Notes from VCDA's Meeting on Trails and Economic Development

trails econdev meetingOn May 10, 2017, WRC's GIS Planner Jeff Nugent headed north to Burke Mountain to attend the Vermont  Community Development Association’s spring meeting.  The topic was Blazing A Trail: The Economic Impact and Future of Vermont’s Trails & Recreation Paths.  With over 100 people in attendance, the energy and excitement around this topic was plapable.  For those that could not attend, here are Jeff's notes from the meeting.

Trails are a hot topic! The meeting, held at Burke Mountain Resort in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, saw the largest attendance at a VCDA meeting in its over 30 year history.

Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation commissioner Michael Snyder provided opening remarks, where he noted Governor Scott told him that economic development through outdoor recreation should be a priority in Vermont. Snyder also noted that the Governor will soon be announcing an executive order paving the way for an economic development-based recreation initiative.

He provided some impressive statistics on the importance of recreation in Vermont: the recreation sector in Vermont provides 34,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in economic activity; Vermont State Parks alone are attributed to $88 million.

Snyder believes that Vermont’s working landscape is completely compatible with outdoor recreation. However, trails and other recreation developments should be at what he refers to as a “community scale;” in other words, respecting local culture is important.

The remainder of the morning session was a panel discussion on the economic impact of trail systems and recreation paths in Vermont.

Lilias Ide of the Kingdom Trails Assocation provide statistics on their trail system, which primarily caters to mountain bikers. Their trails see 94,000 visitors per year, 75% of whom come from out of state; the average person travels 252 miles to the Kingdom Trails, meaning they are truly a destination . The typical visitor is 42 years old; sixty-eight percent are male, and 54% earn more than $85000 per year. The Association, started in 1994, manages 110 miles of trails, and are expanding their network, not only to alleviate congestion, but also to bring economic opportunities to areas other than just East Burke.

The Vermont Association of Snow Travelers (VAST) is unique in the US, noted Cindy Locke. In most of the country, states manage the snowmobile trail system, but in Vermont, VAST is the responsible party. They have 4700 miles of trails, with 2000 more miles groomed by local clubs (of which there are 127). Eighty percent of these trails are on private land! The economic impact of snowmobiling, at $500 million per year, is second only to downhill skiing.

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail opened in 2006. Its main goals are to create access to and provide information about the 740 mile long trail. Access is a key issue as many paddlers don’t have the local knowledge of where they can put their boat on the water. The Trail’s Karrie Thomas, echoing Michael Snyder’s comment, noted that cultural respect is vitally important.

NFCT’s message to kids is that “there’s an adventure in their backyard;” trying to raise awareness with locals as to their outdoor recreation resources. They’ve found that only 20% of access point users sign into their registers. Fun fact: depending on the use at any one site, they have five different privy designs!

Green Mountain Club’s executive director Michael Debonis feels that the multiple access points on GMC’s 500 mile system helps to extend the economic impact across the state. The Long Trail system has seen a 30% increase per year; at Stratton Pond alone, there were 8000 visitors in 2016, double the rate of 2012! The Club invests $600,000 per year in maintenance. 

Some general discussion items after lunch: organized recreation leads to a management system, and having things managed means problems can better be addressed. Recreation paths in river corridors have been an issue in Bennington, Arlington, and Stowe. Trails and recreation paths are almost always one of the top three priorities for any of the 53 towns that the Vermont Council on Rural Development has worked with (this is true of the two most recent: Guilford and Vernon). Signage and mapping were important in creating a cohesive trail network in the Mad River Valley. 

The afternoon panel discussion was on The Road Ahead: What’s next for trail systems and recreation paths in Vermont?

Jessica Savage, of Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation noted a 47% increase in state parks visitation in the past 10 years. The Department was been working on developing a standardized trailhead/wayfinding system. Their belief is that if you make something beautiful, people will treat it well.

Melissa Reichert said the US Forest Service has the largest trail system in the country. Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest has 900 miles of trails, 400 of them for hiking. The Forest Service as a whole is trying to make their trail system more sustainable. One method is to try and relocate trails so there are fewer bridges; currently the forest has 283 trail bridges. She stressed that shared stewardship is vital to the future of trails.

Steve Cook of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing stressed that Vermont is not just a ski state—August is the month with the highest visitation. The Department has a full-time recreation and heritage coordinator; they can help promote recreation in the state, and have access to media to help with marketing.

Drew Pollak-Bruce of The SE Group said that information about the community should be available at the trailheads (e.g. nearby businesses that would cater to recreationists). To key factors for studying economic impacts are performing trail counts, and determining how much visitors spend. He mentioned Great Outdoors Colorado, funded by the lottery, which provides $50 million per year to non-profits and municipalities. 

On the two-plus hour drive back to Brattleboro from Burke, several key take-away points kept going through my mind. Recreation is huge in Vermont, and from the highest levels of State government through the numerous non-profit organizations to local communities, people recognize it, and want to expand opportunities and promote it. There is a huge demand, as evidenced by the documented increase in visitors to our trail systems.

One thing I found interesting is that there is an increase in visitation to our trail systems, along with an increase in the trail systems themselves. In other words, we have more trails, and we have more people on them. Expanding trail systems can help relieve congestion and provide more opportunities for the ever increasing number of people who are interested in outdoor activities.

An idea that wasn’t touched upon enough, in my opinion, is that these trail systems provide recreation/quality of life opportunities to locals as well as tourists/visitors. We aren’t , and shouldn’t be, just building trails for those who don’t live in our communities, and in fact, as several speakers pointed out, the local community culture must be respected. Too often I hear that building a new trail system or improving upon an existing one will only benefit people from away, yet I am frequently asked by local residents for information about trails in their own towns. Getting local residents out on our trails has benefits as well, but those benefits may not be primarily economic.

Information, clear signage, wayfinding, and maps were all mentioned and are part of the large, formal trail systems whose representatives spoke at the meeting. Unlike Western states, where in any one area the predominant trail manager might be a single federal agency, New England has many different agencies and organizations managing our trail systems; and these systems range from national (e.g. the Appalachian Trail and other trails in the Green Mountain National Forest), or even international (the Northern Forest Canoe Trail extends into Canada) right down to the community level (towns, schools, etc.). This variety, and this local influence, are truly an asset, but finding information about these varying opportunities can be challenging. TrailFinder, a web site that has been adopted by the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation as their official portal on trail information, was noted as an important tool to help with getting information out to the public. Windham Regional Commission serves as a regional coordinator for TrailFinder.

VAST has an excellent landowner liability brochure outlining Vermont’s Landowner Liability law: in a nutshell, if a landowner opens his or her land to recreation, they are not responsible for any injury sustained by a visitor (provided no fees are charged and there is no willful or wanton misconduct of the owner).

Drew of the SE Group offered up a Trail-Friendly Community and Trail-Friendly Business checklist. While the items on the checklist seemed more geared towards communities on longer-distance rail-trails, they provide much food for thought for any community, and got me thinking more about tying together trails, communities, and businesses.

Last Updated: 20 December 2022
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