PORTLAND – Most days Wendy and Stephen Gaal walk the Eastern Prom Trail near their neighborhood in Portland’s East End.
If the Gaals are not on the 2.1-mile asphalt path that follows the city’s coastline, chances are they are on a 3.5-mile trail around Back Cove. Both trails are part of the Portland Trails system.
“That’s why we moved here,” said Wendy Gaal.
The Gaals, who moved from rural New Hampshire three years ago, are among thousands of city residents who are heavy users of the city’s walking, biking and hiking paths. The trails were created by Portland Trails, a nonprofit land trust. In just 20 years, the organization has put together 35 miles of public walkways that have helped put Portland on the list of the country’s most livable cities.
This month, the group is kicking off a series of events throughout the year to celebrate two decades of accomplishments. The series begins with a presentation at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25, at Rines Auditorium at Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square. Other events, which include walks, races and fundraisers, will be announced later.
Portland Trails was founded by Tom Jewell, Nathan Smith and Dick Spencer to create a trail network in the city. The land trust was an offshoot of the Portland Shoreway Access Coalition, a private initiative to help implement the city’s efforts to preserve public access to its shoreline.
Today, the organization has about 900 members, a $350,000-a-year budget and three full-time and two part-time employees.
The group maintains its system of trails, signs and kiosks and keeps parking areas and trail heads cleared. It has worked with about 60 Portland landowners to acquire property and easements to create trails through forests and marshes and over city sidewalks.
“Those founders did a fantastic favor for the state. They started what has become a statewide revolution,” said John Andrews of Saco, president of the Eastern Trail Alliance.
Andrews said Portland Trails forged the way for other trail groups such as the Eastern Trail Alliance, which is piecing together a continuous trail between Kittery’s Piscataqua River and South Portland’s Bug Light.
Portland Trails officials attribute their success to being in the right place at a time when the public was clamoring for more pedestrian-friendly cities for health and environmental reasons.
Just how many people use the Portland Trail system is unclear, but the organization may soon get a clue, said Nan Cumming, executive director. Portland Trails is working with Portland Public Health to install motion detectors on several sections of the trail to determine usage.
On a recent frigid gray morning on the Eastern Prom Trail, there was a steady parade of walkers and runners.
“I like the atmosphere,” said Scott Bossom, who comes in from Westbrook almost every day for exercise.
Al Harvey of Portland said the trail is a big improvement to the area.
“It is convenient, a great asset,” said Harvey.
Annya Fischer of Portland said the Portland Trails system has made life much more pleasant for her 7-month-old dog, Monty, than it otherwise would be.
Fischer discovered the trail system soon after moving from Vermont last year. She said the Fore River Trail is her favorite spot.
“But Monty likes the Eastern Prom and the beach,” she said.
Marathoner Eliza Eshelman, who runs 10 to 12 miles a day, said she appreciates the snow-free conditions on the Eastern Prom and Back Cove trails, which are plowed by the city.
“I love Portland Trails,” Eshelman said.
Portland Trails has pushed up its goal for trail creation from 30 miles, which the organization reached in 2007, to 50 miles. This year, the group is focused on making links between existing trails. Jewell said a new 10-mile trail from the city’s Stroudwater section to the Presumpscot River, to be called the Forest City Trail, will have its grand opening June 4.
“For me, it is the prototype for connecting all areas,” said Jewell.
The trail follows the same route taken by Jewell during his annual National Trails Day public walk across the city, one that the Gaals had heard about and joined. It was that walk that sold them on the move to Portland.
“It’s an asset,” said Stephen Gaal.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: