Strong Friends Group the Driving Force Behind Northern Rail Trail in New Hampshire

Posted 07/26/12 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Building Trails

Photo © Friends of the Northern Rail Trail

Are you tired of hearing that resources are limited for your trail project? That it will take decades and cost millions of dollars to complete, or that you'll never be able to maintain the corridor when it's opened? Take heart, trail champions--around the country, stories abound of trails getting developed, extended and cared for with minimal resources.

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Western Regional Office last month released a terrific report that gathers all these stories--of local groups and volunteers across America using their community strength to create incredible trails. It's called Community Built - Stories of Volunteers Creating and Caring For Their Trails, and you can download and read it now at If you are an advocate or volunteer for a trail in your area, this report will be a powerful resource on how it can be done, and an inspiration to keep you going when times are tough!

One of the great stories in Community Built features Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in rural New Hampshire. Now the longest rail-trail in the state, the corridor follows the right-of-way of the former Northern Railroad, which discontinued service in 1970. It is currently 49 miles long and will eventually cover 57.5 miles when completed.

After the right-of-way was abandoned, the trail was only usable in the winter, when a layer of snow allowed snowmobile users to ride on it. It was maintained as a one-season trail for many years until the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail was founded in 2004 to convert it into a year-round pathway.

New Hampshire is rather unique in that the state government espouses a "no taxes/no services" philosophy, and county governments often lack the financing or authority to take on large projects without a clear funding source. So the state lacked capacity to further develop the Northern Rail Trail. Aside from the department of transportation engineer who administers Transportation Enhancements (TE) grants, everything else is done by the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail.

The friends group has a good relationship with the three snowmobile clubs that use the Northern Rail Trail as a "corridor trail." The Andover Snowmobile Club, Lakes Region Snowmobile Club, and Town Line Trail Dusters originally removed the railroad ties when the right-of-way was acquired. The snowmobile clubs help maintain the trail in the winter by grooming the snow. The snowmobilers perform regular maintenance on the bridges, since snowmobile use causes significant wear to the decking.

The board of directors has been instrumental to the success of the Friends of Northern Rail Trail. A group of 10 members with diverse skills was assembled by Alex Bernhard. Bernhard himself has a legal background, the president of the board has good connections to the state government, and Charles Martin, another board member, is the author of New Hampshire Rail Trails. The board meetings, conducted inside a fire station, are businesslike, and there is an annual potluck dinner for the members to get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere. In addition to the dedicated long-term volunteers and board members, occasional volunteers are highly valuable for the success of the trail. They are willing to do substantial work, but they do not have to attend meetings or commit to long-term tasks.

The majority of the friends groups' funding comes from the federal Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and TE grants. The Friends of Northern Rail Trail received an RTP grant of $25,000 to $35,000 every year until 2012, when the Federal Highway Administration canceled New Hampshire's funding for the program. The TE funding consisted of a one-time grant of $270,000, plus a $60,000 local match. Annual mailings to their membership list generate between $6,000 and $10,000 a year.

Photo © Friends of the Northern Rail Trail

With little paid labor, the Friends of the Northern Rail Trail in Merrimack County was able to keep the construction costs down to $15,000 per RTP-funded mile.

Most of the budget is allocated for the costs of purchasing and trucking stone dust to the trail. A grader and roller are generously loaned to the friends group by a local lumber business, Durgan & Crowell. This donation was originally initiated by Peter Crowell, an active bicyclist who was excited about the possibility of a long-distance trail separated from traffic. Since Crowell's passing, the equipment loans have been continued by his sons. In addition, Durgan & Crowell haul the grader and roller to and from the site, and a qualified driver is employed for the operation of the grader during trail construction, which generally lasts for one week a year. All other work is performed by volunteers, who take care of the paperwork, clear out brush before construction, and even operate some heavy equipment such as the vibratory roller.

No paid staff are employed, so the group's budget is spent almost entirely on materials. The group's 990 tax form shows that about 97 percent of their funding is allocated to the construction of the trail, and only about 3 percent goes to various overhead expenses such as mailings.

The Friends of the Northern Rail Trail created the first rail-trail maintenance plan in New Hampshire, which was agreed upon in cooperation with the state government. This plan enumerates the kinds of tasks volunteers will be performing. Prior to the creation of this document, the friends group had to ask the state government for permission every time a new task was to be performed by volunteers.

The Friends of the Northern Rail Trail are poised for continued success with a membership program, events on the trail, and committed volunteers who maintain and use the trail.

To read more about VC Pathways, and similar groups doing very cool things across the country, read and download Community Built using our new flipbook application.

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