Peter Jensen's work? He leaves trails for you to follow
LENOX — A dragonfly landed on Peter Jensen's straw hat Thursday afternoon while he was taking a break from finishing off the boardwalk at Lenox's newest trail in Undermountain Valley.
Beads of sweat dripped down his forehead as he looked out over Parsons Marsh at the end of the meandering black locust pathway.
Jensen, 60, has designed and built more than 100 trails across the Northeast in the 42 years since he started doing the work. His company, Peter S. Jensen & Associates of Washington, Vt., is one of the two biggest trail-design companies in New England.
"Just look around," he said, citing the most rewarding part of his job. "Being outside, certainly."
On Thursday, Jensen was putting the finishing touches on the Parsons Marsh Trail, which will open to the public Saturday with a dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
His company is hired by nature conservancies throughout the Northeast to build sustainable trails for hikers. In this case, he was hired by the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the owners of Parsons Marsh and the organizers/sponsors of the trail and the opening event.
While his college degree is in soil science and geology, Jensen said, the work the company does to protect the natural landscape around the trails also requires knowledge of botany and biology.
"It's the goal here to create access to the public to really nice, cool places so they have an appreciation of what the natural world has to offer," he said. "And not be fearful of what's out here."
When Jensen first started working on trails, a summer job in the 1970s, there wasn't nearly as much thought put into the sustainability of the pathways or surrounding nature.
"Lots of trails in the Northeast are really not sustainable because of the lack of knowledge, say 20 years ago back to the 1800s," Jensen said. "A lot of these trails were laid out without considering terrain, geology."
But in the 1980s, when mountain biking first started showing up on the East Coast, hikers became concerned about the damage it was doing to the trails, which prompted research into how to prevent their destruction.
It was the International Mountain Bicycling Association that spearheaded that effort, Jensen said.
"Kudos to them, because they were getting bad-mouthed because of potential damage, and that's where it kind of started," he said of the movement to build sustainable trails.
Jensen's company is responsible for the design and construction of many Berkshire County trails, including Basin Pond, Olivia's Overlook, and trails at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Some of his favorite works include a 3,200-foot boardwalk in Rhode Island, a stone-step project at Niagara Falls and a 2.5-mile, fully accessible trail at Crotched Mountain in New Hampshire
"People are also more interested in wider trails," Jensen said. "The reason for that is that there are more and more people bringing families out, parents with strollers."
There also are many people with disabilities who want to explore nature, he said, adding that the latest Lenox trail is fully accessible to wheelchairs.
An average day building a trail is nine hours, typically from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., he said.
The group can work on some parts of projects through rain, but some aspects, like roadwork, need to be postponed if it's too wet.
"This summer has been challenging with the heat. And these last few weeks, with the rain," he said. "Some of biggest challenges, not necessarily for us but for our clients, is raising the money. Sometimes, it's also going through the permitting processes."
For years, Jensen has gone to meetings of conservation commissions at which his projects are proposed to share details.
"They love to see and talk with the builder," he said. "You develop a good rapport with conservation commissions when you do it that way."
When the company does get the OK from a town to start its projects, the workers travel to the locations and get to the task.
"We do not do hotels. We rent houses," he said. "Hotels are such sterile environments."
Even though his work keeps him outdoors for long periods, Jensen prefers to spend his free time the same way. When he's at home in Vermont, he likes to grow apples and vegetables.
Jensen said the Lenox trail will be up there among his favorite projects because of the birds and wildlife that frequent the area.
"We've seen a bear around here. We've seen it three times on this project." he said, before hearing a splash in the marsh. "And frogs."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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