GRAFTON TOWNSHIP – By the end of June, backcountry hikers can finally experience the opening of the western side of the 42-mile Grafton Loop Trail in the rugged Mahoosuc Mountains Range above Newry.

But don’t expect any high-end celebration of the completion of the section that Backpacker magazine writer Dan White described last spring as a “wildly scenic detour off the single-track highway that is the Appalachian Trail.”

Late last month, the Maine Department of Conservation closed on a $3 million deal with Wagner Forest Management Ltd. of Lyme, N.H., buying 3,688 acres of stunning landscape that largely drapes the shoulders of the 4,180-foot summit of Old Speck, one of Maine’s highest peaks.

That deal will enable the Grafton Loop Trail Coalition to finally open the loop’s western section, which was built over the past several years by Appalachian Mountain Club crews and a legion of volunteers. The trail leaves Route 26, crosses Bear River and ascends Bald and Stowe mountains, then Sunday River Whitecap, before climbing Old Speck and intersecting the Appalachian Trail in Grafton Notch State Park.

The loop’s eastern side, opened in 2003, runs from Route 26 up Puzzle Mountain and several peaks before ascending east Baldpate Mountain and connecting with the Appalachian Trail.

Coalition consultant Jerry Bley of Readfield said by phone late Tuesday afternoon that the group opted for a low-key approach rather than a celebration, like that expected next month from the MDOC for the Grafton Parcel land buy. Signage and paint-blazing work on the western side of the loop began two weeks ago and will be completed by month’s end, Bley said.

The Trust for Public Lands bought the Grafton parcel in mid December from Wagner, former landowner Bayroot LLC’s agent, because the state had to wait for $2 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Legacy Program project. Most of the rest of the money came from a Land for Maine’s Future grant of $660,000, coupled with $40,000 from the Maine Department of Transportation’s Scenic Byways Program, and $10,000 from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Program.

The fate of the second phase of the Grafton land buy – a 3,300-acre chunk known as the Stowe parcel, which carries a $1.5 million price tag – is in the hands of Congress, according to Alan Stearns, deputy director of the MDOC’s Bureau of Public Lands.

“It looks like it may get funded by Congress, but it’s too early to conclude anything,” Stearns said of Maine’s $1.1 million request through the legacy program. “We’re encouraged by tentative signals from Congress, but it will be several more months before their appropriation is final.”

Stearns said the budget process could end in October or continue into next spring.

The Trust for Public Lands holds an option with landowner Carthage Lumber of Canada to buy the parcel, which includes the summits and eastern sides of Sunday River Whitecap, Stowe and Bald mountains.

“These two acquisitions have had the strongest local support that I’ve seen for recent acquisitions. Both are a win-win for hiking, snowmobiling, hunting and Maine’s forest economy. We will be supplying area mills with timber from land in the first parcel,” Stearns said.

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