One of the enviable aspects of my role at The Nature Conservancy is that I get to spend a lot of time outside managing and maintaining our 55 natural areas throughout Vermont, and meeting visitors enjoying our nearly 25,000 acres of forests, bogs, rivers and mountains.
On a recent visit to our Barr Hill Natural Area in Greensboro, I met a family who were visiting for the first time. They were enjoying the trail and the wonderful views of the Green Mountains, and asked if they could camp on the property. I let them know that camping was not allowed, and they naturally responded with “why not? This is such a great area that you should encourage more people to visit.” I’m often asked, “why not?” when talking to visitors and the public about recreation opportunities. To answer the “why nots” we need to start with the “whys.”
The mission of the Nature Conservancy is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends, and to that end we have helped conserve over 300,000 acres and 1,500 miles of shoreline throughout Vermont. But we have also held on to some of the most fragile, special and biodiversity-rich lands in Vermont. So, why does The Nature Conservancy allow visitors to such ecologically sensitive places? Because we understand the importance of connecting people with nature and the treasures that visitors can discover — wild orchids, rare birds or a special natural community. By fostering access and connection with these special places, we hope visitors will appreciate and understand the importance of conservation while realizing the many other restorative benefits of communing quietly with nature.
In order to protect these special places for future generations of wildlife and people, we must carefully balance the needs of the ecosystem with visitor engagement. This is why we allow some types of recreation and not others, because different kinds of recreation have varying impacts. All trail development has an effect on the environment and can lead to some soil compaction, trampling, erosion and runoff into nearby waters, or create obstacles to wildlife movement. By planning and locating trails where they will have the least impact and limiting some more-intense forms of recreation where they may cause harm, we aim to balance these competing goals at our natural areas. We are constantly monitoring and adjusting our management to ensure that any changes in use are not having negative impacts.
Many of us have seen the downside of recreation on natural resources, with some of our favorite places suffering for being “loved to death.” Fragile vegetation at the top of Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump are trampled by unaware visitors. Green River Reservoir State Park frequently runs out of parking space on sunny summer days. Finding the balance of protecting these special places, while encouraging the public to visit and love them, isn’t always easy.
What then is allowed on Conservancy lands? Simply, all of our lands are open to the public for passive recreation. While we don’t maintain trails at all our natural areas, you are still welcome to visit and explore. In general, we allow foot travel, like walking, hiking and snowshoeing, and we don’t allow more intense recreation like mountain biking, horseback riding or riding ATVs. We also ask that you leave your four-legged companions at home. Although our staff are dog lovers and we have a dog-friendly office, dogs are disruptive to wildlife who have found an oasis on our protected natural areas.
Fortunately for us, Vermont’s special and diverse landscape can host a variety of uses. Just as there are places suitable for snowmobiling, skiing or dog romps in the woods, there are other areas where these activities are not appropriate. Therefore, at our 55 natural areas, we ask our visitors to let nature come first — where natural processes are allowed to occur and habitat is undisturbed for the denning bobcat, the roosting peregrine falcon and the rare maidenhair fern. When you want to slow down, breathe deeply and be awed by nature’s gifts, we invite you to explore the jewels of Vermont’s natural communities throughout our state.
For more detailed information on allowed uses at the Conservancy’s Natural Areas: https://www.nature.org/content/dam/tnc/nature/en/documents/vermont-preserve-visitation-guidelines.pdf
Lynn McNamara is director of stewardship for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont.