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State forest land’s access, safety at issue in Hawley

With deteriorating and impassable roads through roughly 8,000 acres of state-owned lands, Hawley’s emergency responders are worried they won’t be able to reach and rescue injured people as fast as they need to.

At a recent meeting in Hawley, those who use the parks and state forests in Hawley — along with town emergency responders, Fire Chief Gregory Cox and Selectmen’s Chairman Phillip Keenan — met with a state Department of Conservation and Recreation official, with state Rep. Paul Mark and Sen. Benjamin Downing to discuss the need for improved access.

They have also submitted a petition signed by nearly 600 people, asking the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to improve and maintain roads and trails that have been treacherous or closed since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

According to Bob Root of Hawley, the petitioners included snowmobilers, gun club members, mountain bikers and members of a horse riding club as well as emergency responders.

“We did that to get attention from our state representatives,” said Root, who organized the drive. “These are all serious people that use the state forests in Hawley.” He said the petition was recently submitted to Rep. Stephen Kulik, who last autumn toured the damaged state forest roads with Rep. Paul Mark, on an all-terrain vehicle.

“One of my issues has been that no one knows how many people use that state forest, at this point,” said Root. “There’s no kiosk for people to sign in or out.” Quite often, he says, he sees cars parked near the state forests at night. “I get concerned; did they stay out or did they get lost?” he said.

“We’re under the same obligations as other (emergency responders) to respond within an hour,” explained Cox, who is fire chief and emergency management director in this tiny hilltown. “It’s really easy, in that terrain, to get in there — and then, how do we get them out?” “Even though it is state land, it is the local emergency services who have to respond when someone gets lost or hurt and dials 911,” said Cox. “We can generally handle emergency calls in Dubuque (Hawley) State Forest, because there is a trail and road network, and we’ve had a lot of experience dealing with emergencies there.” “How are we supposed to deal with a 911 call from the Mohawk Reserve when there is no maintained access, no landing area, and no plan for how to deal with a rescue there?” said Cox. “The EMS statute that requires that effective treatment be provided within an hour of a 911 call applies as much in Hawley and it does in Boston.” Hawley is a town of 330 residents and about 30 square miles. Within those boundaries are at least 8,500 acres of state-owned land — about 45 percent of all the town’s acreage, says Cox. This is land that is off the town’s tax rolls and not available for development.

But because town emergency services are needed, especially on recreational lands, the town is asking for “some form of maintained access,” said Cox.

“When there is a call in the state forest, it tends to be serious trauma, because roads and trails are not maintained,” said Cox. “One out of two calls require us to use LifeFlight (helicopters). Part of that is because it takes time for us to get to victims.” Cox said that gates to the Kenneth Dubuque (Hawley State) Forest have been closed most of the year, at the Fire Department’s request, because of a major washout on Middle Road.

“I could take three to four hours to get people out of there,” said Cox.

He said the road was washed out during Tropical Storm Irene, and that an elderly Hawley man died, after his car got stuck and he apparently tried to walk home.

“Culverts now sit on top of roads that were so badly washed away,” Cox remarked. “It’s not any individual that caused that damage. The town has been trying to get the state to pay more attention to the roads since the late 1980s.”

In the winter, Dubuque State Forest has been open for snowmobiles and skiing, but is closed when the receding snow leaves the washed-out roads. Cox said at least 30 rescues have been made in the Dubuque forest in the last 25 years.

Mark said the Feb. 22 meeting in Hawley was productive, and that he and Downing will be working together to create a maintenance fund grant program for state park roads.

“We’re expecting that there will be an environmental bond bill in this session,” said Mark. “And before that happens, we’ll come up with the language (for the proposal).”

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