Saxtons River Valley Trails initiative receives NPS grant

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BELLOWS FALLS — For years outdoor enthusiasts in the Bellows Falls area have longed for a scenic hiking and 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. Such a broad system would offer needed recreational opportunities and capitalize upon the region's natural assets of rivers, fields, and woodlands. 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. 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 and sought input and assistance from area residents and landowners in determining the best route for those trails. As a result of enthusiastic response to the forum, organizational meetings and both committee and public walks along parts of the potential route have taken place, and several local citizens have jumped on board to support this regional opportunity. Determined to move forward with this ambitious project, the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, with assistance from partners in the Trails Initiative, successfully applied for a planning grant from the National Park Service in June of last year.

The Saxtons River Valley Trails Initiative has been selected for a technical assistance grant by the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance program 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, Vermont.

The RTCA grant will provide staff time to support the goals of this multi-partner project that envisions a regional, east-west trail system along the Saxtons River Valley — starting 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, owned by the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association, lies adjacent to Bellows Falls High School Forest lands, and together they presently offer over seven miles of trails readily accessible to hikers. The combined trail system on the Rockingham/Westminster lands of the 50-acre WHPA Bald Hill Reserve and the 200 acres of the Bellows Falls Union High School, which controls more land than any other public high school in Vermont, provide a major middle corridor westward. 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 Treasurer and representative/coordinator to the project, as well as Treasurer of the Bald Hill Conservation Committee, has been instrumental in getting easements radiating from the park, which is near the Society's headquarters. BFHS, which has been working on the Historic Riverfront Park and trail system for over 12 years, is offering practical help for the project by providing meeting space, historic resources, printing, and publicity.

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.

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