Published: Monday, December 3, 2007
By Joel Banner Baird
Free Press Staff Writer
Peter Vollers isn't the only Vermonter who prefers the path less taken. Even as the engine block on his Jeep cools, the quest to rediscover Vermont's ancient roads has never been warmer.
Hikers, bikers, snowmobilers, birders and botanists; historians, equestrians and devotees of four-wheel drive machines have taken to the state's neglected network of highways and trails with a renewed sense of purpose: they want to save them.
Vermonters have until February 2009 to authenticate the legality of town-owned roads, hundreds of which have reverted back to game trails. The only trace some have left can be found in quaint, cursive descriptions in town archives.
In early November, Vollers, a Woodstock resident, led a slow caravan of 10 Jeeps and Land Rovers from the Canadian border at Newport to Halifax, Mass. For the most part, the Vermont Expedition Society stuck to what state highway maps call Class IV roads, byways that never graduated into the automobile age.
"Our expeditions have a purpose," Vollers said recently. "We're telling people to get acquainted with these roads. Our goal is to preserve a network of well-marked corridors that will foster more diverse use. People tend to be at their best when there are multiple user groups out there."
The expedition society has an engines-off when horses approach policy. They tote chain saws and other trail-maintenance tools. When maps -- and even GPS devices -- steer them into what looks like private property, they'll detour around the landowner. Vollers said club members take pains to distance themselves from the hell-bent-for-leather tribes of ATV riders who sometimes churn through the back country.
"You can overturn months of good will by going through a shut gate or ignoring a sign," Vollers said. "Jeeping is a viable, healthy activity that's been going on since the 50s and 60s. But it's been tainted by bad apples who think of the TV commercials, people railing around at breakneck speeds; marauding.
"We'd like to think of ourselves as doing a service," he continued. "We buy meals at local restaurants; we support local hotels and businesses. We hope it adds up to increasing a town's willingness to keep these roads and not throw them up."
Other Vermonters worry that such advocacy efforts are premature.
George Mincar, who serves on Huntington's nine-member ancient road committee, said for now lobbying should take a back seat to painstaking scholarship -- finding and verifying the legality of right-of-ways.
"We're not trying to take a position," he said. "That's up to the Selectboard, and they'll hold public hearings to get all the input they desire."
Surveyor and Calais Selectboard member Paul Hannan agrees.
"As I work with groups to train them in the task, I've been vocal in my admonitions to stick to the fact-finding mission of the endeavor to avoid having lines drawn among townsfolk until the information has been gathered," he said.
"I ask researchers to set agendas aside," he continued. "It's like what I tell my clients: 'You're going to get the same answer whether you pay me or your neighbor pays me.' The object of a surveyor is to benefit your client without subtracting from the rights of others."
For Victoria Weber of Bethel, the "others" include Vermont's populations of wildlife. The former environmental law librarian said a new wave of trail-bound humans could accelerate the fragmentation of forest habitat through erosion and the introduction of new, unwelcome plants.
"Roads and trails are vectors that take invasive, non-native species right into the interior," she said. "Seeds ride in on pant cuffs, dog hair and wheel treads. When they become established, they disrupt feeding patterns that have co-evolved between native fauna and flora. They create edge habitat for animals like raccoons and starlings."
Weber suggests that, while new trails could enhance a broader appreciation of nature, their recreational use needs to be balanced with other concerns such as conservation, privacy and even future development.
"Almost everyone has a very short list of things they want to look at with these roads," she said. "We need to build criteria why we might want them, and why we might not want them. Maybe we need to weigh those criteria with numerical points. I think we need to have all the issues out there."
Individual property rights should be near the top of the list, said Bob Hill, an executive vice president of the Vermont Association of Realtors. Although ancient road advocates might be racing the clock to complete their surveys, Hill sees mounting possibilities for boundary disputes.
"We're not completely wild about the length of time towns have to certify their roads," he said. "The more you try to find something, the more you're going to find."
Contact Joel Banner Baird at 660-1843 or firstname.lastname@example.org