A lesson in grassroots land and trail management in Bethel, Maine

Along the southern end of the three mile ridgeline of Sunday River ski area is 2,200 acres of undeveloped timberland, held in trust by the Bethel Water District. The land has remained undeveloped, save for selective timber cuts, since the gifting of the land from philanthropist William Bingham in 1925 for the purposes of conserving the water quality of Chapman Brook, at the time the main water supply for Bethel, Maine.

All this changed dramatically in 2007, when a catastrophic water event destroyed the watershed and rendered the Brook unreliable and unsafe as a primary water source. The land remains a backup water source for the town, but there is a subtle shift in the primary use of the land, a shift towards recreation.

The Bethel Conservation Commission has been tasked with developing a management plan for the thousands of acres, acres that include steep ledge with delicate lichens, thickets and bogs of spruce and fir, rushing brooks and mixed hardwoods. It is crisscrossed with old skid roads, as well as a preexisting snowmobile trail. The opportunities for locally managed moderately backcountry outdoor recreation, from mountain biking to hiking to Nordic skiing, are tantalizingly clear.

In the past year, a new organization has come together in Bethel, a new organization that is in a good position to contribute significantly to the conversation about development and management and maintenance of the Bingham land: Mahoosuc Pathways, a volunteer-led nonprofit organization.

The Mahoosuc Pathways is the end result of years of work from local groups in Bethel, from the Mahoosuc Land Trust to the Bethel Area Chamber of commerce, to develop frontcountry trail networks throughout Bethel. The Bethel Pathway, a paved and graveled route that winds through Bethel and is frequented by strollers, runners, and pedalers, is a tangible example of the need for community trails and of the success of building them.

This past Saturday, members of the Mahoosuc Pathways, the Conservation Commission, and other interested locals, at the base of Locke Mountain to have the first site visit of the property. As a person dedicated to the cause of community trail building, through my work with the Mahoosuc Initiative and now as the Vice President of the Board of the Mahoosuc Pathways, and to the cause of bushwhacking to new places, I was there among the throngs awaiting at the bottom of the chairlift.

The goal, as with all site visits, was to look but not draw conclusions quite yet. We wanted to see the ledges, the trees, and the animal scat. We wanted to see how the contours of earth and the scattered lines of roads looked on the ground before us. In short, we wanted to “ground truth” the property.

The land holds promise, in stretches of long hardwoods and in the current infrastructure of roads. Importantly and powerfully, the promise of the land will be harnessed and managed fully by the Bethel community. It will be interesting to see how the organic management develops in the next year.

Want to learn more? Check out the Mahoosuc Pathways facebook page (webpage to come soon).