On a hike up the Stowe Pinnacle this fall, I was blown away by the number and variety of people I met on the trail. There were hikers of many different ages, body types, skin colors and fitness levels. I heard multiple languages being spoken. There was no universal hiking attire; some were dressed for a mountain expedition and others for a walk around town.
Nearly everyone had a mask handy and used it. Most dogs were leashed. People were friendly and courteous. We were all getting fresh air, exercise and a chance to connect with the outdoors. It looked like the Commons: the land of the people, open to and shared by many.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, more people than ever are turning to conserved and public lands and trails, like the Stowe Pinnacle, for free access to the outdoors. Here, we can take care of ourselves, connect with family and friends, and give kids healthy places to learn and play.
Trail use at Stowe Land Trust-owned Kirchner and Wiessner Woods increased as much as 27 percent this year from 2018. On Stowe Trails Partnership-maintained networks including Cady Hill Forest and Adams Camp, the number of trail visitors increased 31 percent from 2019. According to the Green Mountain Club, average daily use count on the - was up 35 percent, and in September, overnight shelter use was up 80 percent from last year.
At Vermont State Parks, out-of-state day-use was up almost 20 percent. Stowe Mountain Rescue reported perhaps its busiest summer season ever and anticipates a record-breaking winter as more skiers are expected to opt for the space and fresh air of the backcountry over lift service.
In a typical year, the Stowe Pinnacle trail is one of the busiest in town and has become increasingly worn as a result. During the pandemic, degradation to the trail and soil from even more use has escalated to an alarming degree. A similar pattern is playing out around our community, state and nation: recreational use and trail wear are up while landowners, managers and volunteers responsible for care-taking and maintenance are challenged to keep pace. At a time when we can and should celebrate the gifts that land gives us, we also need to plan for and invest more in restoration and stewardship.
It is not enough to give thanks. We must give back.
In her acclaimed 2013 book, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” by scientist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, calls for the need “to go beyond cultures of gratitude, and once again become cultures of reciprocity.” Kimmerer urges that we must take care of the places that sustain us so that they can also support not only the next generation that follows us but the seventh generation.
Reciprocity between people and our natural world can be built through acts of stewardship, restoration and reverence. Kimmerer states that this exchange is essential for a healthy, responsible relationship to exist between humans and the land so that we may sustain the land that supports us.
For many, this relationship has been broken or weakened by the structures of our modern society. Long histories of inequities and systemic injustices like poverty and racism have also made access to nature and land a privilege for some, but not others.
Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Abenaki pointed out in a recent guest perspective that the pandemic presents us all with an opportunity to take time to reconnect with the natural world and the life that sustains us. As more of us have that chance to restore our own personal relationships to land — and systemic inequities and injustices begin to be acknowledged and addressed — we become better equipped to take intelligent collective action to ensure our public and conserved lands are well cared for, ecologically healthy, and a true commons for all.
During this darkest time of year around the winter solstice, please get outside and enjoy the gifts of nature. Let them restore your health and spirt. Share them with others. Offer thanks and appreciation.
And then reciprocate. I’m sure you can find your own ways that are meaningful to you, but here are some suggestions for how we can return the gifts we take:
• Donate to and join the member-supported non-profits that protect, own, manage or care for the land and trails you use and appreciate. Get trail passes where required.
• Volunteer to help with trail maintenance and ecological restoration work. You can clear fallen branches across a trail, pick up trash or report acts of vandalism anytime.
• Voice your support for the protection, stewardship and restoration of public lands and trails. Tell your elected and appointed officials that you want adequate funding for these priorities.
• Learn about the natural world that we are all a part of. Read; tune in to webinars; notice plants, animals and the changing seasons when you are outside. Listen to the perspectives and knowledge of others, especially voices that have historically been left out.
• Be responsible. Minimize the risk of endangering yourself or search and rescue volunteers. Follow COVID safety rules and restrictions. Educate yourself about which uses are allowed on the lands you are visiting and when they may occur, such as different hunting and trapping seasons. Be prepared to share the space, leash your dog or go elsewhere.
• Practice good manners with other trail visitors and the land’s non-human inhabitants. Leave-no-trace. Follow trail guidelines. Be courteous and kind. Remember that being here is an honor and a privilege.
Kristen Sharpless is the executive director of Stowe Land Trust, dedicated to the conservation of scenic, recreational and productive farm and forest lands for the benefit of the greater Stowe community.