Life & Style
During the Pandemic, More People Are Walking in the Woods
It’s easy to imagine that state parks and forests are popular on summer weekend afternoons, but about 12 percent of all park uses on the Connecticut Trail Census occur during the winter months. Here, two trek as snow falls at Devil’s Hopyard in East Haddam. (Photo by Kathy Connolly )
Visit the Connecticut Trail Census to learn about this long-term study of trail use in the state. Screenshot from cttrailcensus.uconn.edu )
Chapman Falls in East Haddam is beautiful no matter when you visit. Author Kathy Connolly visits in the snow and ice. (Photo by Paul Connolly )
With increased visits to woodlands, some open space managers find more trash in the woods. See #LeaveNoTrace for seven principles of outdoor ethics. (Photo by Kathy Connolly )
There is no place for plastic trash in woodlands. See #LeaveNoTrace for seven principles of outdoor ethics. (Photo by Kathy Connolly )
In 2020, the Census Trail team added signs with a QR code to help trail users take the survey without interacting with an interviewer. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
According to the Connecticut Trail Census, our small state has more than 2,000 miles of recreational trails. Those are a lot of miles but, until a few years ago, no one was counting trail usage within the state.
In 2016, though, the Connecticut Trail Census pilot program launched through a partnership including UConn, the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, the Connecticut Greenways Council, and local trail advocacy organizations. Their goal was to support decisions about trail building, trail access, and maintenance. Initially, the program included 16 multi-use trails across the state. (See cttrailcensus.uconn.edu.)
Laura Brown, a community and economic development educator at UConn Extension who manages the program, says that infrared trail counters detect temperature changes as someone passes by on foot, bike, Rollerblades, or horse. Then, to make the data more robust, “We supplement the infrared counters with live surveys of actual trail users,” she says.
It’s no secret that the events of 2020 increased trail use. In June, the Connecticut Trail Census team prepared an interim report on COVID impact that showed the increase’s size.
“A total of 190,218 uses were recorded across 13 sites in June 2020,” they reported, a 53 percent increase over the same period in 2019 across the same trails.
According to Trail Census Program Coordinator Kim Bradley, the Airline Trail in East Hampton, which has been part of the study since the beginning, registered the highest number of uses among study trails in the southeastern region. The census has also expanded to 25 locations throughout the state, including the Shoreline Greenway Trail in Madison, as well as Bluff Point State Park and the G&S Trolley Trail, both in Groton, as well one of the shoreline’s “blue-blazed trails” managed by Connecticut Forest and Park Association volunteers.
Benefits of Increased Visits
Visitor increases are good news to people who manage land for public benefit.
For instance, Bradley is also president of the Avalonia Land Conservancy Board of Directors.
“While we have seen significant increases in the use of our trails, we have not observed negative impacts,” she says. “We have observed more diversity of individuals visiting our preserves. We’ve had success connecting new users to our organization and gotten increased support for stewardship efforts.”
She notes, however, that group stewardship is challenging right now.
Other trail systems are also seeing an increase in traffic.
At the Connecticut College Arboretum, Assistant Director Maggie Redfern says, “We are happy for increased visitation during the pandemic. There is plenty of space for folks to be socially distant in the landscape.”
She adds, “Seeing friends and family reunite at the entrance to the arboretum has been a special scene that we’ve observed on many occasions.”
In Old Saybrook, Parks & Recreation Director Ray Allen notes the increased number of children in the town’s open space, walking with family groups.
“It’s an excellent thing to see,” he says, “I hope it signals a long-term change.”
With increased use, however, comes increased wear and tear. Some land managers say that new woodland visitors aren’t always aware of best practices.
For instance, in Old Saybrook, Allen says that dogs off-leash have generated some phone calls. His department shares oversight of the 930-acre Preserve State Forest with the Forestry Division of the Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), in addition to overseeing more than 500 acres of town open space.
“All parks in Old Saybrook have a ‘dogs on leash’ policy,” he says. “The policy protects the dogs as much as it does people.”
Allen’s department recently posted all Old Saybrook parks with coyote notices after multiple residents called DEEP about sightings.
“Dog owners can’t easily protect their off-leash pets from wildlife or other dogs,” he says. “Some people point out that if they have to separate their dog from another, it’s difficult to maintain six feet [of] distance from the other dog’s owner if either animal is off-leash.”
Last, he mentions, there is a courtesy factor: “Some people are simply afraid of other people’s unleashed dogs.”
At Conn College Arboretum, “We’ve seen an increase in litter and minor vandalism and graffiti,” says Redfern. “We’ve had to increase maintenance to deal with the increased traffic.”
She notes another phenomenon.
“We’ve noticed that people are creating new trails by repeatedly walking on shortcuts,” she says.
In Old Saybrook, Allen also finds user-made trails, sometimes called “guerilla” trails in trail-building circles.
“These are a real problem for forest management,” says Allen. “They’re not on any maps, so people get lost. And since they’re built without good design, they increase erosion. They can also interfere with rare vegetation and animals.”
Despite the challenges, these open space managers—along with others I’ve spoken to—welcome the visitor increase.
“It’s a question of participation and education,” Allen says.
Conn College’s Redfern concludes, “We look forward to getting new members and volunteers from all the increased activity.”
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on land care, landscape ecology, and horticulture. Reach her at Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.
The Trail Less Traveled
Trail use increased during 2020, but that doesn’t mean it is distributed evenly around the state.
“People crowded into the best-known parks,” says Eric Hammerling, executive director at Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA), the keeper of the 825-mile blue-blazed trail system as well as the publisher of the Connecticut Walk Book. “Others remained relatively quiet.”
CFPA recently published an online guide to finding less popular trails. Find it online by searching #CTTrailsLessTraveled
Find a blue-blazed hiking trail at www.ctwoodlands.org.
Visit Conn College Arboretum at www.conncoll.edu/the-arboretum.
Find land trust properties at www.ctconservation.org/land-trusts-by-town.
Find Nature Conservancy lands at www.nature.org/en-us.
Find national wildlife refuges at www.fws.gov/refuge.
Find a state forest or park at portal.ct.gov/DEEP.
Learn about trail walking at www.ctwoodlands.org.
Shoreline Area State Parks and Forests
Chester: Cockaponsett State Forest
East Haddam: Brainard Homestead State Park, Gillette Castle State Park,
and Devil’s Hopyard State Park (Chapman Falls)
Deep River: Cockaponsett State Forest
East Haven: Farm River State Park
Guilford: Cockaponsett State Forest
Groton: Bluff Point State Park, Fort Griswold State Park, and Haley Farm
Haddam: Cockaponsett State Forest, Haddam Island State Park, Haddam
Meadows State Park, and Eagle Landing State Park Millers Pond State Park
Killingworth: Chatfield Hollow State Park
Lyme: Becket Hill State Park Reserve, Nehantic State Forest (two blocks,
Lyme and East Lyme), and Selden Neck State Park
Madison: Hammonassett Beach State Park
New London: Fort Trumbull State Park
North Haven: Quinnipiac River State Park
Old Saybrook: The Preserve State Forest
Waterford: Harkness State Park
Westbrook: Cockaponsett State Forest
Local land trusts are another source for trail information.