Reflections on 2021
By Melanie Luce, Executive Director
As 2021 draws to a close – another year of extreme changes and challenges – it is with incredible appreciation that we reflect on the collective impact of our partnerships across the White Mountain National Forest.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has altered our lives dramatically, it has also made clear just how vital trails are to people and places, serving as important space for health and wellness and providing safe outdoor access for millions of people. Trail use soared in 2020, initially spiking 200% nationwide on average over the same time frame in 2019, according to a study by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. Over the course of the pandemic, trail use has continued at more than 50% higher usage rates than in previous years.
This means the trails that were already suffering from over use and lack of maintenance now, more than ever, need us to come together and join resources to create a culture that maintains and protects what is important to us.
We are humbled by the support we have received this year, and over the past three years, and we want to extend our gratitude to all of those who have given countless hours of their time, effort and money to support critical maintenance on MANY trail projects.
This remarkable impact was possible because of YOU as donors and volunteers and because of the time, dedication and ingenuity of trail maintainers, builders, and advocates who facilitated completion of the work.
Because of collaboration and amazing partnerships, a time-honored legacy of maintaining trails in the White Mountains thrives. More and more individuals are getting involved and are giving back to what they treasure.
When we work together to protect and cherish what we hold dear, we create an empowered, collaborative culture that is a living, breathing, and fast-moving environment. It is never static. It is self-perpetuating. It is sustainable. It is our values in action.
As we look forward to 2022, we are inspired and driven to continue to “Protect the Trails, and Preserve the Legacy.” We’re honored to have you with us on this journey.
It’s a pretty easy problem to spot. As you near a viewpoint, destination, or major trail junction, you start to notice small trails wandering off in all sorts of directions. Sometimes they cut a corner. Sometimes they take you to a smaller lookout area with fewer crowds or a little upstream or downstream from where everyone else is swimming. They may take you to a cool rock or cave or around a particularly wet piece of trail. At a climbing area these trails might get you around where people are belaying, stashing their packs or dogs, or hanging out in their hammocks (just don’t do this – seriously).
There are a million reasons these trails get created and almost as many names for them: social trails, informal trails, trail braiding, goofer paths, and many less polite terms, depending on the audience. Whatever the reason or the name, these trails create serious problems: erosion issues, fragile plant destruction, fragmentation of habitats, and the creation of even more trails as time goes on.
As a trail builder, erosion issues are always my main concern as I look at the impacts people have on the landscape. When we walk on the same place over and over, the vegetation growing there is killed, the duff layer (decaying vegetation) is removed, and the soil underneath is compacted. With the duff removed, there is no new nutrient content being added to the soil, and with the mineral soil compacting, plants cannot establish their roots. This compaction effectively kills that patch of land. When we lay out a trail, we know we will have an established treadway where this compaction will happen, and we try to contain that as much as possible. We also try to lay this treadway in an orientation that naturally sheds water, or we’ll build in structures to remove water. Social trails are almost never laid in a sustainable orientation, and they do not have structures to handle water. Their lack of sustainable design can lead to pooling water on the social trail or water being channeled into the formal trail.
Every time you step off of the established treadway, it has a negative impact on the landscape next to the trail. As the vegetation next to the treadway is killed, the duff and loose soil erodes into the tread, which is carried to the next drainage structure. When the drainage fills up, water then flows over instead of out of the drainage, and as water picks up speed, it erodes more soil in the existing treadway. This cascade of erosion issues leads to the gullies and blown out structures we see across White Mountain trails. Something as simple as walking around the end of a waterbar creates a place for the water to continue to flow downhill rather than off of the treadway.
In alpine and riparian zones (river banks and flood zones), the plants are often very sensitive to human impact. Plants that can handle extremes in weather can be easily killed by just a little trampling from feet or your pack. Alpine plants tend to grow very slowly, so cutting a few hundred feet off your hike by taking a shortcut could be killing decades of growth. These plants also tend to have shallow, wide, root systems given the thin soils in which they grow. Cutting through the middle of a patch of plants can split this root system into smaller and smaller pieces, significantly impacting the plants’ health and longevity. The root systems in riparian areas are vital to holding up banks and keeping soils out of the waterways. When these plants are trampled and the soil is released, it can lead to obvious erosion issues on the bank, but it can also have less visible impacts on fish and amphibian habitats downstream.
So what can you do to help prevent social trail development?
- Stay on established trails! It’s really that easy. I know during COVID and the time of social distancing, people have been trying to keep away from each other even in the woods, but moving off of the trail can and will have significant impacts.
- If you do need to step off the treadway, try to step only on durable surfaces (exposed, bare rock).
- If you get to the trailhead and it’s already packed, go somewhere else for the day. There are 1,200 miles of trails in the WMNF, so there is definitely a trail you haven’t hiked before, likely within a few minutes drive of where you are.
- If you get to the cliff and it’s jamming, try your luck somewhere else. Nothing makes a more well-rounded climber than having to ditch your plan of getting on a classic and wandering over to a lesser known crag and trying some forgotten gems.
- If you really want to get that classic view/swim/climb, try going at different times. Sometimes a weekday is better; sometimes you have to get up early; or opt for a moonlight adventure.
The Power of Partnership: Veterans on the 48
By Olivia Carle, Level 1 and Volunteer Coordinator
The White Mountain Trail Collective partnered with Veterans on the 48 to help address the backlog of trail maintenance in the White Mountain National Forest this past season. Over 20 veterans got out on the trails to perform crucial level I maintenance.
By season’s end, the veterans completed approximately 20 miles of beautiful maintenance on 10 trails, including the Crawford Path and the Hale Brook Trail, which is no small feat! Many veterans returned over and over again to get this mileage completed. We really appreciate their efforts to care for the trails of the WMNF, particularly given many of the veterans had long and difficult drives before even arriving at the trailheads. Our region is privileged to have such dedicated stewards - they added tremendous capacity to the volume of maintenance work that could be completed in 2021.
We asked Mike York, President of Veterans on the 48, to share his reflections on this first year of working together to maintain the WMNF trails:
Working with the WMTC this year in our first season as trail maintainers was a rewarding experience for all of us. We hike countless miles on the trails each year, enjoying and benefiting from each step we take on them, but what we don't see is the never-ending battle to keep the trails alive. From the brutal weather of the Northeast to the thousands of hikers who travel the trails each year, the trails are in constant need of repair.
With a high need for volunteers to help aid in this repair, our veteran hiking community was happy to answer the call. From clearing overgrown brush, removing downed trees, and cleaning and repairing water runoffs, our veteran crew, alongside staff members from the WMTC, worked together to get the job done.
It was an eye-opening experience to see firsthand the amount of work and planning that goes into maintaining the trails. The hiking community would benefit greatly if every hiker shared the experience, even if just for one day, of volunteering. You have to participate in the process yourself to truly understand and appreciate the level of effort required for keeping the trails clean, maintained, and safe for everyone to use. We were proud to partner with the WMTC this season and look forward to continuing our partnership for years to come.
In addition to working with the WMTC on various trails, Veterans on the 48 recently adopted Tecumseh Trail (via Tripoli Road) and will assume ongoing responsibility for its maintenance.
As the Level I Maintenance Coordinator, I am extremely grateful to the Veterans on the 48 members who devoted so much energy to doing high quality trail maintenance in the White Mountains. Many of the trails we maintained were remote and needed a lot of TLC, so this was arduous and time-consuming work. I know that the trails have truly benefited from the meticulous brushing, drainage work, and blowdown removal that the veterans executed. It was a real pleasure to be out in the field with everyone this past season and to see how much care they put into the trails.
We wanted to give a shout-out to every single veteran who hit the trails with us, so here you have it:
Cutting Bench & Building Tread: Part 1
By Olivia Carle, Level 1 and Volunteer Coordinator
This month we’ll be starting a series on understanding the terms we use when we’re building tread, and many of the terms apply specifically to “cutting bench.” There is an art to doing it well, and hopefully these terms convey how detailed the process is.
Cutting bench is a building technique or feature used in sustainable trail design to cut a shelf into the side of a slope, as opposed to running a trail right up the slope. It involves moving a lot more dirt, but the technique makes for better drainage, less erosion, and a more accessible user experience because the gradient is less steep and water can flow off of the trail, as opposed to solely down the trail.
Tread is the (usually) hard and durable surface of a trail on which users hike, run, bike, and horseback ride. It is built ever-so-slightly angled outward toward the edge of the slope so that water can drain more efficiently off of it.
Backslope is a 45º cut into the slope/hillside next to the tread. It is important to remove enough dirt to get as close to 45º as possible so that the backslope is less prone to erosion onto the tread itself. It also affords trail users a larger corridor or space to walk through, especially if the slope that was cut into is very steep. The steeper the slope, the higher the backslope becomes.
A hinge is the junction where the tread and backslope meet. Trail workers usually want the junction to be “clean,” meaning that the dirt is not rounded, and it is easy to distinguish where the tread ends and the backslope begins. This is often one of the final touches after the backslope has been built.
Downslope is the (usually steep) area below the tread/bench that has been cut into a slope. This is often where debris (like rocks, dirt, and roots) is thrown or pulled down during trail construction. This area is also ideally where water should be draining from the tread.
Critical edge is the junction where the tread and downslope meet. Usually, pin flags are placed in the ground indicating where the critical edge needs to be, and trail workers will cut deep and far enough into the slope to meet those flags. This is a crucial component of any trail because it is where the usable surface ends, is delicate and erosion-prone (especially due to users trampling it), and it is easy to lose in all the dirt that is being moved around. If the edge dips too low in any section of trail, it is impossible to replace that dirt and tamp it back down to maintain structural integrity. As a result, trail workers learn to be very careful when working the critical edge, so they can preserve the best form of the trail and make it very clear where the tread ends for trail users.