On the Trails: Calling Youth to Action in the Woods

Here in the Upper Valley, we are lucky to have widespread access to beautiful outdoor recreation spaces and strong trail networks. As a runner, hiker and cross country skier, I have taken frequent advantage of my favorite trails.

However, until I completed three weeks of trail work with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance through their High School Trail Corps program, I never gave a thought to the hours of planning and hard labor that go into creating and maintaining the trails that I love.

Now, as I have returned to UVTA as the summer crew leader for the Trail Corps, I have a deeper appreciation of the complexities of landowner permissions, conservation easements and hours of scouting and flagging that often comprise the behind-the-scenes world of familiar Upper Valley trails. But climate change, coupled with a waning population of trail stewards, places us at a pivotal moment for the future of our trail networks.

In many places around New England, including the Upper Valley, we have an aging generation of trail and environmental stewards who are doing the work to protect and maintain our trails and wild spaces. If you look around a conservation commission meeting or a volunteer trail work day, the majority of faces often belong to older community members. As a young person, I grow anxious that my generation has become disengaged from our environment in our increasingly busy, screen-driven and disconnected world with a rapidly changing climate.

This year in the Upper Valley, we’ve witnessed spikes in the intensity of microburst storms that fell more trees and cause more erosion damage to our trails than the storms of five years ago. There’s been a startling increase in tick populations due to our milder winters as well. These changes have the potential to threaten the future of our trail networks. I worry that my generation is losing interest in outdoor recreation at a pivotal moment in our environmental crisis. While there are varying reports of how many years humankind has to act before the so-called point of no return for our planet, there is one general consensus: Young people will bear the brunt of the consequences of our inaction.

So I urge my peers to step up as active participants in the protection of our planet. Let us disconnect to reconnect, using local trails and recreation spaces to generate connections with ourselves, each other, our communities and our shared environment. By simply using and interacting with our trails and wild spaces, we can gain a renewed appreciation for our natural world and the many life forms with which we share our land.

This is one of the reasons I have returned to lead one of the programs that I am most passionate about. UVTA’s High School Trail Corps program introduces students to trail stewardship while building and maintaining trails around the Upper Valley. This summer, UVTA has worked with more than 40 students from 13 area schools. With our trail corps members, we have talked about why trails are important to our communities, sharing quotes from favorite outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists at our morning circle.

I feel hopeful when I watch our crew members express a sense of gratification at cutting through a thick blowdown or completing a new bog bridge. It brings me joy to see the crew plan and forge new trails through the forest and indulge my geologic curiosity by appreciating cool rocks we dig up from the trail, all while connecting and sharing with each other. It is so heartening to see my generation helping to make the outdoors more accessible to our community through trails, and I hope that together we will become the next generation of trail stewards, adopting the fight to protect our wild spaces and ensuring that our communities are able to access and appreciate the beauty and recreation that our natural world can offer.

To the members of my generation: Engage with our environment in ways that are meaningful to you. Participate in a volunteer trail work day. Educate yourself on the impact of invasive species in our area. Advocate alongside an environmental campaign, or model active participation in the care of our planet for our peers and younger community members. Do so, and we too may continue to enjoy local trails for outdoor recreation and connection with our natural world.

Written by Hayden Keene, 2019 UVTA Summer Crew Leader and published by the Valley News on September 5th 2019