With more Vermonters hitting the trail than ever, outdoor enthusiasts say sustainability, respect for landowners is key
One day this past summer, trail designer Mariah Keagy bushwacked up a hill in Waitsfield. She stepped over logs and under branches and double-checked her GPS.
“So, what I’m aiming to do is be on just enough of a side slope to make sure we have proper drainage," explained Keagy, who's a partner with Sinuosity, a Stowe-based trail development company.
Keagy was mapping out a new trail in the Scrag Mountain Town Forest.
"It’s a very, very, very, very cool spot in terms of, it goes up to the summit of Scrag and some really nice waterfalls, and some really pretty natural features," she said.
During the pandemic, beautiful places like this saw a lot more runners, dog walkers and day hikers. And according to the Outdoor Industry Association, more than 60% of Americans surveyed said they plan to continue those activities.
In Vermont, that's pushed trail industry experts to consider how to make the increase in traffic sustainable.
These were all things Keagy was thinking about as we made our way up to a waterfall.
“So we have this beautiful natural feature that we want to highlight for folks," she said. "The question is: Do we make the whole main trail go this way? Or is it a spur? Do we invite everybody to come see the waterfall on their way up? Or is it going to be something that you have to go out of your way to do a little bit?"
There are benefits and drawbacks to both, she pointed out. For instance, all those dogs on the trail may be cute, but they poop, trample and dig. Too much foot traffic near water can speed up erosion.
But sustainability on trails doesn’t just mean addressing ecology, water or moose habitat.
According to the Vermont Trails Alliance, more more than 70% of the state’s recreational trails are on private land, so sustainable relationships with property owners are also key.
Abby Long knows this only too well. She’s executive director of the Kingdom Trail Association, a nonprofit that manages 100 miles of multi-use trails in northeastern Vermont.
“One hundred and three landowners make our trails possible,” Long said.
On a Wednesday in early August, a steady stream of mountain bikers was coming and going in the parking area near the Kingdom Trails Welcome Center.
The popularity of these trails was growing well before the pandemic. From 2013 to 2018, Long says mountain bike traffic grew 132%.
Travel restrictions this past year, especially the closed Canadian border, reduced those numbers, but Long says ridership rebounded over the summer.
Connecticut resident Athena McAlenney is a perfect example. She was getting ready to ride with her two young sons.
"We got a condo up here at Burke Mountain last fall and skied during the winter season when the boys had remote school," McAlenney said. "And now we literally got our first mountain bikes in May, and so we’re very much first-time riders on Kingdom trails this year."
Long is thrilled to have them and the many other first-time riders.
But she says everyone who uses the trails needs to keep one thing straight: "It's a privilege to be here and accessing private land. And we need people to be respectful, not only to the land but the landowners."
Long has good reason to stress this point. In late 2019, the Kingdom Trails community was jolted when three landowners restricted access because of poor behavior by bikers.
"So ... it's my responsibility as the head of this organization to make sure that that doesn't happen again,” she said.
Long says they’ve made a commitment to better communicate with property owners, they’ve created a code of conduct for trail users and expanded their ambassador program.
“Staff employees that we pay to be a presence out on the trail, those folks are there to provide information but also to hold people accountable," Long said.
The nonprofit also partnered with local leaders on a capacity study, which Long says will help them mesh future development with the needs of the community.
“We now have recommendations for safe traffic flow, safe pedestrian crossings in the thick of the community," Long said, “and an ideal welcome center location.”
Results from the study will also help them better incorporate things like parking, signage, water and bathroom needs into any new trail construction.
Long said land conservation is another tool that will help them sustain their trail network.
The nonprofit worked with the Vermont Land Trust and others to buy 271 acres in Lyndon, much of which belonged to former Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros. The deal, which was finalized last year, ensures several miles of popular trails will remain open to the public.
Angus McCusker believes another way to sustain the state’s recreational bike trail networks is to connect them.
McCusker has worked with private landowners and state and federal foresters in the Rochester area for years developing multi-use trails.
He’s also leading an ambitious effort to create the Velomont Trail, which would run from Canada to Massachusetts.
“It's a new concept for mountain biking, but it's been proven to work well from Vermont and help spread people out all over your state," he said.
Besides helping with increasing congestion, McCusker and others believe it could be a big economic driver for the state and help fund ongoing trail maintenance.
Nick Bennette, executive director of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, agrees and believes the governor and other state officials recognize the potential for outdoor recreation. And he says groups like the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council are helping create a unified vision for thoughtful trail development.
But he believes those efforts will be stalled if the state’s Act 250 permit process is not updated for trail development.
“Everyone acknowledges the need to modernize and to understand that trail building has evolved over the past 20 years," Bennette said. "And we have organizations, not just mountain bikers, but in different trail advocacy organizations throughout Vermont, that are committed to ecologically, environmentally sustainable trails that are socially beneficial, and we follow practices and things like that.”
Trail enthusiasts would also like state lawmakers to create a tax credit or other reward to encourage landowners to keep their property open for public recreational uses.
“And what that looks like I don't know,” admitted Kingdom Trails' Abby Long. “Maybe it's in the form of something similar to the forestry’s current use program where there's a tax credit that would include recreation along with logging and conservation.”
Long, who serves on the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council as well as the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative says those conversations are happening at the state level.
“And I’m excited about that," she said.