Residents eye Appalachian Trail designation

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BENNINGTON — After an enthusiastic initial meeting, area residents hoping to see Bennington designated an Appalachian Trail Community took the first steps toward filing an application.

About 20 people attended the meeting at the Bennington Free Library, which was led by Silvia Cassano, a former town resident who has worked with other communities as they sought the designation from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and Jonah Spivak, of the Shires Outdoor and Adventure Recreation chamber working group.

In the past, Cassano said, she worked for the conservancy in assisting Great Barrington and North Adams in Berkshire County, Mass., and attended meetings that led to a designation for Manchester, which along with Norwich, is currently the only Vermont community listed. There are about 40 designated communities along the 2,200-mile trail route from Georgia to Maine, which passes through 14 states, according to the conservancy's website.

Among the benefits, Spivak said, are wider publicity for the town and recognition nationally and sometimes internationally in guidebooks, newsletters, other publications, social media sites and websites. That can boost local businesses and raise the image of the town as a destination for outdoors activities and other forms of recreation.

There are more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, which passes along the eastern side of town with a main access route off Route 9 just over the Woodford line.

There was tentative agreement among those at the meeting that an advisory group be formed, and that four or five people form a task force to prepare the 12-page application to the conservancy.

Spivak and Cassano said a reasonable goal would be to complete the application by early December for review by the larger committee. The next opportunity for acceptance into the program would be in the spring, they said.

In general, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy works with government agencies, land management organizations and volunteer maintaining clubs to steward the trail. Several members of the Green Mountain Club, which maintains the trail in this section, attended the Bennington meeting.

Others attending were Shannon Barsotti, the town's community development director; John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., the downtown improvement organization; Catherine Bryars, community planning program manager with the Bennington County Regional Commission, and Donald Campbell, the Select Board chairman and southwest regional director with the Vermont Land Trust.

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"This is exactly the right mix [of people] for this," Spivak said.

In addition to forming an advisory group, other prerequisites to gaining a community designation are to host an annual trail related event; promote Appalachian Trail-related educational programs, and encourage local land use regulation and language that protects the trail through the area.

There already are business and volunteers that serve or assist hikers in Bennington, such as the Catamount Motel and other businesses or homes, which cater to hikers; local restaurants and stores; the Bennington Recreation Center, which allows showers at no cost; volunteers who provide rides between the trail access and the downtown, and the Green Mountain Express, which will stop to pick up a hiker along a bus route.

Shannahan said the BBC offers information, public restrooms, the temporary storage of packs; bicycles and other services.

Organizing the information a hiker might need into a common internet resource and linking that to Appalachian Trail communication network is one of the basic goals, Spivak said. Cassano said a primary task the conservancy would want a community to tackle is to create a map of all the hiker-related services in the town, as well as routes to and from the trail.

Communities also typically add signage promoting the trail or highlighting the town's designation, which also could come in the form of decals for the windows of businesses that support the efforts.

Tim Van Orden said the group should not overlook the so-called "blue trails" that cross the main trail or loop to other local mountain sites, which he said are becoming the most popular with hikers.

Shannahan said visitors hiking the blue trails tend to remain in the Bennington area for a few days rather than just one. Besides promoting the area and attracting visitors, the trail designation is seen as a way to bring multiple stakeholders together to enhance the trail system locally and better accommodate those who hike it.

Anyone interested in participating in the effort should contact Spivak at jonahsprivak@gmail.com or Cassano at sovtoutdoors@gmail.com, or by phone at 802-673-6990.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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