The recreation compromise

Recreation is incredibly important. Vermont’s forested lands are about 80 percent privately owned. People own forested land for many reasons—usually some combination of recreation, conservation, hunting access and income from forest products. Many forest landowners place value on just knowing that their land exists, providing wildlife habitat, clean air, clean water, carbon sequestration and other benefits, but some form of recreation is almost always how landowners interact and connect with their land. Whether it is a short walking loop or a system of mountain bike trails, recreation fuels a conservation ethic that helps protect forests and promote good forest stewardship. On public lands, recreation is part of how we enjoy our public resources, and how those without access to their own land can get out and spend time in the woods. 

Recreation has an impact. While recreation is an important part of the conservation and protection of forestland, it is also important that we recognize that it is not without adverse impacts; poorly planned and/or executed recreation can negatively affect soils, water quality, forest health and wildlife.

Poorly constructed and/or maintained trails can cause erosion (the loss of soil), which pollutes our waterways. In addition, trails cause localized soil compaction, impacting tree roots and vegetation. Finally, trail construction can impact sensitive sites, such as wetlands, lowering their health and functionality. While these issues, in my experience, are not prominent in Chittenden County, they are serious. The good news is that they can be mitigated by thoughtful trail construction: making sure that trails are built with water diversion structures like water bars, identifying and avoiding sensitive sites, keeping users “on-trail” to concentrate impacts on as small an area as possible, staying off trails when they are wet or unstable, and actively monitoring and maintaining trails. 

The effect of recreation on wildlife is harder to mitigate. Research has made it clear that wildlife are impacted by recreation. There are essentially two results of recreation on wildlife: habituation (wildlife becoming accustomed to recreation) and avoidance (wildlife fleeing from recreation), both of which are problematic. Research suggests that larger animals are more likely to show avoidance behavior, which heightens their stress levels, taxes energy reserves and can change their habitat use and forage patterns, sometimes forcing them to utilize inferior habitat. 

So, what can we do? We need to balance recreating in our forests with protecting their ecology and function. I think about this as “sustainable recreation,” protecting the health of our forests holistically, rather than focusing for a single resource (like recreation) as we so commonly do. We need to recognize that recreation in our forests is dependent on responsible forest stewardship and does not exist in a vacuum. Broadening our perspective in this way will help to ensure that future generations can have the same positive recreational experience in healthy, productive forests, as we do.

Thinking carefully about the construction and location of trails goes a long way toward this goal. Before building a trail, look at Biofinder, a map service provided by Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, to see if there are any sensitive sites or rare, threatened or endangered (RTE) species present. Consider dividing your land into “zones,” where management goals—harvesting forest products, maximizing wildlife habitat, creating a network of trails, protection of an ecologically sensitive site—determine the primary use. Each zone can have different rules; a simple balance is allowing more trails near developed areas and allowing more remote areas, which connect to larger habitat blocks, to feature fewer or no trails. This allows us to have our trails and allows wildlife a large area where they can move freely without being disturbed. Finally, for tips on trail construction, you can look at Vermont Forests, Parks and Recreation’s “Recommended Trail Standards” on its website.

As is often the case in the woods, humans’ biggest challenge is managing ourselves—and it starts with compromise. Forest recreation is vital to Vermont’s forests, and it is worth the effort of thinking a little bit harder about how we manage it. 

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County forester. He can be reached at (802) 585-9099, via email, or at his office at 111 West Street, Essex Junction.