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Upper Valley Trails Alliance: Helping Students Blaze a Trail to Protect, Preserve, Restore Our Environment

Jun 14, 2022 04:21PM ● By Pamela Brown. Photos Courtesy of Upper Valley Trails Alliance.

UVTA staff (from left): Sean Ogle (Trail Programs Director), Randy Richardson (Development Director), Russell Hirschler (Executive Director), and Kaitie Eddington (Program Manager).

The natural world is an important part of individual and community health and well-being, and people of all ages, especially students, have taken a greater interest in ecology and are looking for ways to proactively protect, preserve, and restore our environment. That’s where the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (UVTA) steps in. Established in 1999, the nonprofit advocates for the use, maintenance, and development of trails in 43 communities on both sides of the Connecticut River. Through education, outreach, and stewardship, UTVA promotes active lifestyles through year-round trail use, connects people and places through a regional trail network, and leads a coalition of local trail groups and advocates. According to Executive Director Russell Hirschler, especially during COVID, “Trails were the lifeline for people who couldn’t do anything but get outside and recreate.”

Creating the Next Generation of Trail Stewards

To engage students to spend time outdoors and learn about land conservation and trail building in a sustainable way, Russell and a former colleague spearheaded the UV High School Trail Corps Program in 2013 which includes students from 12 local high schools. “There was an interest in creating the next generation of trail stewards and giving students the opportunity to be part of a bigger project,” explains
Russell, who notes the length of the program has grown over the years from two weeks to five weeks. The program has been described as “first job meets summer camp.”
Similar to college, students must apply to the program and provide job experience and references. Once accepted, participants sign up to participate in one of five weeks in July and August and work Monday through Friday, rain or shine, from 8:30 am until 4:30 pm on trails throughout the Upper Valley. They receive a weekly stipend and 40 hours of community service. Both work and recreation are built into each day with a college student serving as the main liaison between the crew and the organization. Some participants have returned to work as Summer Crew leaders.

Working Hard, Playing Hard

Students work on projects ranging from building wood structures and constructing stone walls to creating brand-new trails and completing routine maintenance under the tutelage of qualified UVTA staff members. At the end of the program, they come away with a range of skills and experiences including knowledge of sustainability practices and land conservation, proper tool usage and construction techniques, social interaction and team building with like-minded students from other towns and schools across the Upper Valley, and much more. Each day ends with an hour of fun outdoor adventures, such as canoeing, kayaking, swimming, or sometimes an ice cream social. “The kids work hard and play hard, but we also let them be teenagers. The experience for all of us has been magical. It’s been a great way to expand our capacity and have dedicated volunteer trail crews. It’s a win-win,” says Russell.

The UVTA is leading the way to providing all residents access to an extensive, accessible, and integrated Upper Valley trail system, and through its student

programs and other initiatives, it’s developing a rising generation of trail stewards. “We’ve seen a growing interest from schools and students who want to connect to nature and the outdoors,” says Russell, who also notes the organization’s Passport to Winter Fun, a fitness program aimed at elementary school students and their families that promotes outdoor physical education and has reached more than 50,000 children in the last decade. “The way you appreciate ecology is by being outdoors, and our programs give people an avenue to go outside. You can get more out of hiking than just sitting and looking at a textbook.”

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