- Sustainable use
- Trail use and impacts assessment
The Hinesburg Town Forest is a beloved community resource. It is a very popular resource for active outdoor recreation. Over the past ten years, the recreational use of the town forest has grown tremendously. To address concerns over sustainable use, Hinesburg engaged in a slight variation of the town forest recreation planning process, focused on assessing existing trail use and impacts.
The 837-acre Hinesburg Town Forest, one of two Town Forests in Hinesburg, was acquired by the Town over many years, 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 VT Department of Forests, Parks and RCounty Forester 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 Town Forest 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 Hinesburg community wanted to understand the extent and potential impacts of these various uses in the forest.
Overview of the Assessment Process
In planning for future use and addressing community concerns around existing use, the first step was to measure and understand current use. SE Group designed a variation of the planning process, using the trail assessment tools to quantify existing use. 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.
The assessment 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:
- Fixing the trails where people have widened them by cutting corners at junctions
- Providing better workarounds in technical areas on trails where people are walking or riding around features
- Plastic signage degrades over the course of the season and needs to be maintained annually or replaced with something more permanent
- Bridges should be assessed and maintained/replaced as needed
- Parking lots are busy, hard to find, in disrepair, or all the above
Community Survey Results
Residents from Hinesburg and the surrounding towns were surveyed for their ideas and views around the use and future management of the town forest. When asked about their current experiences, survey responses indicate:
- 94% of respondents had visited the forest in the past year
- Most visited 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
Words of Wisdom
Ultimately, according to Town Forest Committee Chair Pat Mainer, 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 forming a diverse steering committee to guide the planning process.