Our Upper Valley trails are both critical and also somewhat vulnerable infrastructure for the health and well being of our communities.
They are the pathways that connect us to nature, each other and outdoor recreation, and have the potential to help us improve and maintain our mental and physical health in profoundly important ways. At the same time, most of our public trails are on private lands, and we depend on the goodwill of our landowners to have access to these local treasures.
Trails can help us get more of the exercise we desperately need. The National Institute of Health recommends at least an hour a day for children and adolescents and at least 5 hours of moderate physical activity per week for adults. Unfortunately, many of us are not reaching these goals, and we are paying the price both literally and figuratively, with about a quarter of our Upper Valley population challenged by obesity.
According to a 2018 report from the Trust for Public Health, the long-term health implications of obesity include higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and cancer. And the same report tells us that our rates of obesity have increased over the last 5 years and that there are higher rates in rural areas (34%), such as those we find in most of the Upper Valley, than in urban areas (29%). The likely cause of this difference is that those of us who live in the countryside are more likely to drive rather than get the daily exercise that comes with walking to work, school, stores and so on.
Among the keys to overcoming these health challenges and fulfilling the wonderful potential of our trails is public access to nearby trails. Most of us will only use our trails and other recreation regularly if they are relatively close.
The wonderful trails in the White Mountains and Green Mountains are providing us with very limited health benefits if we are only using them a few times a year. While we may not always find stunning views, the nearby trail or gym that we will use regularly is arguably the most valuable health resource we have.
One study, using anonymous data from more than 7 million cell phones, found that people are most likely to go their gym regularly if it is within 4 miles of their homes. A trail-related study in Massachusetts found that the likelihood of people using a rail trail decreased by roughly 40% with every quarter-mile increase in distance between their home and the trail.
Therefore, the best trail is not necessarily the climb up the 4,000-foot Presidential Range in the White Mountain National Park. Instead, the best and most valuable trail is likely a humble and relatively unknown one on private land right down the road from your house.
While your pathway to more exercise and better health could be on public land, it is much more likely to be on a neighbor’s private property. This is because only 18% of land in New Hampshire and 13% in Vermont is identified as publicly accessible, according to the USGS Protected Areas Database. That means that more than 80% of the land in both states is private; therefore, public access to most of our local trails depends on the goodwill of our private landowners and also on our willingness and ability to support both them and the trails.
Along with countless members, community partners and hundreds of volunteers donating thousands of hours, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance has worked for 20 years to support our patchwork of trails on both public and private lands. We have even designed a free online trail resource called Trail Finder (found on www.uvtrails.org) on which we only post trails approved by landowners and trail managers.
We ask that you honor and thank our local landowners, not only by using and improving your health on these trails, but also by following the rules, striving to leave no trace and giving back to your community in every way you can.
Written by Randy Richardson and published in the Valley News on Saturday, July 20 2019.