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Three Rivers Heritage trail leader moves on to head 9/11 national trail

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, 8:39 p.m.
Cyclists at the ribbon cutting of the Great Allegheny Passage to the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville last year.
September 11th National Memorial Trail
Cyclists at the ribbon cutting of the Great Allegheny Passage to the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville last year.
Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Organizers are stepping up efforts to develop a 1,300-mile recreational trail connecting the Sept. 11 attack sites — at the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, to the World Trade Center memorial in New York City, to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

This week, Thomas “Tom” Baxter IV, one of the developers of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail, which traces the banks of Pittsburgh's rivers, was named executive director of the September 11th National Memorial Trail.

“Naming Tom as executive director and the energy on the alignment of these trails are significant today,” said Andrew Hamilton of Bucks County, board chairman for the September 11th National Memorial Trail.

Technically, the trail exists as a patchwork of previously developed trail segments and secondary, less-traveled roads in seven states — West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York, Maryland and Virginia — and the District of Columbia.

In Pennsylvania, the trail traverses through 25 counties.

A local priority is a trail connecting the Great Allegheny Passage (a 150-mile long rail-to-trail) in Garrett, Somerset County, to the Flight 93 Memorial, which is expected in the next two years.

“The trail is exciting for Flight 93, it being in a national park. And the park is all about educating the visitors, and so is this trail,” said Deborah Borza, 63, of Annapolis, Md., the mother of Deora Frances Bodley, 20, the youngest passenger who died on Flight 93.

Borza is a board member of the September 11th Memorial Trail, secretary for the Friends of Flight 93 and former treasurer for the families of Flight 93.

Bodley was a Santa Clara University student and a “big outdoors lover who went to national parks,” her mother said.

“This trail not only connects the three sites, but along the way, there's lots of history and education that is available to anyone who rides, walks or hikes the trail,” Borza said.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has been supporting the trail effort.

“With thousands of miles of trails already in place in Pennsylvania, we think it makes great sense to outline this route using existing pathways and are happy to provide technical assistance and support for the Sept. 11 National Memorial Trail,” DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said.

“In addition to the many connections they make between people, nature and places, our trails also can connect us to moments in history and offer the opportunity to reflect on them.”

Pennsylvania portion

In Pennsylvania, currently about 60 percent of the September 11 trail route uses the roadway and 40 percent are pathways.

The goal is to develop more trails and use less road.

More than 500 miles of the September 11th National Memorial Trail will wind through the state, making it the state's longest recreational trail when complete, according to Kent Taylor, a DCNR natural resource program specialist.

Completion will take decades, just like the Appalachian Trail did. The Appalachian Trail is 2,200 miles long and runs through 14 states, from Maine to Georgia.

But within the next two years, the priority section connects the Great Allegheny Passage in Garrett, Somerset County, to the Flight 93 Memorial, Taylor said.

A bicyclist can pedal from Pittsburgh on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail/Great Alle‑‑gheny Passage to McKeesport, Boston, Connellsville, Ohiopyle State Park and then to Garrett, Somerset County, which is about 100 miles.

From Garrett, it's 20 miles to the Flight 93 memorial. In 2015, CSX donated 130 acres of undeveloped land to help develop a seven-mile portion of the off-road trail between the Great Allegheny passage and the Flight 93 memorial.

Even with the new trail, there will still be a good 10 to 12 miles on the road to the Flight 93 memorial, according to Taylor.

Although people cycle entire segments of the trails, there are lots of options, with more to come.

“I'm a 59-year-old guy, overweight, who has ridden across most of Pennsylvania,” Hamilton said.

“Would the average mother and child ride every segment? No,” he said. “They would choose the wonderful trails we are working with, and those who want to focus on exploration and travel will look to tour the entire trail.”

A welcome challenge

Baxter spent 14 years with the Friends of the Riverfront, the nonprofit that developed the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. It attracts more than 800,000 visitors a year and has an $8 million economic impact with purchases of food, bicycles, clothing and other products, according to trail-user surveys.

“We took a localized trail and made it the center spoke in a regional mega trail, including the Great Allegheny Passage,” he said.

But Baxter has a much larger playing field now.

Baxter is getting the grassroot nonprofit's house ready to define and take on the many projects, land deals and funding required for developing trails to connect points.

“The plan includes opportunities and constraints determining how best to proceed,” he said. “There are the nuts and bolts of working with individual donors, state and federal agencies, local communities, and private foundations to engage in the vision.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4691, mthomas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaThomas_Trib.

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