This post was written by Lorne Currier, GMC’s VHCB AmeriCorps Outreach and Field Coordinator, and previously appeared in the Spring 2018 Long Trail News.
Green Mountain Club Caretaker Pete Ketcham manned his post outside the visitor center at the top of the Mount Mansfield Toll Road in 1997. His group feedback forms provided striking insight about the way many groups hiked the Long Trail twenty years ago. For you alpine-loving, solitude-seeking Green Mountain Club members, his comments call for a warning: May cause emotional distress.
Very noisy & foul-mouthed. Found some litter and cigarette butts. These folks had a group size that was too large and not enough leaders for kids. Too much vulgarity being heard by others…
Pete’s sighting of a 45-person high school group hiking across the alpine summit was not unprecedented. More than twenty years later, summer camps, colleges, outdoor guides, Scout troops, and schools still use the Long Trail. But there is a big difference: today we have a Group Outreach Coordinator.
Group Use before the Group Outreach Coordinator
The Long Trail has attracted organized group hikes since its inception in 1910. In fact, a group actually led to its founding. Vermont Academy Assistant Headmaster James P. Taylor’s frustration with limited hiking opportunities as he led students on bushwacks in the Green Mountains reportedly inspired his Long Trail vision.
If you have ever spent more than a couple of days on the Long Trail you probably have encountered a youth group from Farm and Wilderness Camps, a freshman orientation trip from Harvard, or even a Green Mountain Club section.
Groups presented few problems during the first 60 or so years of the trail’s existence. In the mid-1930s a group could cut all the firewood they wanted and tramp straight across alpine zones with minimal visible effect. The hiking population was so small that impacts were dispersed, and ecological communities were resilient enough to absorb them, even with high-impact practices.
That changed with the backpacking boom of the 1960s and ’70s. After World War II, higher incomes, more leisure, and improvements in transportation brought masses of people to the mountains to enjoy their independence and the freedom of the woods.
As Chairman of the Trails and Shelters Committee Dane H. Shortsleeve wrote in the November 1971, Long Trail News: “The Trail is being used more and more each year—it is so popular that problems are being created.” He wondered how the club would meet the demands of increasing usage: “The trail was never designed for the large camp groups and traffic we are experiencing…”
The problems were serious. Alpine tundra plants which had defied ice, snow and wind for millennia were crushed by the thousand-fold increase of footsteps. Long Trail shelters burned by accident, undesignated trailside campsites appeared by the dozens, and refuse dumps grew. The Vermont mountains were being “loved to death,” as observers said.
The Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and the Green Mountain National Forest responded swiftly and instituted regulations on campfires, campsite locations, and waste disposal. The GMC stepped in as an educator in collaboration with agency partners, starting the Ranger-Naturalist Program in 1969 and reviving the earlier Shelter Caretaker Program to foster low-impact hiking and camping practices.
Hikers were encouraged to follow carry-in carry-out practices, to use fuel stoves instead of campfires, and to step on rocks rather than alpine plants. They were urged to limit groups to four to six with a maximum of ten, and to have at least one leader for every five followers. Groups were also asked to use tents or tarps and leave shelter space open for individuals.
The intense educational effort was largely successful with individual hikers but fell short addressing challenges of group use which can cause a disproportionate amount of adverse impact on natural resources and affect the recreational experience of others. Groups at inadequately sized campsites can destroy vegetation and wildlife habitat, tempting future campers to cook or tent in the enlarged area. Overwhelmed leaders and uneducated participants may lead to improper disposal of food and human waste, contaminating water and attracting nuisance wildlife.
Group size isn’t the only factor. According to Jeff Marion, U.S.G.S. Recreation Geologist and a founding member of the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, “The specific behavior, high versus low impact, is likely a much stronger determinant of resource and social impact than size of a group.” In other words, fifty Leave No Trace Master Educators could complete the Long Trail with less impact than a group of eight poorly trained Scouts on an overnight. So, GMC set out to instill proper group practices.
How it Was Done
Tim Sullivan walked into his office on June 1, 1998, to find a box on his desk containing all the elements of group outreach management. Little did he know it would be his Pandora’s Box.
Tim was the first GMC Group Outreach Coordinator, filling a 20 hour a week internship position funded at the time by grants from the Appalachian Trail Conference and the Windham Foundation of Grafton. The position was created as a direct response to Pete Ketcham’s disturbing feedback form.
The group outreach job was a big one, but Director of Field Programs Lars Botzojorns, Education Coordinator Karen Sharpwolf, Field Supervisor Dave Hardy, and others had established good strategies and techniques, and had collected useful information to help Tim succeed. A group contact database already had 300 entries (which grew to 785 by 2005) of information for every group known to have used the Long Trail.
Summit and site caretakers had begun recording group encounters, good or bad, on detailed forms in 1997. The 192 forms submitted that year included trip leader and contact information, as well as caretaker comments and ratings of leadership, preparedness, impact knowledge, and behavior. Tim could now begin earnest education efforts to prevent adverse impacts.
He mailed letters, postcards, information packets, and brochures to group program directors and trip leaders, impressing upon them the importance of group size limits, Leave No Trace practices, and pertinent trail information. Included was a list of designated overnight group sites, the result of a systematic evaluation of the Long Trail in 1995. The list would help prevent overcrowding at small, ecologically fragile sites such as Montclair Glen Lodge on popular Camel’s Hump.
Group leaders were urged to take part in free workshops at GMC covering Leave No Trace, alpine ecology, and group preparedness. In his first season Tim ran seven Leave No Trace and Backpacking for Groups workshops, reaching 300 people. One session was with 75 leaders from Harvard University’s Freshman Orientation Program prior to their departure to hike on the Long Trail and in the White Mountains. The feedback forms were positive, showing Tim’s workshops were helping.
Overcrowding of shelters and tenting areas would be hard to eliminate but establishing designated group sites was a good first step. The second step was launching a voluntary notification system, created to prevent two, three or more groups at a site at once.
Tim received itineraries from program directors and entered them on a spreadsheet that enabled him to become a trail traffic controller of group use, suggesting adjustments to avoid conflicts. By 2017 there were 492 registered group overnights.
Instilling an ethic of stewardship, respect, and understanding as group users would help enormously. For decades GMC has welcomed schools, colleges, summer camps, and Scout troops that wanted to volunteer for service projects on the Long Trail/Appalachian Trail. In the late 1990s GMC expanded service project opportunities to include new groups to give them a chance to learn and give back to the trail. This improved relationships with problem groups such as the one Pete Ketcham had encountered on Mount Mansfield.
More than Coordinators
The 1998 all-star staff laid a solid foundation for the Group Outreach Program, which has been largely consistent and successful for more than 20 years. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board has funded GMC’s AmeriCorps group outreach position since 2000, allowing thirteen individuals to enhance the program and leave a unique mark.
Tim Sullivan pioneered, shaping the program and working out initial kinks. Matt Larson helped build the half-mile Short Trail behind the GMC Visitor Center, where today youth groups come to learn about the Long Trail. Thorin Markison used his superb graphic design skills on the second edition of the Backcountry Sanitation Manual, which educates groups of all ages. Jenna Whitson and Nika Meyers worked to build the Long Trail Bound website, developing an education curriculum and gathering helpful tools and resources for people hiking with children on the trail. And, that’s just a few of the valuable contributions made.
As I near the finish of my first year of service with AmeriCorps, I have been thinking about my own contributions to GMC. I haven’t built an interpretive trail, and my graphic design skills dead-end at PowerPoint. But in addition to working with an ever-growing number of groups on the Long Trail, I am helping transition the field programs during a time of enormous change as the club evolves without Director of Trails Programs Dave Hardy. And that is a unique position to be in.
Are you heading out to the Long Trail in a group? Whether with a formal school group, or an informal group of friends, check out our group rules to make sure you are leaving as little of an impact as possible.