Burlington Wildways Trail Stewardship Program
Most of us living in Burlington have found joy in spending time in its natural areas. There are so many different ways that people enjoy nature and it would be unfair to say that one way of recreating outdoors is more valuable than another. Sometimes we simply want to enjoy a peaceful walk on the trails. A step up from that is a run or a bike ride, which cause a higher level of disturbance but are relatively unharmful to many of our trails. Anything more than that may cause significant harm to some of our sensitive ecological communities. Fire-making, camping, tree-climbing, and boating are activities we should all get to enjoy because they bring us happiness in a society that suffers from chronic stress and addiction to technology. These are also activities that make people feel connected to nature; the ability for the general public to feel this connection is essential for the survivorship of our undeveloped landscapes, which provide critical habitat and corridors for flora and fauna. The problem is that depending on the area, a lot of these activities can actually be harmful to our wild plants, animals, and soils. Unfortunately these activities need to be regulated, but it feels wrong to try to police people who just want to have fun outdoors.
A large number of Burlington residents have adopted an anti-police mentality. Many of us believe that a lot of conflict is handled inappropriately and in a way that doesn't address the root of the issue. Punishing people and treating them disrespectfully installs more fear than respect. Advocates for defunding the police have suggested a lot of other less aggressive alternatives to handling issues, which I won't get into here. All I know is that regarding our natural areas, no one deserves a citation or an aggressive reprimand (unless he or she is intentionally being a jerk).
What rules should we be enforcing and how can we deepen our community's connection to nature even? That's where Burlington Wildways Trail Stewardship Program might come into play. The Trail Stewardship Program is in its infancy, but it's already helped bring together dozens of volunteers who are interested in being stewards of the land. This program's main purpose is to create a culture where all types of people with different cultures, values, attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge, feel like they have a place in our natural areas. The greater the variety of people we can get to participate in the Trail Stewardship Program, the more voices we can get to help create a modern framework, or "ethic," for how we care for our living and nonliving community. Creating a diverse volunteer base will also help educate the public about the relevant ecological issues when it comes to interacting with the landscape. It will also help answer the question, is there a "right" way to be in nature? Should we only be basing our conservation decisions on knowledge from western scientific literature, which is so colonially influenced and inaccessible to a significant portion of the human population? How do we also include Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) without being appropriative?
We haven't established permanent guiding principles for Trail Stewardship Program yet because taking a stance about how we think people ought to think or behave can cause more harm than good. None of us love the idea of turning the program into a community-policing organization, but we do want to make people feel more responsible for their impact on the ecosystem.
For now, Wildways trail stewards are a group of people who simply stroll the trails in their free time and engage with the happenings-- report newly emergent invasive plants and large trail obstructions; thank people for leashing their dogs and help guide those who are lost; talk with trail users who want to talk and smile and wave to those who don't; pick up trash and dismantle firepits. The best part about the Trail Stewardship program is that once you're on a Wildways trail, you don't have to worry about when one parcel of land ends and another begins. You can start walking at Salmon Hole and end up all the way at the Ethan Allen Homestead-- the idea is that land is connected, regardless of who owns what. You're literally doing service work by going for a walk. If you do a total of at least four hours of stewardship a month, you can also enjoy a 12% discount at City Market, which makes fresh and local food almost affordable! That discount has personally saved me 100's of dollars over the past two years.
If you are interested in becoming a Trail Steward and earning a consistent 12% discount at City Market, visit burlingtonwildways.org and click "Get Involved."
We are also encouraging feedback for how conservation-driven organizations could do a better job at promoting equity and inclusion within their programs. This is a huge problem that needs a lot of work.