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Building Trails, Building Community

  • UVTA executive director Russell Hirschler, right, teaches an Upper Valley Trail Corps student about rock cribbing last summer on a trail near the Montshire Museum in Norwich.

  • UVTA trail programs director Sean Ogle explains how to apply tread work on a trail to a Tuck Scool of Business student on Wright's Mountain in Bradford, Vt., last summer. The program is known as Tuck Builds.



Special to the Valley News
Saturday, May 12, 2018

When most of us think about our primary national and regional educational challenges and opportunities, an outdoor education and trails curriculum is usually not at the top of the list. In fact, as a teacher and administrator for over 30 years, I am quite confident that I have never seen trails on the first page of any traditional list of curricular priorities.

This dearth of education about trails and the outdoors is a gap that desperately needs filling. Thankfully, many of us are not limited by the confines of school and curriculum, and we find the right mentors or our own path into the woods. A lucky few of us receive a true outdoor education with the help of a wonderful parent, a great summer camp, a specialized outdoor program or a job.

Unfortunately, access to this kind of education and the outdoor activity and advocacy it inspires tends to come only with luck or financial privilege. In digital age, even a rural address no longer guarantees an outdoor education and lifestyle, with significant implications for our physical, mental and community health.

While Vermont and New Hampshire are beating the national average, about a quarter of our population qualifies as obese, and rates are 30 percent higher in adults with no college education or facing poverty, according to Trust for America’s Health, a Washington-based health policy organization. Mental health is also a significant concern, with more than 20 percent of the U.S. population dealing with some kind of mental illness, almost 50 percent of whom have limited or no access to mental health care, according to Mental Health America.

While a walk in the woods will not solve all of our problems, it can make a powerful difference. A 2015 Stanford study demonstrated that people who walked in a natural area reported less negative feelings and showed demonstrably decreased activity in the area of the brain associated with depression. Walking just 30 minutes a day will burn between 100 and 250 calories per mile and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30 percent, among many other health benefits. Perhaps most importantly, hiking is accessible to all of us at virtually no cost. Transforming your health and life is just a matter of taking the first step and turning that into a regular daily practice.

After recovering from cancer and slowly regaining my own health with countless miles in the woods, I am now focused on learning and teaching about trails through my work with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. Education is at the core of our mission and drives much of our work. Whether we are collaborating with schools to inspire almost 4,000 Upper Valley kids to get outdoors for an hour a day in the winter with Passport to Winter Fun, changing minds by shaping trails with our High School Trail Corps program, or helping trail groups and users find trails with our Trail Finder web application, we are always striving to connect people to trails, nature and better health. We have built an alliance and are focused on education because we are so keenly aware of the need for the myriad benefits of easy access to trails.

Over the last several years, we have continued to look for educational opportunities. Our Trails Director, Sean Ogle, recently wrote eloquently in this paper about a wonderful partnership with The Sharon Academy developing and teaching a hands-on class in trail design and building. In fact, he is currently helping to teach a second group of students who will help carry this knowledge out into the world. We are also grateful to partner with Dartmouth College and Tuck School of Business. Through Tuck Builds, we are able to work with a new group of students every year to teach them about UVTA and trails in the Upper Valley.

We are also working with several Dartmouth undergraduate classes through the Social Impact Practicums program. This program has helped us work with great professors and students to create mutually beneficial learning opportunities. For example, last year we worked with an Anthropology class looking at the inevitable issues that arise as we attempt to balance public access with conservation. With the Trescott Water Supply Lands in Hanover as our case study, we worked together on site visits, surveys, and stake holder meetings. As an impressive final project, the students created a valuable web-based resource to share their research and learning with everyone involved.

Thankfully, all of this educational effort has reaped rewards, literally and figuratively. We recently received the Campus Compact Presidents Award for our work with the Dartmouth Social Impact Practicums Program, and the 2018 Project Excellence Award from the Society for Outdoor Recreation Professionals for our Upper Valley High School Trail Corps program.

An even greater achievement is the growing evidence that we are helping to inspire the next generation of outdoor adventurers and trail stewards. Many of our Trail Corps members are not only asking to return for a second year, they are also graduating and carrying their skills to other outdoor programs as both students and teachers. Our Tuck Builds graduates are continuing to volunteer and also helping to educate their colleagues about our trails and outdoor recreation in the Upper Valley. The almost 200 volunteers we help organize and train every year are not only contributing almost 2,500 volunteer hours, but are also spreading good deeds and words about the care and use of our remarkable trail systems in the Upper Valley.

Randy Richardson is Development Director at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance and Chair of the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council and can be reached at randy.richardson@uvtrails.org or 802-649-9075.