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Group wants to connect Palmerton rail trail to D&L

Palmerton and Lower Towamensing may have a shot at becoming trail towns.

Surrounded by communities connected to the 150-odd mile D&L Trail — which runs through the Lehigh Valley, and more broadly, the state — the two towns have no direct attachment to the well-traveled path.

A local nonprofit thinks it might be able to change that, starting with a small, abandoned rail trail.

Christopher Strohler, a senior conservation planner at the Emmaus-based Wildlands Conservancy, told Palmerton Council at a meeting last month that the conservancy is hoping to revive a former Chestnut Ridge rail line it’s owned for decades.

The abandoned line, owned between the conservancy and Eldred Township in Monroe County, spans about four miles — the majority of which is owned by Eldred. It stretches from Eldred to Little Gap in Lower Towamensing, sitting outside Palmerton’s boundaries.

“Our mission is to protect and conserve natural resources,” Strohler told council. “By doing that, we protect land … and we really like to connect people to the land.”

The prospect of transforming the old railway into a public footpath is still just that; Strohler said the conservancy wants to apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for feasibility study funding this spring. It wouldn’t know if that funding was granted until early 2021, and even then, the study itself could take years.

The DCNR grant would cover about half the study, Strohler said.

Still, if the project were competed, Strohler pointed out that a trail near Palmerton could fuel the town’s economic growth — and maybe give it an in with the D&L.

“We would love to tie this into the D&L Trail,” Strohler said. “Really, this is the first step to a much larger project.”

As nearby municipalities, Strohler said the conservancy would look to Palmerton and Lower Towamensing for ideas, planning assistance and the future trail’s maintenance. If the D&L is the endgame, he told Palmerton Council, establishing the rail trail could be a starting point.

Strohler said last week the feasibility study would look exclusively into making the current line walkable and open to the public, and the possibility of expanding it into Palmerton’s east end. He noted that “there’s still a lot of details to work out” before the DCNR grant application’s April deadline.

As far as linking the prospective rail trail to the D&L, Strohler said, “It would be a really challenging connection.”

But he doesn’t think it’s an impossible one to make.

He’s hoping to attend municipal meetings in Palmerton, Lower Towamensing and Eldred in the near future to continue talks around the project.

Donna McGarry, Palmerton manager, said that while a trail near the borough with D&L potential is alluring, officials are still contemplating the logistics of the proposed rail line turned trekking route.

“There’s just so many questions at this point,” McGarry said. “I don’t know that we’re really ready to say one thing or another.”

“I think it’s too early to tell,” she said.

The board of supervisors of Lower Towamensing recently discussed the rail line and the DCNR grant application at a regularly scheduled meeting.

Brent Green, board chair, said trails have proved beneficial to local economies, and the establishment of one in Little Gap could encourage people to be “multimodal,” offering a space for walking and biking.

“It’s a good thing,” Green said.

Kristine Porter contributed to this report.

ABOVE: The entrance sign welcoming visitors into Palmerton. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS