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Adirondack Rail Trail

In this July 26, 2013 photo, Dick Beamish of Saranac Lake, a member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, stands on deteriorating railroad tracks on a causeway across Lake Clear in Saranac Lake, N.Y.. He hopes the state will decide to tear up the tracks and create a 90-mile biking, hiking and snowmobiling trail from Old Forge to Lake Placid, in Saranac Lake, NY. (AP Photo/Mary Esch)

The effort to convert the rail line from Old Forge to Saranac Lake into a trail for bikers, snowmobilers, hikers and others brought together a diverse group of outdoor and recreation activists who, in other circumstances, have fought against each other.

For example, Jim McCulley, president of the Lake Placid Snowmobile Club, was engaged in a years-long fight with the state over motorized access to Old Mountain Road in Keene.

The road is part of the Jackrabbit Cross-Country Ski Trail, which was created by Tony Goodwin.

He tussled with McCulley, metaphorically, numerous times over the years.

But not only do both men support the creation of the rail trail, both of them sit on the board of Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, the Saranac Lake group formed to push New York to reconsider its management plan for the rail corridor.

A rail trail is such a good fit for the Adirondack Park it is bringing together people who in other circumstances would have a difficult time standing in the same room without raising their voices.

The only thing standing in the way is a group of train aficionados, represented by Adirondack Railway Preservation Society, who were encouraged by the state 20 years ago to pursue their dream of restoring regular locomotive runs along the line.

Train service has been restored over two sections at either end of the line — from Utica to Old Forge and Saranac Lake to Lake Placid — where Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs sightseeing trips.

New York still owns the right of way and maintains the tracks. Those who love the trains want the state to stick with its plan from 20 years ago to restore the tracks along the entire line.

Recreational trails are everywhere, they argue, but scenic trains offer a rare and special experience.

Those who favor the recreation trail want the tracks ripped up from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, and perhaps all the way to Lake Placid, and the right of way converted over that stretch of 70 or 80 miles into a biking-hiking trail that could be used by snowmobiles in the winter.

They point out the steel rails are worth millions of dollars as salvage, which could fund much of the cost of making the rail bed ready for bikers and hikers.

The train advocates say the tracks could be rehabilitated at a cost that compares favorably with the cost of conversion to recreation.

But the critical issue is use. Which use is going to draw the greater number of visitors to the region? Which has the greater potential?

On those questions, the trail advocates win easily.

Snowmobilers can use the tracks now in the winter, but they complain the ties and rails make riding difficult. If the rail line was torn up, the thousands of snowmobilers who now convene every winter in Old Forge would stream up the trail to Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake.

Train buffs are a small, select group. Other tourists might try a scenic train ride once a year.

Ridership on a scenic train through a beautiful but remote area is never going to amount more than a few hundred people a day.

The potential use by bikers, hikers and snowmobilers is far greater.

Bicycling is one of the most popular outdoor recreational activities in the country, and bicycle trails, some of them on converted rail lines, are attracting millions of tourists.

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This would not be any old bike trail, but a glorious ride through beautiful forests and over causeways, crossing remote Adirondack lakes, with camping opportunities all along its length.

It would be one of the longest trails of its kind in the country, and would draw campers and day-trippers from around the world.

The rail preservationists have done a great job in getting the southern section of the line restored and the scenic trains running.

The best compromise is for the state to support the Utica to Old Forge line, and continue to invest in maintaining the locomotive right of way there, but to endorse conversion to a recreation trail along the northern stretch, from Old Forge to Lake Placid.

Rail advocates argue they need the tracks restored on the whole line for the train to reach its full potential.

But converting the northern stretch to a recreation trail will also boost rail ridership, as hikers and bikers begin or end their journeys with a scenic train ride.

The train is a curiosity and always will be, while outdoor recreation — running, walking, biking, snowmobiling — is an integral part of the lives of thousands of people.

Converting this travel corridor into a recreation trail is by far its best use.

Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle and citizen representative Ted Mirczak.

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