by Edward K. Goodell, Executive Director
The success of the open space movement over the past century has resulted in a steady increase in permanently preserved parkland for the public to discover. Trail Conference members should be proud of being a big part of that success story. Not only has the Trail Conference been involved in most major land protection success stories going back 80 years in the Hudson and New Jersey Highlands, but we are leaders when it comes to making those lands accessible via trails to the broader public.
This latter service enables healthy lifestyles, supports local economies, and protects the natural resources. Most important is that all the relevant research confirms the logic that people who recreate outdoors are much more likely to support land preservation and environmental/conservation policies. So, land protection and trail creation are part of an ever expanding virtuous circle of public land protection—the more people experience open space, the more they want it protected. And the number of outdoor recreationists is steadily increasing, with almost 2.2 million hikers in the Greater New York Metropolitan Statistical Area, which approximates the 20 counties in which the Trail Conference maintains trails.
Counteracting the Loss of Resources
Unfortunately, the steady increases in parkland acreage have been accompanied by alarming declines in park staff and funding, especially in the last decade or so. As a result, the remaining park resources are mostly devoted to the maintenance of front-country amenities such as buildings, bathrooms, swimming facilities, campgrounds, roads, parking, water and sewer infrastructure, etc.
Backcountry amenities, like trails and bridges, never accounted for much of park budgets, but thereiseven less now. Thus, the need in this region for theTrail Conference’s volunteer park and trail stewardship has never been greater or more urgent.
With the help of our members, donors, and especially volunteers, the Trail Conference has responded by significantly increasing volunteer training and capacity, the miles of trails maintained (more than 2,100 miles and growing by 50+ per year, the partner locations we serve, the stewardship programs provided (such as our invasives monitoring and management), and the amount and quality of convenient information about how to connect with nature in a safe and responsible way. There are more than 3.8 million views of our website annually, and we are producing new, updated versions of our maps at an unprecedented rate. In this, the nation’s most densely populated region, your support allows the Trail Conference and its partners to provide one of the best, and certainly the most accessible and heavily used, trail systems in this country.
Trail Conference Volunteer-Staff Model
The key ingredient of this “trail magic” is, as I’ve observed before, the renewable energy of volunteers who are willing to engage in the stewardship of trails and trail lands. Whatever their motive—a desire to give back to the trails they have enjoyed or just to have another reason to be outside—volunteers have powered the Trail Conference for 95 years. With your help, the Trail Conference strives to harness and coordinate volunteer efforts and partner resources in a way that best serves the open space, its users, and the volunteers themselves. This coordinating function is the responsibility of the program staff who are supported through your charitable contributions.
Our basic staff structure includes a program coordinator for each of four regions—East of the Hudson River, West of the Hudson River, Catskills, and New Jersey. The program coordinators serve as a single point of contact and support for all volunteers and partner agencies in their region. Their diverse responsibilities involve volunteer recruitment, training, and assignments, as well as partner relations, project management, and communications. The program coordinators, in term, are supported by specialized program staff in areas such as cartography, communications, and volunteer management.
This model is working well to expand the the scope and volume of our services. With 93,000 annual volunteer hours recently recorded, we are well on our way to 100,000 volunteer hours per year. With volunteer hours in New York and New Jersey valued at an average of more than $25/hour, this will amount to more than $2 million of annual volunteer effort or the equivalent of 40 full-time employees. In effect, each of our 18 employees leverages an additional 2 full-time equivalents of volunteer effort. Since our annual operating budget is less than $2 million, you can take satisfaction that every dollar you contribute is matched by more than a dollar’s worth of volunteer effort.
The Importance of YOU
With park lands increasing and budgets declining, we expect the Trail Conference will be asked to do even more. With your help, we will continue to meet that increased demand by leveraging the public’s love of nature and willingness to engage in stewardship and outdoor volunteerism. I am really proud to be part of such an important effort carried out by so many dedicated people. I hope you are, too, and will continue to be a supporter.