Saxtons River Valley Trail Initiative receives planning grant

SAXTONS RIVER, Vt. – For years outdoor enthusiasts in the Bellows Falls area have longed for a scenic hiking/biking trail to connect Bellows Falls and Saxtons River to both the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association trails at Bald Hill and the larger Pinnacle ridgeline trail network. In 2015 that desire became more focused and culminated in a collaboration by the Bellows Falls Historical Society, Rockingham Conservation Commission, and Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association that was named the Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative (SRVTI). Growing interest in SRVTI’s project and its importance have now been recognized and encouraged by a technical assistance grant awarded by the National Park Service.

In 2017 momentum for the area project greatly increased after the Saxtons River Valley Trail Initiative hosted a highly successful public forum at the Rockingham Library that discussed the benefits of potential hiking and biking trails from Bellows Falls to Saxtons River

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Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association Board Members and area residents on a walk of the proposed Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative route with National Park Service RTCA project manager Jennifer Waite. From left to right: John Foster, Jennifer Waite NPS, Silos Roberts, Vanessa Stern, Rick Cowan, Kate Roome, Valerie Barry, and Bob Gay. Photo provided.

Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association (WHPA), with assistance from partners in the Trails Initiative, successfully applied for a planning grant from the National Park Service (NPS) in June of last year.

The Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative will receive technical assistance grant by the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program (RTCA) for the 2018 fiscal year. RTCA is a nationwide NPS program that provides assistance to community groups to help them meet their goals of creating trails, protecting rivers, and enhancing natural areas. The Vermont program is based at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt.

The RTCA grant will provide staff time to support the goals of this multi-partner project. The east-west trail system will start in Bellows Falls at the Riverfront Park, linking to the Bald Hill Reserve in Westminster, heading west through Basin Farm and other trails, and thence through Rockingham to Saxtons River and Athens, where it can connect with the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association’s 25-mile north-south trail system that runs from Putney Mountain to Grafton.

The Bald Hill Reserve lies adjacent to Bellows Falls Union High School forestlands, and together they presently offer over seven miles of trails readily accessible to hikers. Although a number of easements along the Connecticut River have been secured, one important step in the project is to complete safe access from the Bellows Falls Riverfront Park to the high school and Bald Hill Reserve.

Stewart Read, Bellows Falls Historical Society (BFHS) treasurer and coordinator to the project, has been instrumental in getting easements radiating from the park, which is near the society’s headquarters. BFHS is offering practical help for the project by providing meeting space, historic resources, printing, and publicity.

Speaking about the broad vision of the project, WHPA Trustee and Bald Hill Conservation Committee Chair Vanessa Stern said, “If we are successful, we will provide miles of woodland and riverfront trails between a number of quintessential Vermont villages, creating the opportunity for a variety of daylong destination hikes. Nature enthusiasts will be able to hike, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and mountain bike on pristine trials, while enjoying a variety of amenities in local villages at the end of their outings.”

Mike Ghia, chair of the Rockingham Conservation Commission, pointed out the need for this recreational opportunity. “Building connections between the trail networks we do have and developing new trails, as well as publicizing them, will enhance the quality of life for local citizens as increased opportunities for hiking and biking are created. The village-to-village trail system should also give a lift to local economies, as visitors from near and far venture here to take advantage of this expanded outdoor experience.”

After meeting with representatives from the cooperating organizations and walking some of the proposed trail route with them to detail needs and problem areas, National Park Service RTCA project manager Jennifer Waite stated, “The Saxtons River Valley Trails project is a terrific partnership of a wide variety of community groups and non-profits. Their energy and focus will surely pay off with significant benefit to the region. RTCA is looking forward to working with this group and doing what we can to help them achieve their goals.”

Support for the project has already been received from a variety of governmental and private organizations, including the Vermont Department of Health, Westminster Select Board, Village of Saxtons River, Rockingham, and Bellows Falls Development Director, Bellows Falls Community Bike Project, and Compass School.

Maps showing the SRVTI project area, the Bald Hill Reserve, and ridgeline Pinnacle Association Trails may be found at www.windmillhillpinnacle.org.

Initiative members are eager for suggestions and support to move this project forward. For further information about the Initiative and ways to participate, contact Vanessa Stern, WHPA Trustee and Bald Hill Conservation Committee Chair, at 802-463-4948 or davidandvanessa@gmail.com.

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