In 1986 the Green Mountain Club realized that changes in landownership in the Northern Forest region threatened the continuity of the northern Long Trail. Handshake agreements were no longer enough to secure access to the trail. More than 60 miles of the trail in northern Vermont crossed private land, with 30 miles on land for sale, and the remaining miles were in danger of development, trail closings, and postings.
Most of the southernmost 200 miles of the trail had been protected earlier, since they passed through the public lands of the Green Mountain National Forest, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail corridor owned by the National Park Service, and state forests and parks. But the northern portion of the trail was largely on private land.
The future of America’s first long-distance hiking trail was at risk. In response, GMC launched the Long Trail Protection Campaign, a partnership among GMC, other land trust non-profits, the State of Vermont, and donors, all working to create a permanent, protected corridor for the Long Trail from Massachusetts to Canada.
In the 36 years since, the Long Trail Protection Campaign has completed more than 100 trail protection projects, conserved more than 25,000 acres of land, and protected more than 60 miles of the Long Trail. Today only six miles of Long Trail remain without legal protection, and GMC continues to negotiate with landowners to legally protect the Long Trail as opportunities arise.
I joined GMC in 2016 to manage GMC’s Land Conservation Program, after much of this tremendous conservation work had been completed. My job was to steward the many acres the club had conserved, and to carry on the work of the Long Trail Protection Campaign.
As I delved into the records, I was humbled by the momentous work GMC had already done, and by the program’s continuing charge: Secure a permanent protected corridor for the entire Long Trail. The deeper I delved, however, the more questions about that charge I uncovered.
What should be considered as a “protected” section of Long Trail?
How wide a “corridor” must the Long Trail have to qualify as the “footpath in the wilderness”?
Should the width of the corridor be uniform, or vary depending on landscape and context?
Should all side trails also be legally protected? If so, are the present routes of side trails appropriate for investment in legal protection, or should some of them be rerouted or left unprotected?
I realized the program had a choice: to structure its work as GMC had managed the campaign so far, or to take a step back to reassess the needs of the Long Trail System, and work to develop a ‘strategic conservation plan.’ I chose to try the latter.
Strategic conservation planning is a framework used by land trust organizations to plan conservation goals, and ensure they are working proactively to protect the resources they aim to conserve. By taking time to plan, an organization can assess the current need for land protection and what threats and challenges its lands face, set updated goals and measure success in meeting them, identify partnership opportunities, and develop an updated plan of action.
A lot has changed in GMC, Vermont, and the field of land conservation in the last 36 years. Taking time to reflect on where we are today and map our organization’s priorities for the future seemed like the best path. So in the spring of 2021 I asked the GMC Land Conservation Committee to form a working group to help me develop a strategic conservation plan. Together we’re in a two-year planning effort to chart conservation goals for the Long Trail System.
So far we’ve defined what we hope to accomplish through this planning effort and the values that will guide the campaign (see below). We’ve drafted criteria for whether a section of trail will be considered permanently protected, partially protected, or unprotected. We’ve also assembled the mapping database and datasets that describe the status of the trail system, and identified the parcels of land along its trails.
The planning effort requires regular working group meetings, GIS mapping, and recording the process the club has used and decisions it has made so they can be reassessed to decide what to do in the future.
We are mid-way through the planning process. By this time next year we hope to have a final report for our members outlining the vision, goals and challenges, and the path GMC plans to use to continue the tremendous work of the Long Trail Protection Campaign.
GMC’s Strategic Conservation Planning Goals:
- Formalize its values and geographic scope
- Establish metrics of success
- Assess the need and process for protecting the Long Trail System
- Update conservation criteria for corridor land conservation projects
- Identify and build partnerships
- Elevate awareness and support
This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of the Long Trail News under the title, “The Future of the Long Trail Protection Campaign: Strategic Conservation Planning is Underway.” It is written by Mollie Flanigan, Director of Land Conservation.