HINESBURG: How many people is too many?
Background and Overview
The 837-acre Hinesburg Town Forest (HTF), one of two Town Forests in Hinesburg, was acquired by the Town of Hinesburg beginning in 1936. Since then, the once open fields have succeeded into woodlands and combined with older farm woodlots and hedgerows to form a diverse forest. From the beginning, the Hinesburg Town Forest has been managed jointly by the State's County Foresters and Hinesburg's Town Forest Committee primarily for timber, firewood, wildlife habitat and recreation. More recently, recreational use has expanded through the development of a popular multi-use trail network created and stewarded by the Fellowship of the Wheel. The HTF is used and appreciated by an increasing number of visitors both from Hinesburg and beyond for activities including (but not limited to): hiking; biking; skiing; snowshoeing; horseback riding; birding; wildlife viewing; riding ATV's; hunting; dog walking; timber and wildlife habitat management; scientific study; and educational walks and tours. The community of Hinesburg wanted to understand the extent of these various uses in the forest and any potential impacts these uses are have on the forest resource.
Needs and Assessment
Because the Hinesburg community was asking an objective question of whether their current use was damaging their forest, the planning group did qualitative and quantitative research on the forest, measuring the number of human users and their impact on the ecosystem. This was done using trail counts and assessments and a framework the United States Forest Service uses for managing recreational opportunities called the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS). Meanwhile, Hinesburg residents were asked to respond to one survey. It was open from mid-September to the end of October 2018.
- From the team
In their assessment, the team found that the trail system is designed, built and maintained extremely well. In some areas, the level of use is having some impact on the character of the trails themselves but is not threatening the forest as a whole. The trees appear to be healthy and thriving. Potential areas for improvement include:
1. Fixing the trails where people have widened them by cutting corners at junctions
2. Providing better workarounds in technical areas on trails where people are walking or riding around features
3. Plastic signage degrades over the course of the season and needs to be maintained annually or replaced with something more permanent
4. Bridges should be assessed and maintained/replaced as needed
5. Parking lots are busy, hard to find, in disrepair, or all the above
- From the town
Residents from Hinesburg and the surrounding towns were surveyed for their ideas and views around use and future management of the HTF. 321 surveys and 38 partially completed surveys were submitted. When asked about their current experiences, survey responses indicate:
94% of respondents had visited the forest in the past year
Most visted between 2-10 times in the year
Mountain biking was by far the most popular activity, followed by hiking, dog walking, and trail running
Exercise, sport and fun were the most common reasons for visiting the forest
95% of respondents rated their experience visiting the forest as “good” or “Excellent”
17% said there was a time or place in the forest they would not visit – mostly due to hunting season
Nearly all respondents rated their forest interactions as pleasant
2/3 thought the tail mileage was about right. Most of the other 1/3 thought it was too little, or needed redistribution
96% of respondents thought they saw few or a manageable number of people during their forest visit
Most respondents thought the available parking was in line with the appropriate number of forest users. Approx 20% thought the parking lots were insufficient. 1% thought there was too much parking, and that it led to overcrowding of the forest.
84% did not find it difficult to find their way in the forest
Ideas Worth Sharing
Ultimately, according to HTF Committee Chair Nancy Jones, the question for the steering committee became one of perception. “A few people want changes but most are very happy with the forest as it is,” she says. The question became how to demonstrate that the forest is healthy and able to accommodate the people who are using it. She also stresses the importance of getting a diverse committee: “the whole community of anyone who cares that there’s a town forest was well represented.”