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Volunteers work to open Birch Ridge Community Forest to public

September 03, 2020
NEW DURHAM — Some changes around town are immediately apparent; take, for example, when a big chunk of trees was cleared at the intersection of Merrymeeting and Brackett Roads, and a gigantic stone wall sprang up.

That got people's attention.

Other changes, though, aren't so noticeable from the road. Those would be mowed brush and cleared slash, up in the woods and far from the madding crowd.

Those changes big and small are taking place every day in New Durham, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers working on opening up the Birch Ridge Community Forest to recreational use.

Resident Mike Gelinas is one of them.

"We hope that by doing what we're doing as volunteers, SELT will be able to improve other things. They have a limited budget," Gilinas said.

SELT is the Southeast Land Trust, and it's been a year now since that organization joined forces with the Merrymeeting Lake Association (MMLA), Moose Mountain Regional Greenways (MMRG), and New Durham residents to acquire over 2,000 acres overlooking Merrymeeting Lake for conservation.

Donations and state and national grants made the protection of the forest possible. Working with a forester and a trails consultant, a volunteer Community Forest Steering Committee, with two wildlife biologists as sitting members, has developed a management plan.

The plan guides public access for recreation, habitat protection for wildlife, preservation of water quality, proper forest management, and climate change resilience. It was presented to the public and opened up to comment this summer.

Because of the proactive volunteers, work regarding public access and trails is meeting the proposed timeline.

You're lucky if you can catch Mike Gelinas in between "shifts," even on rainy days. He's been out working five or six days a week since May.

Efforts began in the Devil's Den area, with the Powder Mill Snowmobile Club, New Durham Valley ATV Club, and Merrymeeting Marina working together to clean up trails.

"You can go through there with a pick-up truck now," Gelinas said, "and that hasn't been possible for a long time."

Land has been cleared for parking lots at the trailhead at Merrymeeting and Brackett Roads and the top of Birch Hill.

Gelinas said Russ Weldon, who owns Merrymeeting Marina and is active in the MMLA, supplies all of the equipment and puts in his share of work, too.

"I'm just his helper, along with others mostly from the snowmobile club," he added.

He said $86,000 worth of work has been done on snowmobile trails and even more than that has been done on the Birch Ridge trails and parking lots.

"The debris from logging really made the Merrymeeting/Brackett lot and trails a project."

Gelinas said there has been a total of 250 hours work done there.

"They logged that during mud season and put all the branches down and kept driving on it. We had to haul and haul for days," he explained.

Water control was also necessary.

"It needs proper ditching," Gelinas said. "We had to reroute some water, so we did a lot of environmental work."

In contrast, the Birch Hill project took 60 hours.

A striking feature of the Merrymeeting/Brackett lot is the wall.

"Russ tried to make it interesting and nice," Gelinas said of Weldon. "He loves building rock walls with his excavator."

With so much to do, Gelinas enlists his family members and members of the snowmobile club. "There's a group I can call on," he said.

Residents, eager for new trails, are keeping a close eye on the progress. SELT is working with certified trail builders. Gelinas said 14 people went out recently with SELT Land Manager T. Parker Schuerman.

"It takes time," he said.

Plans call for the Rattlesnake Mountain and Mount Eleanor trails to be installed in the very near future.

SELT Stewardship Director Debbie Goard said hikers and mountain bikes can use the trails.

"We're developing trails, and updated trail maps are posted to our website regularly," Goard said.

The SELT Web site can be found at seltnh.org.

Gelinas indicated that Weldon has been the driving force behind the trail work.

"He wants to see this happen," Gelinas said.

There is a new effort underway to conserve an additional 1,000 plus acres to protect Merrymeeting Lake's watershed. The Collins Family is gifting 500 acres that include Devil's Den and the slopes and peak of Mount Molly to SELT.

The purchasing of two parcels of land that abut the BRCF, the Stell and Young tracts, would expand watershed conservation to 29 per cent and provide almost 13 miles of woods roads and snowmobile trails.

Having trails to hike is a definite benefit to the community, "so Russ and I have been doing trails," Gelinas said.

He reported that "four miles were mowed" in a few days last week on the Young property.

"It keeps me entertained, since I'm retired and have to do something. Russ and I work well together," he added.

He said at least another month of "heavy-duty trail work" is planned.

"None of this would be happening without Russ and his equipment," he commented.

Always on the lookout for more volunteers, Gelinas noted that the mower leaves branches behind, and asked that hikers "throw the branches to the side of the trail" as they walk along.

"We'll be relying on volunteers to help build these trails," he said.

Brian Hart, the Executive Director of SELT is excited by the "great progress" made on the trails at Birch Ridge.

While completing the entire trail system will take many years, new hiking and biking trails should be unveiled soon.

Hart said, "SELT would not have been able to complete this project and bring the beauty of Birch Ridge Community Forest to the public were it not for our incredible donors, volunteers, and partners."

Anyone interested in being part of the trail work can contact SELT at 778-6088.

"Get out there and enjoy the forest," Gelinas said. "We're doing it so people get out and use it. The snowmobile trails are wide, and there are a lot of families walking with Grandma and the dog. That's what I want to see."

New Durham Parks and Recreation Director Celeste Chasse has taken advantage of the trails with her Hiking Clubs on Monday mornings and alternate Wednesday evenings.

"I've been learning more and more about the trails because of the club," she said. "It's awesome that we can offer our community such great trails with beautiful sights."

She said she has seen "lots of people enjoying them every day and it makes me happy seeing people happy. I don't think there's a word to describe that."

Referring to the Covid-19 pandemic, Chasse added, "In the way the world has been crazy these last few months, there is nothing better for your soul, body and spirit to get exercise and enjoy the beauty of the trails we have to offer."

Gelinas said all of the hard manual labor is rewarding.

"It makes me smile whenever I see anyone hiking on the trails. When I see them using what I've worked on, I say it was all worth it. When I see a family out with their kids, that's it. That's what makes me happy; that's why I do it," he said.

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