HOW TO DEVELOP A FOOT TRAIL IN YOUR TOWN(The history of Victor Hiking Trails, Inc.) by Dave Wright
If you are a hiking enthusiast, but don't enjoy driving an hour before you can walk, this will be of interest to you. It is the process that our group has followed and is based on the experience of other local hiking groups.
ORGANIZEFirst you will need to organize as a group. We decided that our organization would be based on volunteers who enjoy the outdoors and don't mind a little exercise in the form of manual labor. Establishing and clearing foot trails is truly a labor of love. Love of nature. With the support of the Town of Victor in favor of a trail system within the town limits, we put a small ad in the local papers announcing that we were going to form a hiking group. Anyone interested in helping to start this group was asked to attend an organizational meeting. About 20 people attended that first meeting. You must have at least one person who will champion this endeavor and lead the first meeting. Preparation is key. We were fortunate to have a person who had served on the town's conservation board for the previous ten years and who was familiar with many areas of town. She is an avid hiker who loves the outdoors and wanted to preserve open space in the area for future generations. She realized that open space in close proximity to where you live and work is an asset and improves the quality of life.
As people came in to that first meeting, they filled out a form that asked for their name, address, telephone number and what they would like to do to help establish the trails. Choices included trail acquisition, trail clearing, trail maintenance, leading hikes, fund raising, newsletter, membership, telephoning, etc. Most people were interested in trail maintenance.
After explaining that the main purpose of this group would be to establish and maintain a system of trails in Victor, we discussed how we could accomplish this mission. The conclusion was that we would pattern ourselves after Crescent Trails Association, located in the neighboring town of Perinton. This group has been active since 1980. They are a non-profit, incorporated organization that has the full support of their town. They have created over 23 miles of foot trails within Perinton.
At the organizational meeting we elected four officers; Chairperson, Vice-chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer. The Chairperson appointed a Trailmaster, a Trailboss, a Historian/Education Chairperson, a Publicity Chairperson and a Membership Chairperson. Other areas you may want to consider are fund raising, Hikemaster, naturalist and legal council. We adopted by-laws and trail design standards (see appendix), came up with a name for our organization and designed a logo. We decided to incorporate and apply for tax exempt status at both the federal and state level. You will want to consult with a lawyer in your area to see if that makes sense for you. The process took about nine months, but we believe it is worth the effort. By being tax exempt, it allows individuals and businesses to take a tax deduction for contributions. It also allows the organization to purchase materials and equipment without paying sales tax.
THE PLANIf you are planning to develop a trail system, you will need to plan a master map that will show where the trails might be in the next five to ten years. Start with the town's zoning map or other official map. You may be able to get topographic maps from the county or state. These will help in determining the best routes. Of course, you will need to actually walk the proposed routes at some point in time. Your Trailmaster will want to contact the landowners and ask for a one time permission to hike the area. This is where diplomacy and tacit will be very important. You will find landowners who welcome and encourage trails and you will find some that don't want any part of trails. If you can talk to these latter people and understand their reasons why they are against trails, you can sometimes convince them that they are over concerned or they misunderstand the concept.
Most land owners are concerned about liability. Someone falls on the trail and the next thing I know they're suing me is heard often. In New York State, there is a law known as the General Obligations Law. Section 9-103 provides:
Assuming no fee is charged and no other consideration is received, the landowner owes no duty to keep his premises safe for woodcutting or gathering wood, hunting, fishing, trapping, training of dogs, boating, canoeing, hiking, horseback riding, bicycling, motorized vehicle operation for recreational purposes, snowmobile operation, cross-country skiing, hang gliding and cave exploration.
It was enacted by the state legislature in 1979 to protect landowners from being sued when they give the public permission to use their land. As long as the landowner doesn't charge a fee for the use and as long as they don't put anything on the trail that could be construed as being grossly negligent, such as digging a trench or stringing barbed wire across the trail, they won't be held liable for personal injury on the property. The intent of this law is to promote outdoor recreation without penalizing the landowner.
Since its inception, there have been a few lawsuits initiated. Almost all were related to woodcutting and riding motorized vehicles on the property. These are considered hazardous activities.
Another concern is that by opening the trail to the public, all sorts of "undesirables" will be on the trail. Actually, just the opposite happens. Based on the experience of our trails and neighboring trails and newspaper accounts from across the country, when the general public starts using the trails frequently, the dirt bikers, motorcyclers, 4-wheelers, snowmobilers, etc. find some other place to play. As for burglars or thugs or kids getting into mischief, they don't want to go where people could surprise them. There are no studies that show there is more crime on hiking trails than anywhere else.
You might be able to get the landowner to agree to a trail on a try and see basis. One year would be a fair trial period. If you have an inviting foot trail and you keep the motorized vehicles off the trail, people will use it. Put a trailhead box on the trail with a log book inside. People who use the trail will give you good feed back and some idea of how much the trail is being used.
PERSEVERANCEDon't be discouraged if you don't get all the sections of a trail opened. Time is on your side. The present owner may eventually move. There may be a more agreeable adjoining landowner. Don't give up.
We had an experience recently that demonstrates this exactly. A railroad sold its right of way land to adjoining property owners, municipalities and utilities. Some of the private owners landscaped the additional land to be part of their backyards and others just let it revert back to wild. After many years, our group decided that the old railroad bed would make a good linear trail. We leased part of it from the utility, got permission from the municipalities to develop into a trail, and talked to all the private landowners. There was only one owner that was adamantly against the trail. His hang-up was the motor bikes that used the trail at all times of day and night. After several hours of discussing the trail with him, we came to the conclusion that he was not going to budge. We had to try to go around him. The first door we knocked on was a gentlemen who was just getting ready to go to his son's wedding. When we told him we wanted to talk to him about developing a foot trail on the side of his property and that we would stop back at a more convenient time, he said As long as you're here, let me show you the trails I've put at the rear of my property. At his insistence, we spent the next hour hiking his trails and seeing where we could develop a new trail to get around the property owner that wasn't ready for a trail. He was the most enthusiastic and cooperative person we had ever dealt with. What a great boost to our energy level. So hang in there and you may be pleasantly surprised.
COMMUNICATIONAs you develop the trails, keep the public informed. Publish a newsletter. Make maps of the trails. Conduct guided hikes on the trails. Get the local businesses involved. Hold public informational meetings. Work with other trail organizations. Make signs for the trails, especially where the trails cross public roads. Have a booth at local festivals. If you can get the support of the citizens, the trail development will go a whole lot easier.
FUNDINGAll of these efforts will require some money. There are a number of ways to finance your organization. You may be lucky and live in a town that has a budget for parks and recreation. Or they may want to purchase open space and connecting trails. They may be willing to provide the manpower and equipment to clear trails and build bridges.
If town funds are tight, you can have a variety of local fund raisers. Baked sales and car washes are usually good for a few hundred dollars to get started. We have a sponsored walk in the fall that has generated funds for specific projects. Again, being a charitable organization helps when looking for donations from local businesses. You'll be amazed how many want to help and be recognized by the public as a friend of the environment.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please let us know. GOOD LUCK and we hope to see you on the trails.
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