MADISON — About 70 people, including U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, turned up on a chilly Thursday morning for the ribbon cutting of the Nature Conservancy’s accessible trail in the Ossipee Pine Barrens Preserve.
The gathering took place at the West Branch Trailhead on Route 41 which can be found on GPS by searching for 1517 Plains Road, Silver Lake.
New Hampshire State Director of The Nature Conservancy Mark Zankel explained that the conservancy has been acquiring land in the Pine Barrens for 30 years, and the preserve is now about 2,600 acres. There are a number of other trails in the Pine Barrens.
In total, the conservancy has 29 preserves in New Hampshire that total 28,000 acres.
Zankel explained that the Pine Barrens, with its pitch pine and scrub oak, is a rare habitat that sits on top of the Ossipee Aquifer — New Hampshire’s largest stratified drift aquifer and one that provides clean water to thousands of people.
“Here’s another thing we appreciate today: the importance of inclusion and the importance of access for all and how this beautiful, interesting and blessedly flat conservation area provides a great opportunity for so many people to experience nature,” said Zankel. “The Nature Conservancy has about 60 miles of hiking trails throughout New Hampshire that we maintain and until now none of them were universally accessible.”
The Pine Barrens are home to several species of rare birds and insects, like moths and butterflies.
The trail is about a ¾ mile long and it ends at a platform overlooking the West Branch River, which connects Ossipee and Silver Lake. There is a view of the Ossipee Mountains. The trail substrate is made from sand and crushed gravel. Roots and other obstacles have been removed.
“I like hiking up and down steep inclines but I know that doesn’t work for everybody,” Zankel said.
The Nature Conservancy hired a Vermont-based company called Timber & Stone to build the trail. Zenkel told the Sun the trail is designed to be able to have a 10-speed bike ride over it without having the tires sinking in.
Zenkel introduced Hassan by saying she is “a great friend” of conservation and a “remarkable champion” for those living with disabilities. Hassan thanked all those involved in helping the ribbon cutting.
“One of the great challenges when you are a member of a family that experiences disability, as our family does, is living in this beautiful state with these beautiful natural resources and not being able to share them in the way you experienced them as a child with your own child,” said Hassan. “When I said to our son, Ben, who is now 30, I was coming up to Ossipee to check out a trail that I thought he might actually be able to come on, the smile that broke across his face was extraordinary.”
Ben Hassan has cerebral palsy and must use a wheelchair. Hassan said she hoped this would be the first of many projects that include all people.
Hassan told the Sun she hoped to bring Ben to the Pine Barrens once the weather gets warmer.
Chuck Henderson of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s Office read a statement from Shaheen thanking for those who got the trail built.
“Everyone here knows the feelings of joy and relaxation that accompany a walk in the woods,” wrote Shaheen. “This project exemplifies the impassioned commitment of staff partners and the supporters of the Nature Conservancy to share that joy with those whose abilities might otherwise limit their participation in outdoor activities.”
Kenney (R-Wakefield) thanked the Nature Conservancy and the State of New Hampshire for making the trail happen.
Rep. Mark McConkey (R-Freedom) said the trail is “absolutely spectacular.”
Rep. Bill Marsh (R-Brookfield) said it will let older people get outside and will also help with the local economy because it will be a place for people to visit.
Rep. Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom) said the trail will be a benefit for everyone from little children to those with mobility issues to seniors.
“If you don’t bring kids to a place like this when they are young we won’t have people to conserve things when they become the adults in society,” said Marsh.
Two men in wheelchairs, Mark Race, 62, of Louden and Doug Ewing, 63, of Weare, were at the ribbon cutting, and they also took the trail. Both were able to navigate the trail independently.
“I will come back here with a group, often,” Race said.
Race had a chair with an “assist,” which was powered wheel under the chair, while Ewing was in an powered chair. Ewing said he’s a hand cyclist who has cycled in Europe and Russia. He said the trail is “wonderful.”
“The surface is great, it’s nice hard-pack, fairly level and easy to maneuver,” said Ewing, adding there aren’t many other places like that in the state.
Zankel explained that an important funding source for the project was the state of New Hampshire’s Recreational Trails Program. He introduced Sarah Stewart, the commissioner of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
“I’m here today not only to show my support for this project but my enthusiasm for this project and my enthusiasm for additional projects like this around the state also my enthusiasm for the partnership that the agency has with the Nature Conservancy,” said Stewart. “It’s partnerships like this that get things done.”
Zenkel told the Sun that the project cost about $175,000 and the state trails program paid for half while private funders contributed the rest. Building the trail took about 2 ½ months, but the whole project, including design, took a year and a half.
Ellen Keith, a member of the Governor’s Commission on Disability, said growing up she spent a lot of time outside in New Hampshire with her sisters and brothers. Now, some of them have been limited by age and surgery. She has a sister who has used a wheelchair for about 30 years.
“Now, as a family for the first time since 1986, we are going to be able to go out hiking in the woods with all of us, and it’s thanks to everyone of you,” said Keith. “I sent my sister the email about this (ribbon cutting) and she called me in tears. We were all so happy.”
For more information about the Nature Conservancy go to Nature.org/Newhampshire.