New Gloucester trails amid the pandemic and beyond

|Lauren Jordan, Environmental Resources Committee|

As many have noticed, there has been more use and overall traffic on our local trail systems since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, even to the extent that some might call it crowded. “The amount of increased hiking and walking traffic has fluctuated over the months of the pandemic, but has consistently been higher than ever before, breaking records,” said Alan Stearns, Executive Director of the Royal River Conservation Trust (RRCT).

RRCT is a local non-profit that seeks to protect the natural resources of the Royal River region for current and future generations. RRCT owns or assists in managing dozens of preserves and trail networks, including the Pisgah Hill Preserve, Big Falls Preserve, and Intervale Preserve. “The pandemic has emphasized more than ever the value of outdoor assets, trails, and open space for a wide range of personal and community reasons,” said Stearns.

The Norumbega trails also experienced a surge in demand on their trail network and generously provided their space for the Fiddlehead School outdoor classrooms. “We are glad we can offer a place for people to walk and be outside,” said Julie Fralich, co-owner of Norumbega.

As our community has continued to offer these beneficial outdoor spaces, they have also faced some challenges, such as an increase in vehicles at parking areas.

“In New Gloucester at Pisgah Hill Preserve’s North Pownal Road trailhead, neighbors responded by constructing off-road parking for RRCT’s benefit. At Big Falls Preserve, neighbors and public works staff responded by installing new road shoulder signs to make sure that shoulder parking doesn’t crowd intersections,” said Stearns.

Fralich requests “that people be careful when parking at the bottom of our driveway, and park in a respectful way. We also ask the people not use it as a place to picnic or hang out. But otherwise, we’re glad to have people visit.”

Stearns also described the need for trail management due to the increase in foot traffic, “RRCT is fortunate that volunteers and donors have responded — again more than ever before to help with trail work and other tasks necessary for the land trust to keep pace with surging demand. Examples include weekly volunteer trail working groups installing small bridges over muddy spots on trails that worsen with increased use.”

RRCT also opened a new trail as part of the Big Falls Preserve in New Gloucester, and increased signage and public information this year for trails in Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Pownal, and New Gloucester.

As the season progresses into the winter months and beyond, the experience at our trails will change. “The trails at Norumbega are great for snowshoeing in the winter but really not very good for cross-country skiing. And they really are not good for snowmobiles,” said Fralich.

Reflecting on lessons from this year, Stearns says “we know that we’ll move more of our trails further away from brooks and streams, and invest in more quality trail construction to anticipate heavy foot traffic. Heavy traffic can damage the sensitive ecology of a shoreline, and we simply must protect those sensitive resources.”