hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2017


Connecting through the woods

Group works to improve, expand Bennington trail network


A volunteer work crew tends to a new hiking and bicycling trail through the property of Southern Vermont College. The trail is part of a network being maintained and expanded by the 2-year-old nonprofit Bennington Area Trail System. Courtesy photo/Jared Newell


Contributing writer


For at least the past couple of decades, some people in Bennington have dreamed of linking and expanding a network of off-road recreational trails around town and beyond.
From Select Board meetings to Rotary Club gatherings to newspaper letters and columns, a series of advocates have made the case for linking and expanding the Bennington area’s many existing walking and bicycling trails into one coherent, contiguous network.

And in the past few years, the town government has made progress toward completing the so-called Ninja Path, a planned 2.12-mile trail connecting Bennington to North Bennington through the Bennington College campus and behind the busy commercial area along Northside Drive.
But now, for the first time in a generation, a citizens’ group has emerged to work on developing new trails while reviving and maintaining old ones.

The nonprofit Bennington Area Trail System, organized two years ago, has initially focused its effort on Mount Anthony, working with Southern Vermont College and other landowners to improve and expand the network of trails there.

The trail group, which goes by the acronym BATS, also functions as a chapter of the Vermont Mountain Biking Association, a statewide network of member-funded groups that promotes the use, creation and maintenance of trails.

Jared Newell, a geographic information system specialist who serves on the Bennington Area Trail System’s board, maps and designs all of the group’s trails. Newell, who often acts as an unofficial spokesman for the group, can be seen using its trails on Mount Anthony during all four seasons.

Newell said BATS initially focused on trails that already existed in and around Mount Anthony in various states of repair. The group has worked to unify efforts to get permission for access to private lands and also to expand upon and connect those trails and others in the wider area.
“The idea was to work on developing and maintaining a trail system that we could keep expanding and use in all seasons,” Newell said.

“Everyone we have dealt with, from officials to landowners,” he added, has been supportive of the idea of upgrading and expanding the network.

The trails are open to non-motorized recreational uses, Newell continued, and for most of the year a solid cadre of volunteers works on maintenance as well as planning and building in coordinated work sessions.

“The result is that we have hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and just about any kind of good recreational use you can think of,” Newell said. “Of course, volunteers are always welcome to come help when we have work parties, and donations are important to our work. All of this is done on a really tight budget.”

New signs, new routes
BATS trails are open to the public at no charge, and in the past couple of years, trails both existing and new have been marked with signs for the first time in local memory. The group now maintains about 10 miles of total trails.

Members of the trail group have taken to creative naming of the byways, with monikers such “The Wall” for a seemingly near-vertical and endless rise up the northeast side of Mount Anthony.
Another favorite route is “Halloween Tree,” on the north and northeast side of the mountain, a mostly new trail named for a gnarly tree that looks like it’s right out of a horror movie.

“Early spring is a great time on the trails, but so is summer, fall and winter,” Newell said. “If you’re from anywhere within an hour or so, or even if visiting the area, you can spend the whole day out having a great time.”

Trails are also being re-evaluated as well as maintained, according to Newell, who is keeping a close eye on two new miles of trail that will be finished this fall in the vicinity of “Halloween Tree.”
BATS counts among its local supporters Donald Campbell, the regional director of the Vermont Land Trust, who is also vice chairman of the Bennington Select Board and treasurer of the trail system, and David R. Evans, the president of Southern Vermont College, whose lands encompass many of the more adventurous trails in the system.

Campbell said that in the fall of 2015, BATS signed its first land access agreements with the college and a bordering private landowner and built its first new trail, “Hops and Vines,” a 1.2-mile route from the college’s Everett Mansion down to Monument Avenue near Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

“Jared and I sat down with a number of local potential partners to discuss the new area-wide trail map we had produced and realized that we needed a mountain-bike-specific group,” Campbell said. “Although I don’t ride, I do hike, and I could see how a robust mountain bike [and] trail user crew could be a huge boon for Bennington.”


College, neighbors back effort
Campbell said it would have been difficult to get the trail organization formed if the college hadn’t been enthusiastically supportive. In the previous decade, Southern Vermont College had already conserved large tracts of its land on Mount Anthony with both the Vermont Land Trust and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Evans, the college president, “sees how a strong connection to active, outdoor use gives the college a strong niche and serves the community well, both students and local residents,” Campbell said.

And the college’s location, he added, “is so central, it could either be a huge part or incredible impediment to providing access to Mount Anthony. Fortunately, they’ve chosen the former, not the latter.”

Campbell also credited two private landowners on Mount Anthony, the Beal and Geannellis families, with being “very helpful and sharing” in allowing public access through the trail network.
He said this was especially important because some landowners are more inclined to greet trail advocates with roadblocks, sometimes literally.

“Private landowners don’t want their land or hospitality abused,” Campbell said. “Mountain bikes, ATVs, motor bikes, even horses, can have huge impact on land if not managed carefully.”
Campbell explained that without a group like the Bennington Area Trail System, a landowner can either turn a blind eye to unsanctioned use or post their land, thus closing it off to all.
“BATS allows for controlled use and sets up a party of responsible individuals,” Campbell said. “It goes without saying that one single uncooperative landowner can block vast trail networks, so landowner relationship is key.”

Evans, the college president, is also an officer of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and sees the college as anything but a traditional landowner.

“My underlying philosophy for the whole process and project is that, while the college is the steward and owner of the land, in practice as long as public use doesn’t interfere with our service to students, we should make our campus as accessible as we possibly can to as many groups and interests as possible,” Evans said.


Benefits for students, townspeople
Evans added that with the advent of the trail organization, the trails at Mount Anthony are “beautiful and beautifully maintained,” and the new trails the group’s volunteers have cut over the past few years have added connections to adjacent lands “and increased public interest in the overall trail system’s potential.”

BATS also has created improved signs for the trails, which will improve the aesthetics of the campus and help visitors understand the trails’ extent, Evans said.

“SVC’s campus is very special, as anyone who has been here can attest, and I want people to see it and enjoy the woods, the trails, and the views as much as possible,” Evans said. “I also knew that partnering with an organization like BATS was a good way to improve access to our trails and to expand their network in a sustainable and environmentally sensitive way, which is a top priority for me.”

Evans added that the presence of the trail system has also led to increased educational opportunities for students, most notably through the Trail Mix events held in May at the college.
The annual Trail Mix event at the campus is open to the public and involves trail work and clean up, plus demonstrations of mountain bikes, trail running shoes, and gear from leading brands, craft beer from a partner-sponsor (this year, it was Alchemist Beer from Stowe), children’s bicycle and trail safety clinics, easy guided walks, food, live music and other activities.

The Trail Mix events, Evans said, “have brought many people to campus and have created significant opportunities for our students to gain experience in event management, seeking philanthropy, and collaborating across groups to create highly successful programs.”
Newell said he and other members of the trail group ride the trails at Mount Anthony daily to check on maintenance and other issues. The members and volunteers are “very sensitive to responsible use,” he added.

He also reiterated that help is always needed on scheduled trail work days for this collaborative community endeavor.

“BATS can always use a hand out on the trails, and then you can turn around and enjoy the ride or the hike on them,” Newell said. “We encourage all people who are interested to volunteer to check out our Web site and Facebook page and contact us via e-mail or message. The public uses BATS trails at no cost, and all are welcome to enjoy them responsibly.”
For more information on BATS and its programs and events, as well as updated trail maps and conditions, visit www.batsvt.org.