Robert Frost famously wrote about two roads that “diverged in a yellow wood.” These days, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that half of us have wandered down one of those roads, half down the other. With all the division and disconnection we’re experiencing, the various paths traveled by family, friends, and neighbors have seldom felt more divergent. It’s gotten so we can hardly recognize each other through the trees.

If we’re going to find our way back together, we need to focus on the many areas of common ground we still share. Fortunately, one of those is right beneath our feet: Maine’s trails. Even before the pandemic, polling showed Mainers overwhelmingly supported local trails. As residents of many states were confined to their homes, our ability to get outdoors safely over the past year has only reinforced how lucky we are to have trails connecting our communities. For my family, regular outings on public trails have been a lifesaver, and I know we’re not alone.

Trails don’t just bring recreational opportunities, though. Communities fortunate enough to have them enjoy economic, environmental, and public health benefits as well. Trails attract visitors who spend money on local businesses, and new residents looking for livable communities. They provide alternative transportation routes, reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. And research has shown that every dollar invested in trails yields three dollars in medical cost savings, as trail users are better able to stay active as they get older.

Maine has long recognized the potential for trails. In 2007, the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place recommended planning a statewide system of multi-use trails. It found that “pedestrian access to and among Maine’s quality places is central to asset-based development,” noting that “trail projects like those around Portland’s Back Cove and along the Kennebec River and the Downeast Sunrise Trail enhance the quality of life of residents and visitors.” In 2010, the Maine Department of Transportation released a report on

Improving Maine’s Quality of Place Through Integrated Bicycle and Pedestrian Connections” which highlighted the opportunities and challenges for developing long distance trails.

The latest chapter in Maine’s effort to build support for trails is being written right now. A new group, the Maine Trails Coalition, has come together to help connect regional trail efforts and provide a voice for trail supporters. Run entirely by volunteers, this group envisions a future where a statewide network of trails is available to Mainers for recreation and transportation.

One key to achieving this vision will involve creating a process for putting long-unused railroad corridors to use as trails. Last year, the Maine Trails Coalition released the Maine Rail-Trail Plan 2020-2030, which articulates a vision for these underutilized public assets and could add 250 miles of interconnected off-road trails statewide. These projects include the Merrymeeting Trail, connecting Brunswick to Gardiner; the Casco Bay Trail, linking Portland to Yarmouth and Lewiston-Auburn; the Mountain Division Trail from Portland to Fryeburg; and extending the Down East Sunrise Trail to Calais.

Importantly, the plan also calls for future expansion of train service through Maine’s largest population centers in Biddeford-Saco, Portland, Brunswick, Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, and Bangor. Too often, the choice between trains and trails is presented as either-or; our communities should be able to benefit from both. With the potential for large federal infrastructure investments on the horizon, smart planning for both rail and trail is essential.

It’s a commonsense approach that should appeal to practical-minded Mainers. In fact, it does – in a recent poll, 86 percent of Mainers said they would support repurposing unused public rail corridors as trails if they could be converted back for railroad use when needed. That support held steady whether the respondent was Republican or Democrat, younger or older, inland or on the coast.

That’s the unifying power of Maine’s trails. In a time of division, our trails could lead us back together…and improve our health, protect our climate, and boost our local economies in the process. Now is the time to ask your legislators to support trails in Maine. If we act today to create a future connected by trails, generations looking back may well say that “made all the difference.” Robert Frost would be proud.


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