On the Trails: Trails are not just nice, they are necessary!

Written by Russell Hirschler

As the Upper Valley Trails Alliance prepares to enter its 24th year of work in the region, it is important to take a look back to how it all began. In February 1999, dozens of trail leaders, advocates, users, builders and many others convened to “look at the challenges and threats to trails in the Upper Valley as well as opportunities that connecting trails would bring to the region.”

The top strategy to come out of the meeting was to “Convene an Upper Valley Trails Alliance that would: 1) encourage coordination and collaboration between groups; 2) provide enhanced technical assistance and training; and 3) foster use of the trails network.”

Hence the Upper Valley Trails Alliance was formed.

It was obvious back then that trails were a nice — maybe even important — community asset.

For hundreds of years trails have been used for myriad reasons: travel and transportation, physical and mental health and wellness, exploration and learning, and many others. Trails have connected communities, offering residents access to those benefits. Now trails bring much needed economic development and tourism revenue to our towns and region. Trails allow students to learn in outdoor classrooms. With significant recent investments in local, universally accessible trails (many of which UVTA has built), people with mobility issues can enjoy the benefits of the outdoors as well.

In 2018, the board and staff of UVTA adopted its most recent strategic plan with a bold vision: UVTA will be the recognized leader and preferred partner for trail development, programs, information, and support in the region, creating an extensive, accessible, and integrated Upper Valley trail system for use by all residents. Using three primary strategic initiatives: Build and develop trails; Connect people to those trails though community events and programs; and Advocate for trails on the local, regional, state and national levels, UVTA had its roadmap for the future. We made investments in operational systems, tools and equipment, technical expertise, and organizational infrastructure. Our programs and events were full to capacity. Our trail building calendar was full. We were on our way. Then March 2020 came. COVID was here.

No one knew what to expect, yet one thing should have been obvious. With most people stuck at home and limited opportunities for any social interaction, trails became one of the most important resources in our region. People flocked to trails in unprecedented numbers. Some of the more popular trails saw significant increased use, trailheads were full, and impacts were oftentimes significant. Using TrailFinder.info, UVTA’s free online trails database for Vermont and New Hampshire, we encouraged use of local and community trails.

The Upper Valley Trails Alliance was lucky. As an organization that does much of its work outdoors, we were able to get back to the business of building, maintaining, and improving trails early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Our alliance members and partners (towns, conservation commissions, conservation organizations, and other nonprofits) needed our help and were ready to make the investments. New trails were being planned, trail maintenance needs were at an all time high, bridges and other structures needed replacing, and UVTA’s trail building calendar was full again.

As we started 2021 and entered the second year of the pandemic, we saw the same thing. Trails were important, the need for high quality trails and infrastructure was in demand, and our alliance partners were calling on the Upper Valley Trails Alliance to do the essential work. The same thing happened as we started 2022 and I kept wondering about what this means for the future of the trails alliance. While trail usage had peaked in 2021 (as COVID restrictions have started to relax), people were still heading to the trails in droves.

What I realized, an unintended consequence of COVID and what I call a COVID silver lining, is that the importance of trails is here to stay. They have become an integral part of our lives, our communities, and ourselves. Our alliance partners have recognized the value of trails to their communities and have worked with UVTA to create and maintain access to the outdoors. Our members, donors, and sponsors understand the importance of recreational opportunities for themselves, their families and their constituents, and have continued their generous support of the work we do in the community.

As we move forward into our 24th year, we will continue to invest in our trails and bring the benefits of the outdoors to our communities, knowing that trails are not just nice anymore, they are necessary!

Written by Russell Hirschler, Executive Director of the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, and published in the Valley News on 11/01/2022.