Group highlights need for better access to Connecticut River

  • Cathy Urffer and her son, Connor Noyes-Urffer, paddled to Unity Park in Turners Falls on Saturday and were pulling their canoe out of the water where the Connecticut River Conservancy wants portage put in. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Andrea Donlon, the Connecticut River Conservancy’s river steward, speaks during a press conference at Unity Park in Turners Falls on Saturday. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • The Connecticut River Conservancy’s Portage Parade on Saturday followed the bike trail around the Turners Falls Dam. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • The Connecticut River Conservancy advocated for improved portage routes around the Turners Falls Dam and more investment into recreation on the river during a press conference and parade Saturday morning at Unity Park. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2021 8:32:36 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The Connecticut River Conservancy advocated for improved portage routes around the Turners Falls Dam and more investment into recreation on the river during a press conference and parade Saturday morning at Unity Park.

The event was held to raise awareness about the obstacles hydroelectric facilities impose on river recreation. FirstLight, a New England-based power company that operates both the Turners Fall Dam and a hydro-pump facility at Northfield Mountain, applied for a 50-year relicensure in December 2020, which would determine how its facilities operate for the next half century.

The Appalachian Mountains Club’s Director of Northeast Conservation Projects and Partnerships Kristen Sykes said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ultimately controls what is approved.

“It’s driven by FERC,” Sykes said. “At the end of the day, we’re inputting recommendations. If FirstLight doesn’t go for it, we hope FERC does.”

One of the main concerns is the portage route where paddlers can pull their canoes and kayaks out of the water. Currently, paddlers must get out of the water across the river and get driven 3 miles before they can be put back into the water.

The Connecticut River Conservancy is pushing for a portage site to be built along the bike trail near Unity Park as a way for paddlers to get past the dam. The organization also says this specific site would draw people into Turners Falls’ economy by making it easier to reach the center of town.

In the near future, FERC will hold public hearings on FirstLight’s application and Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy, said change is made when people’s voices are heard.

“How we make a difference,” Fisk said, “is we speak up for our river.”

“This is a public resource,” Sykes said of the river. “Folks have agency in this process that they may not know about.”

Sykes echoed the idea, saying it is imperative the public gets involved. She said the relicensing process presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the river available to everyone.

“We can provide on-the-ground knowledge,” Sykes said. “(The river is) really important here in Franklin County and it’d be great to make that more accessible.”

Two kinds of accessibility were discussed at the press conference: accessibility for people with disabilities who wish to use the river and accessibility to Turners Falls.

Karen Foster, executive director of the Northampton-based All Out Adventures, said issues of accessibility are not limited to the Connecticut River.

“The missing link — and this is not a criticism of FirstLight — is most people don’t consider what it really takes to be accessible,” Foster said.

Foster said true accessibility requires both physical and mental considerations.

“It’s great if the physical infrastructure is there and you can put your kayak in the river, but without programming and support, it’s not truly accessible,” Foster said. “Any comprehensive recreation management plan would need to consider the second half of the accessibility equation.”

Montague Town Planner Walter Ramsey said the town is advocating for more recreational accessibility both above and below the dam.

“What (FirstLight) has proposed is inadequate,” Ramsey said. “A big part of the town’s push is for river access below the dam. Right now, they’re just proposing a formalized walking path down there and it needs to be more than that. We need to be able to view the falls, view the fish passage, and be able to have access for canoes, kayaks and whitewater.”

FirstLight claims to have proposed $130 million in additional spending on recreation and environmental stewardship. Len Greene, FirstLight’s director of government affairs and communications, said via email Thursday that $5.6 million is proposed to be invested in new recreation development and improvements to existing recreation facilities.

“Throughout this (relicensing) process, we have had active, ongoing conversations with each of the towns and our other stakeholders to develop recreation proposals that would enhance our community, promote tourism, improve the health of the river and maintain public safety,” Greene wrote. He added that FirstLight welcomes suggestions from local stakeholders.

After Saturday’s press conference, the group continued down the bike path with their canoes and kayaks, and carrying signs with phrases such as “paddlers over profit.”

Andrea Donlon, Connecticut River Conservancy’s river steward, said the recreation plan FirstLight has been using is the one it drafted when it acquired its license 50 years ago and it is time to bring it up to date.

“We need to have a recreation management plan,” Donlon said, “that really reflects the needs and recreations of the 21st century.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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