A group of nonprofits purchased nearly 1,000 acres in Bethel on Tuesday to create a community forest that will connect to an even larger swath of land and result in a vast network of trails and open land dedicated to outdoor recreation between the town and Sunday River ski resort.

The national Trust for Public Land, Bethel-based trail organization Mahoosuc Pathways and the Northern Forest Center in New Hampshire achieved a five-year goal of creating the 3,500-acre conservation area by purchasing the 978 acres that will become the Bethel Community Forest.

A decade ago, the town of Bethel acquired the 2,411-acre Bingham Community Forest, located in Newry next to Sunday River, a parcel that originally had been managed to protect the town’s water supply. It became a first step in Mahoosuc Pathways’ vision to create the larger area of protected land for recreational uses.

Over the past two years, $2.25 million was raised for the Bethel Community Forest project, with $1.04 million going toward the purchase of the land and $500,000 going to a management fund for Mahoosuc Pathways, which will own the land on behalf of the town and manage it for recreation and wildlife habitat. The entire 3,500-acre tapestry of conservation land includes one of the most productive deer wintering areas in the state, Mahoosuc Pathways says.

The money raised for the acquisition completed Tuesday included a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service from the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program, $340,000 from the Land For Maine’s Future program, and various private foundations and individual donors, said Betsy Cook, project manager for The Trust for Public Land in Portland.

The Bethel Community Forest is modeled after a centuries-old conservation blueprint that has been used by more than 20 communities throughout northern New England with the Trust’s help.

“The acquisition of the land, a $2.25 million endeavor, is truly a milestone for the Bethel region and the future of trails and the outdoor recreation economy in Western Maine,” Cook said. “We hope that Bethel can showcase how other Western and Central Maine communities can grow their outdoor recreation offerings and economies.”

Right away, there will be 13 miles of woods roads for hikers, mountain bikers and wildlife watchers to use in the Bethel Community Forest. In the next few months, the roads will be improved, parking lots will be built and signs will go in, said Gabe Perkins, Mahoosuc Pathways executive director. In the coming year, more trails will be added with input from the town residents.

On Sept. 14, the town will celebrate the first event on the entire 3,500-acre parcel: a trail race and half marathon that will stretch from Bethel to Sunday River’s peaks.

“This started as a wild idea,” said Perkins, the nonprofit’s director of five years. “Right now I mostly just feel appreciation for the Trust, the Northern Forest Center and all the people in our community who supported us. They made it a reality.”


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