On the Trails: Work of building trails just keeps going along

By RUSSELL HIRSCHLER

Special to the Valley News

Published: 05-15-2023 9:26 AM

An unintended consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic — or what I call a “COVID lining” — was the unprecedented demand for recreational opportunities in the area.

Beginning in March 2020, when stay-at-home orders went into effect, Upper Valley residents found happiness at the myriad trails our region has to offer. Over three years later, this demand has not wavered. This is good news for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, the organization that I lead.

Founded in 1999, UVTA has been steadily growing to meet the changing needs and increasing demand for our services. We have made investments in staff, tools, equipment and technology — all while keeping a focus on building and maintaining high-quality trails. We’ve also continued to implement top-notch, award-winning programs like the Passport to Winter Fun, Upper Valley High School Trail Corps and TrailFinder.Info.

We do our work adhering to a robust long-range strategic plan based on the following principles: equitable access to trails; improved mental and physical health; conservation and sustainability; and economic development — all driven by the power of the alliance.

In the past two years, UVTA has barely been able to keep up with the ever-increasing need for our trail-building services. From building accessible trails to improving the flow and drainage on existing trails to replacing bridges and installing steps, our capacity is maxed out.

In 2022, we saw an increase of 35% of staff time dedicated to trail- and field-based activities. We have a waitlist for trail projects and sometimes need to push them out a year or longer. Already in 2023, we are maxed out on our capacity to add more projects to our calendar.

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A year ago, with the expert help of our two Tuck School of Business Board Fellows, UVTA looked into opportunities to grow and expand our trail-building capacity while keeping an eye on budget growth and a volatile economy. In the fall of 2022, the UVTA Board approved our 2023 budget with an additional seasonal staff person to focus on our growing list of trail projects.

We have just completed that process, and I am excited to share that we have hired a field program coordinator who will start in June and jump right into our current list of summer projects including:

■A new trail along the Waits River in Bradford, Vt.

■An accessible trail in Lyme.

■New trail development in Stafford and Sharon.

■Trails improvements in the Union Village Dam Area in Thetford.

■Continued reroutes of trails in West Windsor.

In addition to direct trail work, the field program coordinator will support the rest of the UVTA programs and projects. This will allow the organization to reach out to additional communities and partner organizations that are in need of our trail services.

The choice to expand our staff was not an easy one for UVTA. For the past 15 years, I have run the Upper Valley Trails Alliance with an eye toward delivering high-quality community programs and projects — along with strong fiscal management and accountability. Expansion comes at a cost, and it is our strong belief that this was the only path (pun intended) forward.

We now have the ability to do more of what we do best: build trails, connect communities, engage youth in the outdoors, expand public access to more trails via Trail Finder, support the development of the recreation economy, enhance conservation and sustainability efforts in the Upper Valley, improve the physical and mental health of the local residents and provide equitable access to the outdoors.

Of course, none of this happens without the generosity of the individuals, businesses and Alliance members who donate their time and funds to UVTA. For their support we are grateful — and ask for your continued generosity — to continue to meet the growing need for our work.

Trails aren’t just nice anymore. They are a necessary component to the high quality of life we all want as residents of the Upper Valley.

The next time you are walking a local trail, crossing a footbridge, pushing your child in a stroller on an accessible trail in your town or riding a flow trail in your favorite mountain bike trail network, give some thought about the what, how and who of that trail. Say thanks to the trail maintainers you see out there and consider making a donation to support the work.

With your help, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance will continue to build and maintain trails and meet the growing demand for our work for years to come.

Russell Hirschler is executive director of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, a regional organization dedicated to trails. Learn more at uvtrails.org.

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