Warmer weather means more people enjoying the outdoors, often on one of the multitude of trails maintained throughout the region. But large numbers of trail users can lead to problems.
Spring traffic can be especially damaging to trails when conditions are wet. Foot traffic on steep, wet slopes like the ones near the gorges causes the material that makes up the trails to erode away. Compounding this is the tendency of hikers to avoid the muck churned up by other trail users, leading to trampled vegetation and widened trails. Fortunately, trail infrastructure such as angled trails, steps, and boardwalks can protect vegetation and lessen erosion while keeping feet dry.
Problems tend to be site-specific, according to Todd Bittner, the Natural Areas Director at the Cornell Plantations, which manages 50 miles of trails within Tompkins County alone. Urban areas tend to see higher use than rural areas and require more effort to keep the trails in good shape. “You get more beer cans and things like that,” he said, as well as more inappropriate use. Safety is an issue as well as erosion, since most Ithaca trails aside from the Waterfront Trail have rugged topography and gorges.
Chris Olney, Director of Stewardship at the Finger Lakes Land Trust, said that only a few of the Land Trust preserves are popular enough to experience high usage problems like erosion and trail widening. In other preserves, trails can fade until they are hard to follow. The Land Trust must maintain good signage or paint blazes to keep people on track.
Roger Hopkins, President of the Cayuga Trails Club, thought that underuse of the region’s trails was actually more of a problem than high traffic. More trail users lead to more community involvement, more self-policing, and more people aware of trail etiquette.
Etiquette is particularly important on private land. The Finger Lakes Trail covers about 960 miles across New York state. Hopkins said, “A little under half of that is on private land.” He said the status of public land is generally secure, but “It doesn’t take too many misbehaving hikers… to cause difficulty with a private landowner.”
Many problems relate to users ignoring signage. Private landowners may request no dogs on their section of the trail because they have their own dogs or livestock. Fortunately, “Most dog owners will honor that and will either have no dog or their dog on a leash,” said Hopkins. Bittner and Olney also said that off-leash dogs can be problematic, not only because there are rare incidents when hikers get bitten but because loose dogs can be stressful to wildlife. Bittner pointed out that people get to see more if their dog is not running ahead and scaring wildlife.
Other problems include using a trail in an inappropriate way or failing to respect other users on a multi-use trail. Hopkins gave Hammond Hill as an example of a multi-use trail where hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, and skiers coexist respectfully. Hopkins said the rest of trail etiquette was mainly common sense.
While problems exist, Hopkins said, “They don’t exist to the point where the trails become unusable.” He attributed this not only to conscientious users but also to maintainers. Even if everyone followed trail etiquette perfectly, there are still downed trees and unavoidable erosion. “The trail clubs are always looking for volunteers,” he said. Cayuga Trails Club has a list of 120 volunteers, some of whom adopt sections of the trail for regular maintenance. On the fourth Thursday of every month is Trail Tending Thursday, a chance for interested people to socialize and play with tools while doing valuable maintenance work on the Finger Lakes Trail.
Volunteer opportunities with the Land Trust and Cornell Plantations can be found through their websites. Bittner said that the entry-level volunteer work was just looking for issues such as flooding, downed trees, and vandalism. More intensive work could involve cleaning up litter, moving branches, pruning, or removing a big tree. A step up from that is building infrastructure, which can reduce the impact of trail users.
“A year ago,” said Olney, “we built a boardwalk at our [Roy H.] Park Preserve in Dryden.” The handicap accessible boardwalk links to a parking area, goes near a beaver dam, and connects with a new trail in Hammond Hill. Hopkins pointed out that a good deal of thought goes into trail placement. He advised people to stay on the trails even when they are muddy, or else wait until conditions dry out.