PHOTOS BY CAITLIN FAULDS
“A lot of improvements are going to have to wait until 2021 or further.”
As COVID-19 pushes people outside in record numbers, Massachusetts parks are struggling to keep up.
Visitor tallies have doubled this summer, according to the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Meanwhile, coronavirus has forced the cancelation of park maintenance projects statewide. With unprecedented piles of trash and trail damage added to an already long list of conservation and maintenance projects, some park officials say backlogs could last for years.
“When all is said and done, we will see an obvious impact,” Jesse MacDonald, an operations associate with Friends of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, told DigBoston.
Since shutdowns began, MacDonald said the Friends of the Fells—a group dedicated to protecting the DCR-managed urban forest less than 10 miles from downtown Boston—has seen the number of visitors “skyrocket,” calling it “the highest that it’s been at any time that the people who have been around have seen it.”
With such crowds, MacDonald said, litter, dog waste and graffiti are “exploding” on the 100-mile trail network. The area also “seems to be crisscrossed with new trails that aren’t official,” he added. These impacts could lead to ecological problems—as trash makes its way into ponds and streams or boots trample vulnerable species—as well as visitor safety hazards.
Due to COVID-19 and strict health guidelines, MacDonald said Friends of the Fells have had to cancel all volunteer trail care events, which typically address some of these issues, while DCR itself is struggling to run with a “skeleton crew.”
“There are fire roads in the Fells that are currently inaccessible because of downed trees, which creates dangerous situations,” he said. “[DCR] can’t get to it because they just don’t have the manpower, and we can’t put together groups to take care of them because we’re still concerned about group activities.”
DCR representatives said they’re aiming to restart trail projects in spring 2021—but with no end to the pandemic in sight and just a few solo volunteers helping out in the meantime, MacDonald is less hopeful.
“A lot of improvements are going to have to wait until 2021 or further,” he said. “We have to invest our energies into trash pickup weekends when we can, or graffiti removal projects.”
Adam Glick, president of the New England Mountain Biking Association, a regional bike and trail advocacy group, said he has also seen an “incredible amount of extra usage” this summer—from boots and bikes alike. He said NEMBA’s 7,000 members have recognized the damage to trail systems across the region. In many ways, he said, it’s the latest challenge for overworked state park systems across the country, which almost universally “don’t have enough resources to maintain their trail inventories.”
“They all depend on volunteer and stewardship organizations to contribute volunteer effort to help maintain things,” Glick said. NEMBA chapters are typically among those groups, drawing out 20 to 40 volunteers for multiday projects—but with COVID-19, that system has become unsustainable.
“Nobody is doing any of that right now,” he added.
Behind the scenes of much of the volunteer trail work is a 20-person Student Conservation Association and AmeriCorps team based in the small Western Mass town of Hawley. The group of young adults works with DCR and other public parks to complete 36 major conservation projects each year, program manager Tim Craig said. The group spends months building trails and boardwalks by hand, clearing overgrown and invasive plants, and repairing aging infrastructure.
“Because we’re a residential program, we couldn’t provide [the team with] safe housing” in the face of coronavirus, Craig said. With no way to move rocks and build bridges remotely, all 20 members were let go in May and all projects were postponed.
Given no other option, Craig and the program’s three other full-time staff members have traded in their usual office roles for helmets and rock bars, unexpectedly stepping into the field to complete seven of the most urgent projects.
Looking for a silver lining, Craig said, “It’s a really great experience to remember how hard members work.”
As for the other 29 projects, he said, “They just won’t get completed.”
Craig is hopeful that projects will get tackled by the big team next year. Still, there’s a lot up in the air, and they’re already behind on hiring next season’s members.
“We are in the process of looking at options to run crews next year safely and trying to figure out how to do it successfully,” Craig said. “Everyone wants it to happen, but I’m kind of cautiously optimistic.”
With the future of on-the-ground work in question, many parks are turning to new methods to lighten the load on trails and are using COVID-19 as an excuse to modernize their organizations. DCR recently launched a new Find a Park webpage, while NEMBA is working on creating some “quick and easy to digest” trail tip videos to help fill in new bikers.
The Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit that manages more than 100 outdoor and historic sites in Mass, has also dramatically increased its YouTube presence since March, according to Mark Lindsay, director of visitor experience. They’ve more than doubled their video content with the addition of virtual tours and programming, which includes what Lindsay called a “cute and very informative” series on COVID-specific trail etiquette.
Friends of the Fells also launched a new YouTube channel in April with a virtual spring flower guide. “[We’re] trying to be creative,” MacDonald said, “with the idea that we need to keep people engaged and thinking about what’s coming up as soon as we are able to.”
They’re aiming to add some trail maintenance videos as well, the Fells associate noted, as a way to “jump-start training” for new volunteer recruits. With so many new trail-users, he’s hopeful that at least a few will stick around.
“If that’s the case and those are people that will be invested in the forest, then it might counterbalance a lot of the new impact,” MacDonald said. “But it’s definitely going to be a lot of extra work for a long time.”