Hartford Town Forest: building trust and collaboration in a community fractured by seemingly incompatible desires for mountain bike trails, wildlife habitat, and forestry demonstration sites
Background and Overview
Hartford: population 9,828.
The Hartford Town Forest is a 423-acre parcel located in a hilly section of town, where it adjoins the town-owned 5200-acre Hurricane Forest Wildlife Refuge. It includes 12.5 miles of trails that are used recreationally for mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. The town forest is managed by the Hartford Conservation Commission; it is under active forest management, guided by a forest management plan, and offers a variety of forestry demonstration sites. The forest hosts an interesting array of wildlife habitats and natural communities.
In about 1900, two reservoirs were constructed to provide municipal water for Hartford and nearby villages. In the 1950s, when the Town transitioned to a well system, the reservoirs and surrounding land fell into disuse. After several decades of minimal municipal attention, the Hartford Conservation Commission emerged in the late 1990s to take an active management role, including multiple rounds of planning and resource inventories, and managing the forest primarily for recreation, as wildlife habitat, and as working land. However, the HCC has struggled to integrate all the plans and inventories. Additionally, as mountain biking has gotten more popular, several non-sanctioned trails have appeared in potentially delicate areas of the forest. The tension between the mountain bike community and the conservation commission eventually became untenable.
Needs and Assessment
Through the public engagement process, community members identified the issues and needs associated with the forest to be resolved in this planning process. Overall, Hartford’s needs can be classified into two categories – trails and usage.
- All trails in the town forest have been evaluated by the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. Some segments have sustainability issues and should be reviewed for type of use, seasonal access, repair, relocation or closing
- A more formalized trail maintenance program is needed to protect ecologically sensitive areas and address issues identified in the Upper Valley Trails Alliance Trails Assessment
- Need to continue a collaborative community dialogue around trails
- The forest is underutilized – even though it’s at the center of town, it has little connection with any of the villages
- Need to raise awareness of the town forest in general, and of the conservation commission’s management responsibility.
The word trees below demonstrate what the community answered when they were asked what word or phrase best describes their existing or desired future experience with the town forest – the size of the word corresponds to the number of times it appeared in the responses.
Through the planning process, the community generated a robust action plan matrix. From it, the steering committee highlighted several steps that seemed to achieve the greatest result with a manageable amount of effort. Those steps include: <each list item will link to the detailed project page>
- Review and redesign existing trail
- Improve signage and wayfinding
- Pause places
- Trails collaborative and maintenance
- Improve maps of the forest – keep up to date, online and in print
- Formal process for proposing and reviewing new trails and facilities
Ideas Worth Sharing
Matt Osborn, town planner and member of the Conservation Commission, says that the planning process was very helpful. Additionally, he valued the materials (available in the toolkit pods) provided by the consultants for building trust and drawing the community into discussion. He stressed that having an outside, neutral party conduct the process was very helpful in a community where tensions between different vision for the forest ran high.