Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail is an educational and accessible route in the Connecticut River watershed.
Fort River Birding and Nature Trail is intended to be used as an outdoor visitor center and an outdoor classroom.
From Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
Located in western Massachusetts, the Fort River Birding and Nature Trail is intended to be used as an “outdoor visitor center” and an outdoor classroom for both guided and self-guided educational experiences. The multi-functioning, universally accessible trail provides quality access to all, meeting Architectural Barriers Act accessibility guidelines and supporting the intent of the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997.
The refuge was established to protect the diversity and abundance of native species within the Connecticut River watershed, New England’s longest river.
Construction through teamwork
The trail was laid out and designed by Refuge employees in 2011-12, with construction beginning in 2013. Construction of the trail is an example of teamwork at its best. Youth Conservation Corps, Student Conservation Association Interns, community volunteers of all ages and abilities, Boy and Girl Scout Troops and Northeast Region Service employees all played a role in building or laying out a bulk of the trail construction. The trail is designed with lots of curves throughout the habitats to keep the visitor wondering what might be around the next bend. Trail construction used gravel, stone dust, and trail ties to retain the flexible pressure treated wood bends at a five foot width. For the tougher bends, it was necessary to soak the wood overnight to increase their flexibility.
The project was an important learning experience for many of the young people involved, who were being trained to use many of the tools for the first time. Today, members from these groups still help to help maintain the trail and the surrounding habitat, and provide educational programs.
Highlights and main features
In 2014 the trail was presented with the Paul Winske Access Award by the Stavros Center for Independent Living. As a fully accessible trail, it provides opportunities for families with strollers, groups of young children, and an aging population to enjoy the outdoors. Specific examples of accessible accommodations are the low, flat grade of the trail, the easily passable boardwalk and trail materials, and benches placed along the trail (at 50 to 150 yard intervals) for visitors to rest. In addition, two covered overlooks protect visitors from sun or rain, there are mile markers at each tenth of mile to help visitors navigate the trail, and a two inch continuous wooden edge on the trail sides helps guide the visually impaired and those in wheelchairs. An accessible restroom is located in the parking lot to accommodate visitors’ needs.
The trail was designed for “clockwise” travel, meandering through a variety of successional habitats from grass and shrub lands, to lowland floodplain, and upland forested areas. It is designed to resemble a ribbon as it passes through these diverse habitats, enhancing the visitor’s experience. The winding of the trail allows visitors to continually see nature in front of them, while also creating a curiosity about what’s beyond the next bend. Several of the trail walkways were specifically designed to allow the passage of the wood turtle and other small animals that need access to critical habitat. At frequent intervals along the lipped trail edge are small animal “escape hatches” to allow toads, snakes, and turtles to leave the path and avoid predators.
One overlook on the trail presents a view of the Holyoke Mountain Range, which is one of only two east to west mountain ranges on the entire east coast. The location of this overlook affords visitors beautiful vistas, with opportunities for wildlife observation, photography, and artwork. As with this overlook, all the trail overlooks provide visitors an opportunity to be immersed in nature, with the solitude to engage their senses in an outdoor setting.
Partnerships and supporting urban communities
The Fort River Birding and Nature Trail is used by a diverse group of community members for a variety of reasons. Through an Urban Refuge Partnership with schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, students take field trips to the trail for outdoor educational experiences. The USFWS national partnership with Girls, Inc. also provides programs on the trail for young people from the town of Holyoke during the summer months.
A Friends group has developed in support of the trail and USFWS, to help with offering interpretive and educational programs to the public, habitat improvements around the trail, and maintenance of the trail. This project has sparked an interest in the outdoors for many community members and engaged them to help maintain and protect open spaces and the wildlife that inhabit them.
Since its official opening in October 2014, use of the trail has steadily increased to an estimated visitation of 20,000 a year, and growing. Refuge staff continue to maintain the accessible integrity of the trail, as well as manage the habitats surrounding the trail for quality wildlife viewing and outdoor recreation experiences.
The Refuge is in the process of finalizing its 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan, which calls for cooperation with communities, school systems, agencies, non-profit organizations, and other educational organizations to facilitate and develop quality environmental education curricula. Another goal is to train people to conduct quality environmental education. Within five years of the Plan’s approval the Refuge will assess the effectiveness of all environmental education programs.
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