By Josh Balisteri, Stewardship Director
The Land Conservancy has a beautiful suite of trails for hikers to enjoy across many of our twenty-plus nature preserves. Several of the preserves we recently opened required large-scale trail-building projects that involve a serious effort to design and construct. Mossy Point and the Margery Gallogly Nature Sanctuary are two recently protected preserves that come to mind. Both of these properties now feature miles of quality hiking trails. Although I managed these projects and played a significant role in their design, outside trail-building contractors were hired for their design and construction. This was a great thing at the time, and each of these projects was a resounding success.
However, it has been a long-term goal of mine since I started at the Land Conservancy to do our trail work internally. I have been highly motivated to make this shift for myriad reasons. Reputable trail-building organizations are increasingly rare. In fact, there are only two that I know of in all of New York State. Not only are they rare, but their services are quite expensive, increasing the fundraising burden when protecting these preserves. They are also booked years in advance. Designing and building trails internally saves us time and money.
I also have the skill set to do the work. I studied Natural Resources Management at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. It was an amazing program that provided some flexibility on where you could focus your coursework and expertise. I chose to minor in Recreation Resources and Protected Area Management, where I learned about sustainable trail design, recreation ecology, and other essential skills within the recreation sciences.
Considering the financial and logistical factors was important, but my main motivation for shifting our trail work in-house was that I am extremely passionate about trail design. I have been an avid hiker and outdoor recreator since childhood. I have hiked and backpacked all over the country, and everywhere I go, I take mental notes about what works and what doesn’t. What trail experiences are fun, inspiring, and challenging, and which leave something to be desired. I believe trails are one of the most important tools we have to create more conservationists. They are the most common way that humans intentionally interact with nature in our region. They are also the most common way members of the public interact with our organization. Trails hold a tremendous amount of potential. I don't think it is dramatic to say that trails have the ability to inspire and even change lives. They did for me.
All of the sentiment to begin doing this work in-house was great, but we were missing two things: capacity and equipment. Building trails is hard work, and it minimally requires a small crew and lots of specialized equipment. Fortunately, both of these problems were solved this year. We hired Teresa Tokasz in the spring as a restoration technician, which increased our stewardship team size to three when including myself and Stewardship Coordinator Erik Danielson. A grant awarded by the Ralph Wilson Foundation allowed us to purchase all the trail-building tools and equipment we needed, and a generous donation from Scott and Kathy Bieler allowed us to buy a truck and trailer to haul the equipment and our new side-by-side to the site.
The Janet Gallogly Allegany Wildlands
STEP 1: DESIGN
Our trail design philosophy starts with protecting the property's conservation values above all else. This means having minimal impact on the surrounding ecological community. We use sustainable trail design methods to accomplish the trail's goals. Sustainably designed trails have minimal impact on the neighboring ecological community, meet user needs and expectations, and require little maintenance.
In the case of the Janet Gallogly Allegany Wildlands, our goal was to provide a trail that showcases the rich ecology of the property, allows users to navigate and ascend the steep ridge with minimal effort, and provides a fun and inspiring experience. I focused the design on making use of an existing logging road network that covered most of the property already. Using these overgrown roads would allow us to align the trail in places that had already been significantly impacted while leaving previously unimpacted sections alone. Because this preserve is such an ecologically rich site, I leaned heavily on the fantastic ecological work of Erik Danielson to ensure the trail had no impact on sensitive plant communities or unpredictable hydrological areas. Erik was instrumental in ensuring we met our most important goal of having minimal impact. Once Erik showed me the areas the trail should not go, the main challenge was designing a route that utilized the existing overgrown road network but also broke up the tremendously steep grade.
When designing trails on slopes, the goal is to keep the grade at 10 percent or less. On extremely steep slopes, switchbacks are the most common tool used by trail designers to break up the steepness (grade). Switchbacks are trails that ascend a slope back and forth in a zig-zag fashion, allowing the trail designer to control the grade of the trail, ultimately making it much more pleasant for the hiker to climb a steep slope. Because we were constrained by utilizing the existing road network, I did my best to break up the steep grade whenever possible. I did this by routing the trail along switchback-like shapes in the old road network that broke up long sections of climbing or descending. Building lots of switchbacks from scratch would have made the hiking much easier, but the process would have been too invasive, and the equipment and crew needed for such a job are beyond our capacity. The end result was a success, and although steep sections still exist, the main loop of the trail is manageable to complete for most hikers.
STEP 2: CONSTRUCTION
Once a trail is laid out, the hard work begins. In the case of the Janet Gallogly Allegany Wildlands, we got to work removing large trees and other blown-down debris that bisected the trail. This is intense work and requires lots of strength to cut and move big, downed logs. Chainsaws and a clearing saw were used to complete this task. Erik and Teresa did a great job with this step and made quick work of it.
Once that was complete, we moved on to the next step, called duffing, where we cleared smaller woody debris and small herbaceous plants while simultaneously raking the trail surface free of organic matter. To be sustainable, a trail’s tread or the physical surface a hiker walks on should be pure mineral soil with all organics, such as leaves, plants, and roots removed. This is grueling and physical work, and clearing and raking the whole trail system was completed over the course of several months. Equipment used in this phase included a string trimmer, rakes, loppers, and a leaf blower, as well as a variety of other hand tools. Teresa was instrumental in this phase, as were Reese Rudnick and Matthew Eberle, our two interns from the University at Buffalo’s Environmental Studies program, who provided help in the summer months to complete this phase of construction. They worked hard for long hours in hot weather and spent many hours driving back and forth from the site to get this done by the end of June. It was an impressive accomplishment.
Another important trail-building technique incorporated into the design at the Janet Gallogly Allegany Wildlands was bench cutting. Bench cuts are used when a trail needs to traverse sideways across a steep slope. Digging hoes are used to cut into the side of the hill and pull soil downhill. We made a series of three cuts, each pulling the scraped soil farther downhill where it was piled and then tamped flat to create a smooth walking surface. Two separate bench cuts were installed and were the most physically demanding part of the build. Erik did an amazing job helping with the installation by building and staking cribbing walls, meticulously grubbing (or removing) roots, and tamping the trail while I worked to shape the trail with the hoe. This made for a difficult but fun project. These benched sections are the only two portions of the trail system that do not use the old logging road network.
Once the clearing, duffing, and bench cuts were complete, we moved on to finishing work in the fall, which included installing a spur trail that traverses the ridgeline, hanging trail blazes, a second fall duffing of the whole trail system, and the installation of both a parking lot and kiosk. While appearing simple on paper, completing these steps took weeks.
All in all, it took a dedicated team to make this project a success. We would not have succeeded without each person who worked on the trails. I couldn’t be prouder of our stewardship department for all of their hard work over the course of this field season. We are left with our longest and most topographically dynamic trail system, spanning over 2.1 miles with ample parking and a beautiful kiosk. More importantly, we now have the capacity, equipment, and a well-trained trail crew eager and prepared for future builds!