BETHEL — As Alex Strugatskiy ran through the woods outside this mountain village, he leaned over and pushed his 7-year-old son, Kyr, as the boy peddled his mountain bike up a steep trail. It was double duty for the dad during a weekly trail race.

It was a scene that could be played out by even more people in the coming years because of the efforts of a local nonprofit group.

Bethel’s trail organization, Mahoosuc Pathways, is poised to launch the final phase of a $2.25 million fundraising effort to purchase 978 acres beside Sunday River ski resort in order to create the Bethel Community Forest, envisioned as a recreational playground for local residents.

The effort, in conjunction with the Trust for Public Land and Northern Forest Center, eventually would lead to a total of 3,589 acres of conserved land between Sunday River and Bethel, seven miles away. Mahoosuc Pathways is planning for a 10-mile trail from the ski area to town-owned land and then to the community forest beside Bethel.

Mahoosuc Pathways already has raised $905,700 toward the purchase of its first land holding.

Residents gave resounding support to the project at a town meeting Wednesday, with 200 voting in favor and only 11 against a motion that the town would take ownership of the community forest if Mahoosuc Pathways ever dissolves.

The overwhelming support was affirmation to those who are working on the project.

“We’re pretty excited to move forward,” said Sarah Weafer, Mahoosuc Pathways’ project manager. “I am hopeful that as our story gets out, more people will become members, and enable us to keep building trails and getting people outside.”

Mahoosuc Pathways was a committee within the Mahoosuc Land Trust until six years ago, when it became an independent nonprofit with the goal of turning Bethel into a town surrounded by trails. Now the trail organization plans to turn the community forest into a massive network of trails in a town that sits beside the White Mountain National Forest.

Julia Reuter of Bethel runs on the Bethel Village Trails during a recent trail race. A local land trust, Mahoosuc Pathways, is raising money to buy land and add to the trail system.

“We were talking to the Trust for Public Land about who would own it, and I had this moment last summer when I thought, ‘Maybe it should just be us,’ ” said Gabe Perkins, executive director of Mahoosuc Pathways.

A Bethel native, Perkins, 40, said making Bethel a more livable town by building trails is long overdue.

“This is what connects a community,” Perkins said. “For me, Bethel is already pretty good at ecotourism. This is being done for the community. It’s the community driving the process.”

Strugatskiy said the greatest value in the community forest will be in the way it inspires residents to live a more active life.

“The first I heard about it was a year ago,” Strugatskiy said. “It’s a great idea to get more people in town outside. It develops an outdoor ethic for kids growing up. And if you protect it now, it will always be protected. These trails are more for the local folks who live here. They will use them every day. It will help keep the community vibrant.”

Fred Bailey, 33, grew up in Bethel and returned four years ago to make it his home again. Now the collection manager at the Maine Mineral and Gem Museum on Main Street, Bailey said the trails built around town by Mahoosuc Pathways the past few years have caused an uptick in outdoor activity for a town already full of outdoors people.

“There were no mountain bike trails when I grew up here,” Bailey said. “They’re great for trail running. When I was growing up, there was only Alpine and Nordic ski trails. There has been a big shift to mountain biking. There is a growing culture.”

The trails at Bethel Inn Resort at the top of Main Street are one example. Three years ago the inn partnered with Mahoosuc Pathways to create a trail system. This summer the system will be extended to a six-mile loop in the woods beside the inn’s nine-hole golf course. As golfers putt from greens nearby, signs beside cart paths stop mountain bikers and alert them to be quiet.

“That’s happening in other parts of the country, integrating mountain biking into (resorts),” Weafer said.

Before the trail race a week ago, Ashley Suavez walked with Diana Gordon and her small dog, Jack, on the trails. The two women from Worcester, Massachusetts, were on vacation in Bethel and knew nothing about the local trails when they arrived. After a week they were delighted to find them.

“We just punched trails into Google. These are wonderful,” Suavez said. “I can’t walk very far or climb mountains so this is perfect. I like to be in the woods.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

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