By Brett Yates
Last year, the Velomont Trail Collective (VTC) broke ground on a long-term project to make the length of Vermont navigable by mountain bike. This summer, the proposed 485-mile trail has seen considerable progress.
According to Interim Executive Director Angus McCusker, a new five-mile segment of singletrack crossing the Addison-Windsor county line finished construction in June. Under the name Tunnel Ridge, this now connects Boulder Dash, a route within the Rochester Valley Trails system, to Swan’s Mill, an existing three-mile doubletrack.
In turn, Swan’s Mill will link Velomont Trail riders to a forthcoming 2.3-mile singletrack leading to Bingo Brook Road, where McCusker expected to break ground in July. A little further down, in Rutland County, a singletrack that will link the Chittenden Brook Hut to Morrill Brook will enter construction around the same time.
By McCusker’s estimation, singletrack will make up 70% of the Velomont Trail, which will span the length of Vermont. But some portions will make use of other outdoor infrastructure, including, in southern Vermont, about 29 co-located miles along the Catamount Trail, the state’s top-to-bottom Nordic skiing route.
One of the goals of the Velomont Trail is to interconnect local networks of singletrack, most of them managed by the 27 regional chapters of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association.
By hopscotching from town to town, the route will also offer proximity to village centers, where local businesses hope to see a boost from the two-wheeled traffic.
“The biggest benefit of it for a lot of us is that people who live in these communities can access the trail right from their work or where they live,” McCusker said. “It’s like the Long Trail, but instead of having to drive up to the nearest trailhead along the spine of the mountain somewhere, the Velomont Trail will be accessible in a lot of communities, so that’s kind of a unique aspect to it.”
Efforts on the local level will help.
In March, the town of Killington received a $75,000 grant from the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative to build a 3.4-mile singletrack that will extend westward from its existing Sherburne Trails network in the direction of the Velomont Trail’s anticipated route, where a short spur will ultimately link the two.
“Trail construction will start this summer and be completed in early fall,” Killington Parks and Recreation Director Sarah Newell confirmed. “The planning is done. We are just waiting on our permits from the U.S. Forest Service.”
Killington and nearby towns are likely to be among the earliest major beneficiaries of the Velomont Trail. McCusker has prioritized construction in the area with the hope that, within “a couple years,” mountain bikers will be able to travel from Mendon to Rochester without interruption, getting the first real glimpse of what he called “the Velomont Trail experience” — a long-distance journey with overnight stops at huts along the way.
From Mendon, the route will continue westward across the full width of Rutland County, meeting the Slate Valley Trails network in Castleton and Poultney.
In addition to navigating geographic barriers, planning involves coordination with a number of stakeholders, especially public and private landowners. While the Trust for Public Lands, a nonprofit, liaises with the latter to seek out new conservation opportunities along the trail corridor, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources play the biggest roles among governmental entities.
“I like to think of it really as a collective impact model, where there are a number of nonprofit organizations who are helping to lead it, but I think we’re all in it together,” said Holly Knox, recreation program manager for the Green Mountain & Finger Lakes National Forest. “We meet monthly as a Velomont team.”
Where the Velomont Trail intends to pass through federal lands, the USFS conducts a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review. The procedure combines external feedback with a detailed internal analysis of the density of the existing trail network and of the proposed addition’s potential encroachments upon plants, animals, and historical and cultural resources.
“Our forest plan divides the national forest into what we call management areas,” Knox explained. “You can think of it as town zoning. There’s areas where you can’t have a new trail or areas where we emphasize wildlife habitat management over new recreation opportunities.”
By Knox’s account, the USFS has approved 15 miles of Velomont Trail construction within the National Forest so far. That approval came in December 2018. The agency will issue a decision on another 15-mile segment sometime this year.
Municipalities and their residents will also have chances to weigh in on the trail’s route. “Every community’s experience of the Velomont Trail will be unique to that community. It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience through the whole state,” McCusker said.
McCusker characterized the process of social and environmental consideration not as an inconvenience but as a way to make a better, more sustainable trail. “It’s like a big puzzle, and that puzzle is kind of dynamic in a way. With climate change, there’s a lot more information coming out. We’re trying to adjust – we don’t want to have any negative impacts on certain species,” he said.
But more and faster progress is imminent. In March, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy secured a $2.5 million earmark for the Velomont Trail in a federal appropriations bill. The USFS distributed the funds to VHA. Various grants have paid for planning and trail building by VTC, and both organizations will continue to raise funds from private donors over the course what will likely be at least a decade-long process.
For more info visit: velomonttrails.org.