Berkshire High Road vision includes linking Olivia's Overlook to Bousquet summit

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LENOX  — The Berkshire Natural Resources Council is proposing a three-way agreement with the town and the Mass Audubon to create a continuous, 7-mile hiking trail linking Olivia's Overlook atop Richmond Mountain Road with the Bousquet summit in Pittsfield.

It's part of the council's Berkshire High Road vision launched last year to connect existing conservation land to communities countywide, BNRC's land conservation specialist, Mackenzie Greer, said at a recent Select Board meeting.

The project is designed to link town centers to trails by creating walking routes up, down and crisscrossing the county from Connecticut to the Vermont line.

The Northern Yokun Ridge segment from Pittsfield to Lenox made a lot of sense to the BNRC, Greer said, because the land conservation nonprofit has two major land holdings along the way— Mahanna Cobble in Lenox just south of Bousquet Mountain and Olivia's Overlook.

The goal is to develop a three-way partnership among BNRC, the town and Mass Audubon, she said. Informal meetings have been held to work out the scope of the arrangement and the exact route of the hiking trail.

The walking trail would cross the Lenox watershed as well as land owned by Mass Audubon's Pleasant Valley Sanctuary, Greer said. The aim is to use existing paths and woodland roads as much as possible, she said. Lenox Department of Public Works officials have been consulted about routes through watershed land.

"We've very much in favor of the project," Lenox Public Works Superintendent William Gop said on behalf of Water Department Superintendent Robert Horn. "We both think it would be a great project for the town."

The recent conservation restriction on that land approved by state lawmakers "affirms the public's right of access and supports this kind of activity, so it's not in contradiction there," Greer noted.

"It's a reflection of the interests of the town in allowing recreation on the watershed land but also managing that access," she added. "We see it as a really good opportunity to teach people about the type of lands, their purpose and why they're being conserved."

"We're really happy to be working so closely with the town and BNRC to do this right," said Becky Cushing, director of Mass Audubon's Berkshire Sanctuaries. "There are some sections of the trail that are ecologically sensitive, so we're looking closely at those. Focusing on existing footpaths has the least direct impact to the habitat."

"We feel positive about the project," she said. "Residents of Lenox and the Berkshires and then tourists already come to Pleasant Valley as a destination, so we think that this will add an offering to them to be connected to our great nature resources here in the Berkshires."

"We've been really privileged to work so closely with Mass Audubon and BNRC, talking about issues and opportunities on the watershed land and the ridge, which is really a shared resource not just for Lenox residents, but neighboring communities as well," said Gwen Miller, the Lenox land use director and town planner.

The through route would be for pedestrians only, and dogs as well as motorized vehicles would not be permitted, Greer told the selectmen.

An undeveloped trail has existed along the ridgeline for many years, she acknowledged.

"People are walking it and, unfortunately, get lost and could be hurt by the conditions of the trail," Greer said. "We're looking at how to create a management structure to make it safe, really enjoyable for people and bring benefits to the town of Lenox as well as to Pittsfield."

A memorandum of understanding has been drafted among the three landowners to emphasize collaboration and cooperation, she said.

"BNRC, as instigator of this idea, will take the lead in many of these efforts and the different pieces that need to be put together," Greer said. "We begin something, we bring it to our partners, get feedback and come back for more ideas for framing it."

While the proposed memorandum outlines the overall structure of the agreement and what's expected from each of the three partners, it lacks details.

"That's intentional," Greer said. "It's really a framework for how we'll operate together, and the details will come as the project moves forward."

Before moving ahead with the project, she added, "we need to know that we're all moving to the same place together."

Responding to a question from Selectman Warren Archey, Greer acknowledged that the section of the trail from Reservoir Road north to Mahanna Cobble has been checked out by BNRC's trail planning and construction crew. "It has been reviewed for sustainability, safety and enjoyability," she said.

Some sections of the trail, especially north of Yokun Seat, are in very poor shape and would require a likely reroute, avoiding some sensitive areas, Greer said. Other areas need some work, in some cases general maintenance and clearing of the hiking corridor. Signage is also a top priority.

After a final version of the draft agreement is completed, it would be reviewed by the town counsel and await signatures by David Roche, chairman of the Select Board, Tad Ames, president of the BNRC and Gary Clayton, president of the statewide Mass Audubon organization.

Greer asked Select Board members to review the draft document and offer any suggestions.

"We hope to have a final version to you before the end of this year," she said. "We have a particular staff member in our office who'd love to see a memorandum of understanding signed before the end of the year," a reference to Ames, the BNRC president, who is retiring from the position as of Dec. 31.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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