreational improvements, with much of the funding coming from the federal government.
In 2010 a rest area was established at the Robbins Hill Scenic Area on the Madison-Solon town line, including a scenic overlook and sign welcoming visitors to the start of the byway.
A five-year project consisting of the installation of information panels in English and French along the byway with historical and cultural information about the area was also completed in that year.
Rachel Ohm — 612-2368 | [email protected]