I’ve been spending Saturdays in the woods this summer with some lively Williams College students, clearing hiking trails. They’re enthusiastic about it, which is good news, because there are lots of trails and many blow downs to be cut, much brush to be cleared and blazing to be improved.
Consider the number of trails. Many years ago I wrote a little book called "Hikes & Walks in the Berkshires" -- still available in later editions on the darker, mustier shelves of local bookstores -- which, guided by the area’s hiking cognoscenti, selected for description 40 walks and 17 hikes as a county outdoors appetizer.
The Williams College Outing Club’s "North Berkshire Outdoor Guide," 10th edition (2008), serves up 60 entrees just in Williamstown and environs, breaking the trail descriptions into "Local Walks," "Stone Hill," "Green Mountains," "Taconic" and "Greylock." While a brave attempt to be comprehensive, a newer edition would want to add the Hoosac Range Trail, Cascade Trail and others in North Adams -- and even then there would still be omissions. There is no trail directory; no one knows how many trails there are.
There is no Berkshire County Trail Boss or even Williamstown Trail Boss, either. If all the organizations trail-involved just in North County were to get together, they would have to hire a hall: Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, of course, Williams Outing Club certainly, town conservation commissions, Williams-
town Rural Lands, Berkshire Natural Resources, Hoosic River Watershed, Trustees of Reservations, Student Con-
servation Association, Manice Center; then add Green Mountain National Forest and Green Mountain Club; New York DEC and Taconic Hiking Club; Appalachian Mountain Club and AT Conference, and so on, without mentioning individuals who do their own thing.
There’s some loose control, mostly in the matter of blazes. In Berkshire, long distance trails -- three Taconic trails, the AT, the Long Trail and, progressing, the Mahican Mohawk -- are all blazed white. Trails that meet white trails are blazed blue and trails that don’t, red. With exceptions.
So who decides the bigger questions, such as whether a new trail is necessary or where it should go -- or, even more important, who’s going to maintain it? Should a trail go in without settling that question? What are the standards for trail construction, including bridges and bog bridges? What are the obligations to the disabled ? The default setting is the property owner, which includes public ownership, represented by the respective states’ environmental offices.
That’s the way it has always been and, so far, that has served the hiker well. That includes a degree of courtesy among the major organizations. They do talk to each other, occasionally.
It’s tempting to think of a hierarchical structure that would organize trails, trail-makers and trail-maintainers, a single office to which the public users could report problems; an authoritative source for all trail information and publicity; but it is hard to imagine that any property owner would cede control to some higher authority.
So we have splendid, almost infinite opportunities, and as long as volunteers are enthusiastic, the work -- well, isn’t completed, but advances. At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.
A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.