Friday, April 29, 2022

Bay Journal: Volunteers Needed In PA To Help Maintain Trails Strained By Record Use

With seven volunteers gathered around him in Pennsylvania’s Michaux State Forest, Tom Moutsos apologized in advance for ruining the group’s future hiking experiences.

Moutsos, the regional trail coordinator for the North Country Trail Association, then listed all the trail imperfections, maintenance needs and design faults that the volunteers would likely encounter while tending to just a few of the trails among Pennsylvania’s thousands of miles of public hiking routes.

The trail chosen for the day’s training session, a popular one at Michaux, had no shortage of lessons: a stream crossing lacked steppingstones, causing visitors to hop all over the place and braid new trails through sensitive wetlands; a clogged rock drainage culvert; loose rocks in a staircase; a confusing turn in the trail without trail blazes to guide hikers.

The volunteers, some representing large hiking organizations, had come from all over Pennsylvania to attend the Keystone Trail Association’s Trail Care 101 training weekend and learn how to build, repair, maintain and improve trails.

Their behind-the-scenes help is needed like never before. Two years of COVID have fueled an unprecedented level of outdoor recreation on public lands and a corresponding strain on trails throughout Pennsylvania.

According to a survey of 40 trails by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, yearly trail visits nearly doubled between 2018 and 2020, rising from 180,342 to 355,574.

Trail stewards are playing catchup.

In a time when state natural resource agencies face budget shortfalls, volunteers are indispensable in keeping trails open and safe. Overcrowded trailheads have become especially troublesome.

And the need for added maintenance help comes at a time when COVID concerns have hindered work sessions. Younger potential volunteers, who use social media to stay in touch with like-minded peers, are less likely to join established hiking clubs that have long provided the service.

“Trails don’t maintain themselves,” said Brook Lenker, executive director of the Keystone Trails Association, a statewide trails advocacy nonprofit in Pennsylvania. 

With increased damage to trails from the more frequent occurrence of extreme wind and rainstorms, paired with an aging corps of volunteers, Lenker and his organization cite a need for more outreach and recruitment.

Most people have no idea how much work is needed to keep Pennsylvania’s vast network of trails open. In addition to more than 12,000 miles of trails in state parks and state forests — the ninth most in the nation — there are thousands more miles of trails in local parks and land trust nature preserves.

And then there is the Appalachian Trail’s 230-mile rocky slice through the state, maintained almost exclusively by nine trail clubs and individual volunteers. 

The North Country National Scenic Trail, another national trail, has 265 miles in the state, also cared for by volunteers.

Without the unheralded and mostly unseen work of volunteers, hiking these pathways or getting to a favorite vista would be an unpleasant, perhaps impossible, experience.

Rob Pingar of West Chester, PA, realizes that. He came to the training weekend so he can start helping with maintenance.

“I hike and backpack several times a year, and I’m just appreciative of the work that is done,” he said. “You can see the maintenance needs after a winter. Somebody has got to fix that, and someone is. Why not give back for all the joy we had walking those trails?”

Army of volunteers

Despite the headwinds, Pennsylvania has been able to muster a corps of volunteers who have risen to the occasion to remove blowdowns, pluck litter, stem erosion, build bridges across streams, remove rogue “social” trails, paint blazes, help direct traffic flow at overcrowded trailheads and the many other needs of a trail system under pressure.

They do this work while getting scraped, stung by bugs, bitten by ticks and infected with poison ivy.

The Keystone Trails Association has 40 trail clubs around the state, most of which adopt specific trails. Some are a considerable distance from their home base. 

The group also has about 125 volunteers it can dispatch to take care of trails that have no dedicated group and would likely be closed without their efforts.

The nonprofit Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation has 48 groups of “friends” that adopt a state forest or state park. 

In 2021, more than 1,000 of those volunteers put in 2,400 hours to help their favorite park or forest. Another 15 groups are not affiliated with the foundation but are invited to training and work weekends.

Marci Mowery, the foundation’s president, talks about the “loving hands” and “sweat equity” that go into building and maintaining trails. “It takes a village to care for these places in the landscape,” she said.

The trails in state forests and parks, some built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, are the responsibility of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

But the agency is understaffed and depends heavily on volunteers. 

“Primarily, we address safety issues like trail damage from storms,” said Matt Crosbie, a specialist in nonmotorized recreation for the DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry. Volunteers and staff sometimes work side-by-side to build bridges on trails or conduct other maintenance projects.

“Volunteers are important in assessing the trails. We can’t get around to all of them. Volunteers will report issues,” he said. From time to time, trails have been retired because there is no one to take care of them.

Since 2016, the state agency’s trail maintenance has been bolstered by the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps, which pays participants ages 15–25 and teaches them resource management skills. In 2020, 10 crews built or rehabilitated 89 miles of trails.

One of the program’s funding partners is the Student Conservation Association, a nationwide nonprofit that sends crews to do trail work in Pennsylvania each year.

How to help

To become a volunteer at a Pennsylvania state park or forest, search for “volunteer PA parks” in your web browser.

To donate to or become a trail volunteer for the Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation,  then click on “Friends Groups.”

To donate to or become a trail volunteer for the Keystone Trails Association,  then click on “Trails and Trail Crew.”

(Reprinted from Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

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[Posted: April 29, 2022]  PA Environment Digest

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