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Rails-to-trails projects enhance local communities

Anyone who has the least reservation about the rails-to-trails concept should visit the Pat McGee Trail in Little Valley.

Rails-to-trails converts abandoned railroad property into a linear park, in the process turning an unsupervised community eyesore into a lovely, level, well-supervised trail inviting use in all seasons by hikers, joggers, bikers and horseback riders and in the winter by snowmobile riders and cross-country skiers.

Rick LeFeber, the prime mover behind the McGee Trail, calls the concept "taking charge of your neighborhood," and Anne Bergantz, who seeks to open a similar trail running 27 miles from Orchard Park to Springville, adds that the trails represent a "clear contrast between management and neglect."

There are other advantages to such trails. The development process addresses community flooding and erosion. It converts dangerous off-limits bridges into open, protected avenues. It creates village parks along the way. It attracts customers to local stores. And, perhaps best of all, it enhances the pride of local residents: this is their trail.

The Pat McGee Trail is a perfect example. This 12.14 mile pathway runs from Salamanca to Cattaraugus. The trail generally runs parallel to Route 353, at three points crossing that road. There are five access areas where parking is provided. A few days ago, I joined LeFeber and Bergantz for a ride along the McGee Trail in one of their maintenance vehicles. The trail is otherwise motor-less. (Snowmobiles somehow come within that definition, but my scooter doesn't.)

We met in the community park in Little Valley where picnic shelters and gazebos enhance a property that LeFeber told me was originally a dumping ground. There I met Little Valley Mayor Norm Marsh, helmeted and ready to set off along the trail on his bicycle, a regular early morning summer activity for him and others we met. We spent the next three hours on a delightful excursion. The rain that had pelted the area earlier stopped and the woodland canopy gave us relief from the heat that was punishing city dwellers.

This is not an asphalt trail. Only in the Village of Little Valley is there an alternate paved path. Instead the trail is crushed stone, a much better surface for jogging and hiking. It is remarkably level. Railroads allow only a 2 percent or 3 percent grade, but I doubt that there is more than a 20-foot difference in elevation from one end of this trail to the other.

Originally constructed in the mid-19th century mostly by immigrant Irish laborers, the roadbed was established with very little equipment other than picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. At some points, the right of way is built up 100 feet and in others it cuts through hillsides almost equally deep. I asked how well things like culverts have lasted. LeFeber informed me that they are extremely well built and will serve indefinitely. Even the bridge abutments remain in good shape.

Yes, the trail is beautiful, but it didn't come free and easy. LeFeber worked with the state Department of Transportation (which channeled federal funding to the project), county and village officials, the Cattaraugus Local Development Corp. and regional private contractors, bringing $2 million into this community.

This is a wonderful project. Why, then, aren't we doing this everywhere? Amherst voted down the Peanut Line project that would connect with the successful Clarence trails. And the village boards of Concord and Colden have recorded their opposition to the proposed trail from Orchard Park to Springville. Most opposition is generated by a few landowners who fear that intruders will be looking in their back windows and littering their yards. The McGee Trail belies those fears: we even saw several places where former trail opponents had opened access to the trail from their property. Some now serve among the two dozen trail supervisors.