Out of the Woods

Mahoosuc Pathways is working with Bethel and its residents to connect the town and ski resort

Behind the peaks of Sunday River Resort sits almost 3,600 acres of land packed with looming green trees. Most is open to the public, but the only route through is one snowmobile trail. The other part is privately owned and closed to public access. Bethel residents have been working for the past four years to make the entire area more accessible, so they can walk, hike, and bike between the town and the resort. With the help of Mahoosuc Pathways, a trail-building organization in Bethel, the land will soon become a community forest to all. “The ultimate vision is connecting Sunday River to Bethel,” says Gabe Perkins, executive director of Mahoosuc Pathways. “This property sits squarely in the middle of that plan.”

Mahoosuc Pathways has been working since 2014 to create the Bethel Community Forest. Community support of the project has been strong, taking the form of donations as well as approvals at planning board meetings. The organization faces a major obstacle: the $2.2 million cost of completing the project. For a trail organization that started as a volunteer-run sub-committee, that’s no small number. A $600,000 grant from the United States Forest Service announced in September brought the total amount raised to $1.5 million. Despite the challenge, Perkins expects the fundraising goal to be met by February 2019 and to have the first trails open by next fall. The ultimate goal of creating an interconnected trail system up to Sunday River should take another five years or so.

The town of Bethel has agreed to include the 2,400-acre Bingham Forest and a 200-acre water district in the project. Most of the $2.2 million will go toward the purchase of the 978-acre piece of private land, while the remaining portion will be used to develop trails. The types and number of trails will be based on how community members want to use the forest. “When people ask what will go on up there, we say it’s up to them,” Perkins says. Given the amount of public participation so far, he says people will surely have plenty of ideas for how to best utilize the forest. “It’ll give people access to a whole range of experiences, including hiking, viewing nature, or sitting quietly by a stream,” he says. When completed, it will be the largest conservation project in Bethel.

The project’s expected benefits for Bethel were a major factor in winning the $600,0000 U.S. Forest Service grant. This year there were 34 applicants with $12 million in requests for grants from the federal agency’s Community Forest Fund, which helps create public woodlands around the country; only nine were funded, and the Bethel Community Forest was ranked the number-one project. “We look at how the property provides public benefits to the community,” says Neal Bungard, the natural resource program leader for the U.S. Forest Service’s Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry. “Everyone thought it was a good project.” A team of nine regional coordinators review the annual applications and score them on a number of criteria, including how involved the public is with the project, how it fits in with nearby conservation land, and what threats exist to the land. The U.S. Forest Service also looks at the impacts the project will have environmentally, financially, recreationally, and educationally.

Other funds for the project 
have come from individual
 donors, philanthropic organizations, and state grants,
including $340,000 from the 
Land for Maine’s Future Program. The Trust for Public 
Land and the Northern Forest Center are partners in the 
project and have contributed 
time, knowledge, and advice about applying for grants and how to increase community support and involvement. Perkins says the support from these organizations, and from the community, is gratifying. “I grew up here and know how special this place is,” he says. “What’s great about this is that people come together for any number of things, and to see them come together for trails is humbling.”

Mahoosuc Pathways has always had one simple goal: build trails to give people better access to the outdoors. It started as a subcommittee of Bethel’s local land trust, but struggled to make headway. At a 2011 public meeting held for volunteers who were interested in turning it into an independent trail organization, residents wrote their names down on a circulating sheet of paper. When Perkins was handed the paper, he didn’t hesitate to sign up.

Seven years later, the organization has grown significantly. Perkins has gone from being a board member to working for the past four years as executive director. He says Mahoosuc Pathways needed to stand on its own to find success. “It became obvious that a committee wasn’t enough to move for- ward,” Perkins says. The organization needed people with more time to dedicate to helping it grow.

Mahoosuc Pathways now manages 20 miles of trails in Bethel and has created the first public mountain bike trails in town. The nonprofit has also worked on 45 miles of trails with other organizations throughout Oxford County. People can use Mahoosuc’s trails on their own or participate in guided and organized trips with the organization. The outings are geared toward different skill levels, abilities, and interests. “We want to lower barriers for access to the outdoors,” Perkins says. Events include monthly hiking trips, weekly walks and runs, mountain biking excursions, and snowshoe and ski trips. The trips get people outside where they can be active, take in nature, and connect with others. Most of the trips are free for members and open to anyone, and everyone is allowed to use the trails for mountain biking and hiking at no cost. Cross-country skiers must pay for day passes or memberships to use the groomed trails.

Perkins was the sole employee until 2016, when the organization expanded its scope by taking control of Bethel Nordic Ski Center, now named Bethel Village Trails. Mahoosuc added four employees, as well as additional seasonal workers. “We’ve kept our foot on the gas ever since then,” Perkins says. The Bethel Inn Resort previously operated it. Mahoosuc collaborated with the resort, as well as the Bethel Outing Club, to run and maintain the ski center. It has now grown to include summer trails, becoming a year-round trail system.

On any given day, the staff, board, or volunteer members of Mahoosuc Pathways can be found doing something for the organization, whether it’s trail work or running an organized outing. A member who uses the trails for mountain biking is likely the same person with a rake or branch cutters in hand doing trail work. “The community helps us make the trails better,” Perkins says. The organization itself has become a community within a community. It works for Bethel because of how outdoor-oriented the town’s residents are. For Perkins, a fifth-generation Bethel resident, the outdoors has always been a defining feature of his hometown. “I grew up here, running around,” he says. “It’s what we had to do, just get outside.” Knowing how much others in town love the outdoors, Perkins says he can’t wait to see people utilize the com- munity forest when it’s completed. Whether used for hiking, walking, skiing, biking, snowmobiling, or hunting the forest will show what is possible when a community comes together.