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The Future of Trails: Volunteers

Outdoor recreation is an $887 billion industry that is, in many ways, built on the backs of volunteers.

by Taylor Goodrich, Communication and Media Specialist, American Trails

Student volunteers: working with Kansas City WildLands is a service learning requirement for several local college ecology and botany classes

Outdoor recreation is an $887 billion industry that is, in many ways, built on the backs of volunteers. The logic of this is simple: almost all outdoor recreation activities involve trails in some capacity, and trails are possible because of an army of volunteers.

These dedicated individuals work enthusiastically alongside land managers and trail-building professionals, to build and maintain pathways of all kinds. It is no wonder, given these facts, that we are increasingly seeing innovative volunteer-based programs all over the country, investing in creating a well- trained volunteer force for trails and outdoor spaces.

Jolly Rovers

One such organization is the Jolly Rovers Trail Crew, based in New York. The origin of the Jolly Rovers goes back to 2008, when the relocation of the Appalachian Trail in New York’s Bear Mountain State Park, which was being managed by the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference, was in its second project year.

This decade-long project was massive in both scale and technical difficulty, and involved harvesting natural stone from the park, splitting and shaping it into stairs, and installing it in place to create steps to the summit of Bear Mountain.

Despite the extremely difficult work, volunteers were welcomed to train and build alongside the professionals. Chris Ingui, who had recently left his job in the film industry, heard the call of the trail and quickly became a full time volunteer. Taking full advantage of training opportunities, Chris stepped into a leadership role onsite, directing other volunteers on projects.

After three years of dedication Chris thought that the skills he and the rest of the core group of project volunteers had acquired would be helpful on other projects. Chris floated the idea to two other crew members, Artie Hidalgo and Bob Brunner, to create a roving group of volunteers, known as the “Jolly Rovers.”

A Jolly Rovers crew splitting boulders for a rock project

A Jolly Rovers crew splitting boulders for a rock project

When both Hidalgo and Brunner agreed it was a fantastic idea, the three brought on ten other volunteers, and the trail crew was born. From those beginnings the crew has grown into what is now a core group of 45 well- trained volunteers who travel the trails of New York. In the last year volunteers have collectively donated 8,000 hours of service at a value of $200,000.

The Jolly Rovers are also dedicated to paying it forward when it comes to their training, offering four free work- shops a year to any volunteers interest- ed in learning their skills. In addition, for a fee they offer these workshops to any organizations wishing to raise the level of skills of their own staff and volunteers.

The Jolly Rovers are filling a unique niche, bringing highly trained and skilled labor to projects, and pass- ing on those skills to others so the pool of trail knowledge is ever expanding.

Missouri River Relief

The Missouri River has long been a popular destination for adventure seekers, nature lovers, fishermen, kayakers, and everyone in between. By the year 2001, however, improper stewardship had led to pollution and trash in and along the river, threatening the ability of Missourians to enjoy this natural wonder, and causing harmful impacts on both wildlife and the environment.

Out of this need for a cleaner river the Missouri River Relief organization was founded. Created by a coalition of can-do pioneers, who saw a problem and knew they could be the solution, the organization started organizing massive river cleanups, which to date have engaged over 20,000 volunteers and removed over 900 tons of trash from the river corridor.

In 2016 the organization was awarded Recreational Trail Program funds by the State of Missouri in order to host four river trail cleanups, along with educational sessions about the Missouri River Water Trail for students and teachers. As part of their mission, Missouri River Relief seeks not only to clean up the river, but to teach about the importance of the river to the eco- system and why it’s so necessary to respect the river while using it.

photo credit: Kristen Schulte
Students from City Garden Montessori School explore the rivers during Missouri River
Relief’s “Investigating the Confluence” education program

Students from City Garden Montessori School explore the rivers during Missouri River Relief’s “Investigating the Confluence” education program

To do this they engage school teachers in workshops, both in class- room settings and out on the river. The goal is to enable them to commune directly with what is so special about the Missouri, and to give them tools to take back to their students.

Kristen Schulte, the Education Coordinator for Missouri River Relief, has said, “The Missouri River is a huge component to a lot of communities and it is highly ignored. Our mission is to connect people to the Missouri River. We feel like that is the first step towards people caring and feeling more responsible for the river.”

By engaging teachers in this way, and making sure they are taking lesson plans back to their classrooms, Missouri River Relief is helping to ensure that the youngest generation of Missourians understand their role in keeping this river in good shape for all future generations as well.

One of the mantras repeated at Missouri River Relief is, “We all live downstream.” As Steve Schnarr, their executive director, has said, “Everything that you do in your community is going to affect the water nearby, and that affects the people who live downstream, and we’re affected by the people who live upstream.”

Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap is a nonprofit based in Kansas City with the express goal of making the Kansas City region sustainable by “connecting environment, economy, and community.” To that end they focus heavily on both providing environmental education and engaging volunteers directly, working with more than 1,500 individual volunteers annually. Their Kansas City WildLands program works to involve the people of the region as much as possible in the stewardship of “prairie, glade, savanna, and natural forest communities that exist on public lands in the metro area.”

This program is allowing the citizens of Kansas City to directly take charge of their outdoor spaces, which previously have been neglected. As the organization defines the problem, ”In addition to a lack of management, these natural communities also suffer from a lack of recognition and appreciation by the urban public.”

Kansas City WildLands volunteers gathering grass seed for revegetation projects

Kansas City WildLands volunteers gathering grass seed for revegetation projects

Once someone has volunteered for a space they generally feel more ownership over it, so programs such as this are self-building. The more people get involved, the more they want to stay involved and get others involved as well.

Over the last two years the Kansas City WildLands program hosted 68 volunteer workdays, with 2,697 volunteer hours logged, 121 species of wildflowers collected for their native seed bank, and over 250 invasive cedar trees removed from public lands. Currently WildLands volunteers are helping to restore 13 remnant sites within the Kansas City metropolitan region.

Volunteers across America

These are only a few of the innovative volunteer programs going on across the country to get people more involved in the stewardship of trails and green- ways. There are many other programs, such as Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, Volunteer Vacations through American Hiking Society, National Trails Day, and Back Country Horseman’s volunteer program which logged over 324,000 volunteer hours in 2017.

All these efforts deserve our thanks and recognition for the ways they are connecting people with the outdoors through volunteering. As we move into the future, the popularity of outdoor recreation will continue to grow. It will be even more important to have a solid foundation of volunteers caring for our public lands, and leaders who nurture these outstanding programs.

Published September 2019

About the Author

Taylor Goodrich started with American Trails in January 2018 as Communication and Media Specialist. Taylor has worked with the National Recreation Trail (NRT) Ambassadors since the beginning of the program and has helped shape the program to where it is today. Taylor currently lives in Dallas, Texas, which is also where she grew up and where she attended the University of North Texas receiving her degree in History. While in college she started doing freelance work editing and writing, and also got into graphic design and discovered she loves the creativity and craft of digital arts. After college she traveled quite a bit, and lived in both the Pacific Northwest and in New Mexico, and while in both of those places took full advantage of what the outdoors had to offer. After moving back to Texas she started moving towards doing graphic design, social media, and communications work full time, and she has contracted with several companies from tech startups, to music festivals, to law firms, to grow their social media and digital communications presence. Taylor loves hiking and kayaking especially, and is glad to be working with an organization that fights for further accessibility and stewardship of our nation’s trails. She feels very lucky that in this position she will be able to use her professional skills and passion for something she is also very personally passionate about, and in helping to grow American Trails.

Contact: [email protected]

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