October Mountain State Forest improvements sought to increase usage

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PITTSFIELD — At 16,500 acres, October Mountain State Forest — the largest state park in Massachusetts, covering four Berkshire towns — is underused due to limited access and has a trail system in need of major improvements.

That assessment from nearly 25 local hikers, mountain bikers, off-road vehicle riders and other outdoor enthusiasts during a recent state-sponsored workshop. The gathering at the Berkshire regional headquarters for the Department of Conservation and Recreation broke up into four groups who, looking over a map of October Mountain, discussed ways to enhance its recreational use.

DCR officials previously held a similar workshop regarding trail use and upgrades for the 11,000-acre Pittsfield State Forest. Input from both sessions will help shape formal trail management plans for each park that will be unveiled and reviewed at additional meetings by year's end.

Atop the October Mountain to-do list is the return of through traffic on Schermerhorn Road, the only paved access into the heart of the forest from the park's nearby campground.

"Repairing and reopening Schermerhorn Road on the Lee side of the park must be a top priority in order to improve public access to Felton Pond and so many other valuable recreational areas," said Ryan Aylesworth, a Richmond resident and founder of the newly formed Western Massachusetts Public Lands Alliance.

DCR closed a one-mile, steep section of the road from Woodland Road to the pond after heavy rains from Hurricane Irene in August 2011 washed out portions of the pavement making it unsafe for travel.

That has left thoroughfares in Washington and Becket as the best way to access the majority of the motorized trails, ponds and lakes in the state forest.

As for the trail system, 15 percent of it is in good condition, compared to the state average of 45 percent, according to Paul Jahinge, DCR's greenways and trails program director.

Jahinge noted years of staff reductions and budget cuts, along with Mother Nature, have contributed to the lack of upkeep on many trails.

In addition to upkeep, access to trails at October Mountain is an issue.

"As trail users, we need more parking," said Frank Rudd, a Dalton resident and member of the Western Massachusetts ATV Association, representing all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts.

"We also want more hiked trails," he said. "There are virtually none."

Better trail maps, more signs to mark the trails and creating more loop trails also were suggested by the workshop attendees.

"We recognize there might be issues with the trail system, trails that may need new connections," Jahinge acknowledged, "but we're not out to make new trails."

Nevertheless, some avid hikers felt rerouting a trail or adding one in a key area might increase recreational use at October Mountain.

One suggestion involved expanded use at October Mountain Lake, where a canoe launch and day-use area already exist.

"We were wondering about a circuit trail [around the lake], a campground perhaps," said Jeff Penn, of Worthington.

If regularly groomed trails would bolster recreational use at October Mountain, several hikers and off road vehicle riders suggested they could help DCR maintain them.

Jahinge welcomed their offer and directed them to mass.gov/dcr to learn about the state park volunteer program.

"We have 4,000 miles of trails across our state parks, more than we can maintain," he said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.

At a glance ...

• October Mountain State Forest is 16,500 acres, including parts of Lee, Lenox, Washington and Becket.

• The largest state park in Massachusetts, it includes a nearly 4,000-acre reserve on the western slope that is part of the Housatonic River Valley Watershed. The rest is deemed either woodlands or parkland.

• October Mountain consists of 95 miles of state trails, 20 miles of unauthorized trails and a section of the Appalachian Trail.

• The Department of Conservation and Recreation considers 15 percent of the state trails to be in good condition, 70 percent fair and 15 percent poor.


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