About 20 years ago, community leaders in the Northeast Kingdom were looking for a way to make the Burke Mountain area into a year-round recreation destination. They decided to promote mountain biking—at that time a sport enjoyed by only a handful of Vermonters.
Visiting East Burke today, it’s obvious that they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Lycra-clad bikers of all ages crowd the little village on weekends. Kingdom Trails Association (KTA), the nonprofi t that established and manages the area’s bike trails, has become an international mountain biking phenomenon and an economic engine for the region. In 2015, the organization logged 80,000 trail visits, and generated $16 million in economic activity for businesses in and around Burke and Lyndonville.
But recently, a shadow fell across this prosperous picture when a key piece of land crisscrossed by some of the organization’s flagship trails went on the market— and was deemed likely to be developed. That’s when VLT was asked to help.
Most of KTA’s trail system stretches for several miles along Darling Hill, a long, strikingly scenic eminence that has some of the best views in Vermont. But Kingdom Trails doesn’t own that land. Virtually all of its 100-plus miles of trail traverse about 60 private properties, existing thanks to the courtesy of local landowners.
At risk were 133 acres surrounding the Sidewinder trail, a steep and curving exercise in creative gravity control that was voted the “best-fl owing trail” in the country by Bike Magazine. The property has some key trail junctions, and losing access to it would have placed in jeopardy KTA’s hopes to connect East Burke and Lyndonville via bike trails.
“The loss of that piece of property would have had a major impact on the visitor experience here,” said Tim Tierney, executive director of KTA. “It was really very important to us.”
Tierney quickly contacted VLT and told them he needed to somehow raise $300,000.
What followed was a truly remarkable fundraising campaign. A grant from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) provided half the money needed. KTA and VLT then launched the “Save Our Sidewinder” campaign to raise the remaining $150,000.
Steve Feltus, local eye doctor and KTA board member, recalled that he and VLT Conservation Director Tracy Zschau positioned themselves at the doors of the KTA offi ces just as the New England Mountain Bike Festival was getting underway. They personally told hundreds of bikers about the threat to their favorite trails. That’s when the contributions began rolling in.
“Users of the trail really spoke,” said Tracy. “It was a remarkable response.”
In five short weeks, more than 870 donations came in from trail users in the U.S. and Canada. The $150,000 was raised, and Sidewinder was saved—along with interconnecting trails, a stretch of threatened riverbank, and several sections of wetland.
“We all want to see Kingdom Trails do well,” Steve said. “It’s a part of this whole Vermont thing of healthier living and staying active.”
In the end it all boiled down to a love of the trails and the organization that maintains them. Caledonia County Forester Matt Langlais, a member of the KTA Board, calls the trails on Darling Hill “critical human habitat.” He’s pleased that traditional land uses such as hunting, fishing, and timber harvesting will continue, and adds: “As a forester, I recognize the value of the working landscape. But it’s changing, and recreation is becoming more important as a part of that total picture.”
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This past year, VLT protected a different set of trails, located in Williston, that are popular with mountain bikers as well. The purchase and conservation of a 39-acre addition to the Mud Pond Country Park was also vital to the many hikers and back-country skiers who enjoy the trails year-round. To save the land from a housing development, the Fellowship of the Wheel, a local mountain bike advocacy group, helped VLT raise money; VHCB and the Town
also supported the project.
“The trails are family-friendly and are conveniently located,” said VLT’s Bob Heiser. “It is an accessible place for many folks in Chittenden County to get into the woods and walk, ride, or ski among pine trees, streams, and stone walls.”
The trails could eventually connect to a trail network around Lake Iroquois, not far to the south. And, in fast-developing Chittenden County, any large tract of contiguous forestland is ecologically important, since it helps promote wildlife habitat connectivity.
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The success of these two exciting projects means that outdoors enthusiasts—in both the Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County—will continue to enjoy their favorite trails and further their communities’ connection to Vermont’s verdant forests and countryside.
This story was written by Tom Slayton and appeared in our 2015-16 Annual Report. Photos of Kingdom Trails by Caleb Kenna.