With a little planning, an ambitious hiker could trek from the glistening waters of Kingston Bay on the South Shore to Plum Island on the North Shore, curving around Boston for 200 miles, and passing Thoreau’s Walden Pond in Concord along the way.
The Bay Circuit Trail, a generations-old vision of connected recreational walking paths, is nearly complete, though its future grew uncertain in recent years with the impending retirement — from an unpaid post that had been his passion for more than 20 years — of 80-year-old Alan French of Andover.
Now two regional conservation groups are collaborating on a plan to help finish the trail, first envisioned as an “outer Emerald Necklace” along the lines of Boston’s chain of parks 83 years ago.
The Appalachian Mountain Club and the Trustees of Reservations are working together to help the trail’s all-volunteer coalition, the Bay Circuit Alliance, secure permanent easements and other protections for properties that will forge a continuous path through conservation areas, private land, and the occasional suburban street in 37 communities.
“Closing those gaps is a priority for all of us,” said Wesley Ward, a founding member of the trail alliance’s board and vice president for land and community conservation for the Trustees of Reservations nonprofit organization.
About 17 miles remain to be dedicated for recreational use on the main path, which runs chiefly between the corridors of Interstate 495 and Route 128/Interstate 95. Other sections of the main path carry temporary easements that the alliance hopes to make permanent. In addition, the group hopes to add spurs to connect with interesting destinations, such as Crane Beach in Ipswich and the village of North Easton.
French, who is stepping down at the end of the year as the Bay Circuit Alliance’s executive director and board chairman, is pleased with the new partnership. He had been asking the board, of which the AMC and Trustees of Reservations are members, to decide on a succession plan for six years, he said.
“I’m not getting any younger, and the project, frankly, needs staff now,” he said. The work ahead includes complex negotiations with corporate and private landowners as well as municipalities.
The alliance will continue to act as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, but will have new blood and resources, French said. It has about 50 member organizations, both public and private, including nonprofit land trusts and municipal conservation commissions.
Ward said eliminating gaps in the main path will probably take three to five years, but permanently protecting the land could easily require 10 years. Beyond securing access, the groups hope to provide more consistent maintenance and signage, move certain sections off public roads onto undeveloped land, and promote public awareness of the trail. They have not put a price on the task, partly because they don’t expect the cost to be high, he said.
Many sections overlap trails on other conservation property, such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary in Sharon. People who walk the local trails may not know they are part of the Bay Circuit, said Stephen Sloan, the Trustees of Reservations’ Greater Boston regional director. The Bay Circuit is identified by name at some of the trail heads, but generally not on blazes along the paths.
Local residents looking for a four-hour nature hike don’t always think they can find it near Boston, he said, but they can do that and more. “I love the vision of it,” he said. “I’m hoping it will encourage more people to spend time outside.”
Dedicating a 10-foot section of trail can be as difficult as a 3-mile section, depending on the ownership, and in some cases, the ownership may have to change before the alliance gets permanent permission to use the land, Sloan said.
In some places, a temporary trail has been drawn over suburban streets to allow hikers to pass between sections. One such spot is Route 1A in Rowley, an arrangement that Ward said must be eliminated because the road is too busy. Elsewhere in Rowley, a temporary trail bypasses an area of severe flooding, aggravated by beaver activity, at a crossing of the Mill River.
A gap in Lowell could be partially filled by planned expansion of the Concord River Greenway. The proposed route would connect to the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail in Chelmsford, traversing public and private open space, city streets, and an office park, according to French. In addition, a major section through Andover, Tewksbury, and Billerica would provide an alternate, parallel route east of Lowell and Chelmsford.
Heather Clish, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s director of conservation and recreation policy, said that in addition to contributing to conservation work, the group will offer its expertise in trail maintenance and volunteer organizing, helping with trail marking, signs, and information, “so that people make use of the great treasure that it is.” Maps are available on the alliance’s website, www.baycircuit.org.
Clish has walked part of the trail in the Ward Reservation in Andover several times with her children. The overlook at Holt Hill, she said, makes it appear that nothing but forest separates the viewer from the Boston skyline. One thing she loves about the trail, she said, is that she and the children don’t have to walk far to leave the pavement, “and then we can get home in time for naps.”
In Wayland, a section of proposed trail would connect the center of town to the Nobscot Mountain area in Sudbury and Framingham, mostly via the Mass. Central Rail Trail, which is under development. After long delays, French said, work on this segment is progressing as the result of an agreement between two state agencies, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the Department of Conservation and Recreation. In the meantime, the trail traces a temporary route along local roads and open space.
Farther south, work is proposed for Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, and West Bridgewater. French said Bay Circuit volunteers would like to reroute a West Bridgewater section from a country road onto agricultural land owned by Cumberland Farms. Another section would link the Bay Circuit Trail from a former iron works property in Bridgewater to the East Bridgewater town common.
The East Bridgewater portion has been complicated, he said, by divergent interests and views. The MBTA is willing to transfer a parcel it owns to the town with no out-of-pocket cost, but with conditions on environmental liability, he said.
Near the trail’s southern terminus at Kingston Bay, a connection between Pembroke and Duxbury, now virtually complete, would create a loop of about 25 miles through Duxbury, Pembroke, and Kingston.
Although the vision of a regional greenway has been in place since 1929, the trail’s modern era began in the 1980s when the state awarded grants toward the project. When the money ran out, French, already a volunteer, was asked to found the alliance so volunteers could carry the dream forward, he said. The alliance was founded in 1990 and incorporated in 1992.
Completing the Bay Circuit Trail and boosting awareness is still important today, Ward said, because as development continues, public access to open space becomes more difficult to achieve. Advocates aim to make enjoying the outdoors easier.
“If you accept that value, this flows easily,” he said. “That’s a great thing about the original concept that still holds true.”