LENOX >> Berkshire County may be best known to the outside world as a world-class mecca for the performing and visual arts, a well-deserved reputation as our stages light up for their prime summer season.
But there's also an intense effort to further develop the region's attractiveness for year-round outdoor recreation.
To that end, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council has a plan for an interconnected network of trails dubbed the Berkshire High Road. A key link for the network, the South Yokun Ridge Trail, is under consideration by Stockbridge leaders following a detailed presentation by BNRC Board President Tad Ames this past week.
Ames envisions the trail network as "a great draw, a calling card for Berkshire County, a reason that people will want to come here and stay here."
The nonprofit land conservation organization, founded in 1967, already protects more than 21,000 acres of conserved land, including 10,000 acres that it owns. Over 50 miles of trails from North Adams to Sandisfield are managed by the BNRC. All of its land is open to the public for passive — meaning nonmotorized — recreation ranging from hiking to fishing, hunting, bird-watching and picnicking.
The envisioned High Road trail, being assembled from town to town, would pass through conserved land, open nature and private property by agreement with owners. "This could have a great impact and great value to the Berkshires," Ames said.
Reservoir land key
The segment under discussion in Stockbridge would extend from the vicinity of Lake Averic, the town's sole reservoir and fresh water supply, along a ridgeline to Olivia's Overlook near the Stockbridge-Richmond border through a combination of new and existing trails that would be improved.
The council is seeking approval of a parking area for eight vehicles at a new trailhead on Averic Road nearly a half-mile away from the lake and for a pathway a safe distance from watershed lands. Permission from private landowners along the route already is in hand, Ames said, but town approval is needed to build the proposed "sanctioned" trail.
Even at its closest point, the route would be separated from the reservoir by 1,200 feet of hilly woodlands, staying clear of the sensitive buffer area around the tributaries and the lake.
Ames stressed that by investing in signs, gates if needed, and ongoing maintenance, the council intends to be a responsible "guest" if town leaders agree to host the project.
"We very much want to make sure that our host is pleased with our work," he said, acknowledging that any decisions would require Water Department approval and supervision.
"This trail would be a beautiful new amenity for Stockbridge and its visitors," Ames said. "We believe it will help enrich the economic attractions of Stockbridge for residents and visitors alike and will allow us in a very formal, productive way to work constructively with the town as partners."
Water chief opposed
Understandably, town Water Superintendent Mike Buffoni voiced concern over hikers wandering onto the lake's protected shoreline despite multiple no-trespassing warning signs, as well as increased traffic on the unpaved and narrow Averic Road that could threaten the reservoir in case of an accident.
"Over the 25 years I've been here, I've been perplexed over why that road is even open," he told the Select Board. "The road does pose a huge threat. We don't have a backup water supply; it's the only supply we have and it serves a couple thousand people per day."
Buffoni, describing himself as an "avid outdoorsman" and complimenting the BNRC for its "great work," expressed opposition to the new trail. He cited a recent incident involving a fishing boat on the lake that ignored warning signs, prompting a response by environmental and local police.
However, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation allows passive recreation in protected watershed areas, notably the state's massive Quabbin Reservoir east of Amherst that supplies more than two million Boston metro-area residents, with no reported incidents of contamination.
North Adams Public Services Commissioner Tim Lescarbeau and Lenox Town Manager Christopher Ketchen submitted letters of support for the BNRC proposal, citing no problems from hikers using trails in reservoir areas of those two communities.
"The general consensus is that recreational users on these trails have been responsible visitors," Ketchen wrote. "We have not experienced any threat to water supply with their presence."
'No negative impact'
Lescarbeau stated that "in the 20 years I have been involved with the water system in North Adams, I have seen no negative impact on the reservoir from pedestrian access."
Offering a broad perspective on the council's proposal, town resident Rob Murray, who's president of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, asserted his strong support for the trail system as a "huge asset" that would be unique to the Berkshires — "trails that connect to beautiful small towns like we have."
Murray predicted that, if approved, the trail "would be a quality of life improvement for locals" while helping to expand recreational tourism, especially in the fall and spring shoulder seasons. "People on foot and hikers generally are very respectful of land and I think they would be a minimal risk," unlike Averic Road which poses "a huge risk," he said.
The Stockbridge Select Board will continue its public discussion of the proposal at an evening meeting on June 20, with the town's sewer and water commissioners invited to participate.
While the protection of the town's water supply is vital, and there's some sentiment for closing the Averic Road causeway to through traffic because of its proximity to the lake, the BNRC trail proposal has great merit and should be given careful and positive consideration.
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.