People often ask: “What does the field team do all winter?”
Aside from postseason reporting, grant writing, and project planning (scheduling; establishing contracts; meeting with land management partners; permitting; recruiting, hiring, orienting and training 45 seasonal staff; and planning and coordinating long-term projects with GMC’s Trail Management and Camps Committees and the Board of Directors), winter is a time for reflection and transition.
Because we hire many young people early in their careers and give them plenty of responsibility, amazing staff members come and go regularly.
On a phone call with Rosalie Sharp after her first season in 2018, we discussed her professional interests and what kind of organization she wanted to work for. I told her I believed GMC has zero tolerance for misogynistic rogue machismo, hate, or irresponsible behavior. That has not always been the reality since then; GMC is a microcosm of the broader populace. But the club has worked for greater equity, and Rosalie was a major contributor to shifting the needle.
As a trail crew leader and field supervisor, she demonstrated superb technical project skills. She excelled as a trainer, coaching co-workers in better trail skills. Her focus on the health and wellness of her staff kept many returning to the club’s seasonal workforce in the past few years. GMC, and I, are both better thanks to Rosalie’s work and presence. We wish her good luck as she moves on to a fulltime position with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. This year, Kevin Hart will assume the field supervisor role for the 2022 season.
Kati Christoffel piloted the brand-new southern field supervisor role with competence and grace after two years as a caretaker. Her support of field staff members dealing with discrimination and harassment helped the club better understand how racism and antisemitism affect all trail users, and helped us develop better incident response systems for the future. Many compliments from long-term volunteers and U.S. Forest Service staffers underscore Kati’s remarkable performance in the last three years. Kati, thank you for making the Long Trail more welcoming.
John Plummer joined us in 2019 seeking an alternative to his corporate job, first as a caretaker and then as the AmeriCorps Group Outreach and Field Coordinator. He established relationships with land management partners to streamline our group use permit process; tackled back office work; helped develop a Stratton Pond Overnight Site Management Plan; and conducted the third round of alpine plant photo monitoring on Mount Mansfield, a detailed inventory to ensure GMC has useful data on alpine vegetation. Thank you, John, for you time, humor, and amazing ability to adapt corporate skills to trail management.
As some staff leave, others arrive. We welcome Scout Phillips as a full-time construction field coordinator. Scout led the 2021 GMC Construction Crew through an extraordinarily full schedule. Before that, Scout was the caretaker at Battell Shelter, and held various positions with the Student Conservation Association, the Southwest Conservation Corp., and Outright Vermont. We count on Scout for guiding the completion of many more construction projects in the next two seasons.
Beyond the back office, seasonal field staff hiring is underway, spearheaded again by Isaac Alexandre-Leach. We hired a fine field staff in 2021, but changing employment markets are making hiring increasingly difficult, so we are taking steps to ensure we keep hiring well-qualified people.
Seasonal trail workers have traditionally been paid less compared to other front-country seasonal jobs, justified industry-wide with the idea that “You are getting paid to hike.” That attitude doesn’t help make rent and payments on car and student loans. Nor does it recognize the challenges staff members face: social isolation in the backcountry; rising living costs; the physical demands of the job; and possible discrimination and harassment. Living and working in Vermont’s mountains is appealing, but low wages limit the ability to take these jobs. So we are making some changes to hopefully increase both access and appeal.
We expect quality skilled work from our employees, but even before I joined the club in 2018, our wages lagged those paid by commercial trail builders, federal trail jobs, and front country construction jobs requiring the same skills. In the last four years, we raised wages for entry-level staff from $11 to $14.50 an hour, and from $12.84 to $18 for field leads. If we value the high-quality work GMC is known for, we must continue to keep pace with industry standards.
We are also critically examining field schedules and expectations for better work-life balance and to combat the social isolation of backcountry jobs, now exacerbated by the pandemic. We are also looking for avenues to provide backcountry gear such as tents; in the past staff had to provide on their own, which can prove to be another barrier to access to our positions. We are optimistic about these changes, and look forward to a successful 2022 field season.
On that note we have another ambitious season planned, with a 30 percent increase in work from the 2021 season. A crew will work on the heavily trafficked Burrows Trail on Camel’s Hump for the entire season — led by Justin Towers; one trail crew each will be assigned to projects in southern and northern Vermont. We plan to complete the long awaited trail realignment and overnight site improvements at Stratton Pond; to replace Beaver Dam Cabin on Wheeler Pond in the Northeast Kingdom; to continue improvement of the northern Long Trail, funded through the Long Trail Legacy Capital Campaign; and to erect a new observation tower on Bromley Mountain.
Field staff are the physical and mental muscle that make major trail improvement projects happen. As we anticipate a future of more hikers and increasingly variable weather, ensuring that we have top quality staff earning a living wage is essential. Combining our professionals with our amazing volunteer force that constitutes the backbone of GMC’s management of the Long Trail System will ensure a sustainable and equitable trail system for the future.
This post was written by Keegan Tierney, Director of Field Programs. It appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of the Long Trail News under the Field Notes.