Celebrating National Forest Week: Trail Adoption 101

By Fawn Langerman

It’s #NationalForestWeek! Every year during the second week of July, the National Forest Foundation (NFF), the U.S. Forest Service’s non-profit partner, hosts National Forest Week to raise awareness of the incredible 193-million-acre National Forest System. The White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) comprises of over 750,000 acres, and requires a network of organizations and resources as well as continued maintenance— something I have been a part of for over twenty years and am excited to share a bit about with you.

I have been volunteering for trail work projects since the early 2000s, and this is my third season as an official White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) trail adopter. Trail work is sweaty, muddy, buggy, messy great fun! There are all different types of trail work. One of the very first projects that I helped with was building a bog bridge at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Little Lyford Lodge in Maine. It was a group project over a holiday weekend, and I arrived having absolutely no idea how a bog bridge was built. Bog bridges (also called puncheons) are typically logs or boards nailed together in a framework that allows you to walk through a marshy or muddy area without disturbing the fragile ecosystem. And, they keep the mud off your shoes! About a dozen of us built a 150’ section of bog bridge in May 2009. I worked hard and laughed a lot, and I was hooked on trail work as a fun way to volunteer.

Building a bog bridge at AMC Little Lyford Pond, May 2009.

When I moved here in 2019, I knew that I wanted to be involved in trail work volunteering, but I was not sure where to start. I wanted to adopt my own trail someday, but was initially intimidated by the responsibility. My path to trail adoption started with volunteering for group trail work days, and I highly recommend this path. You get to learn from the experts, as you will be trained and coached about the work that you are doing. And, you get to see first-hand what it takes to keep the trails in fine hiking form! One great resource for group trail work opportunities is the NH Trail Workers Facebook group. This group posts local trail work opportunities, and volunteers post photos of trail work that they have completed. It is not only a great place to find out what trail work opportunities are available when you have free time to volunteer, but also a place to connect with likeminded folks.

Another way to find trail work opportunities is to connect directly with the resources in your area. The US Forest Service for the White Mountain National Forest is separated into 3 geographic districts. The eastern district is the Saco and is based in Conway. The northern and western district is the Androscoggin, and is based in Gorham. The central and southern is the Pemigewasset, and is based in Campton, which is also where the Forest Supervisor’s office is. To get information about specific trail work days (and trail adoption; see below) in one of these districts, these are the contacts:

Saco: Cristin.Bailey@usda.gov

Androscoggin: James.Vittetau@usda.gov

Pemigewasset: Michael.Mosley@usda.gov, as well as the amazing volunteer Bruce Richards, who can be found at Bruce4Trails@gmail.com

Local trail groups themselves are yet another great way to find trail work opportunities. For example, the Randolph Mountain Club takes care of the trails both north and south of route 2 in Randolph, and includes a lot of the trails to and below Madison and Adams. For more information, click here.

The group heading out to Sawyer Pond to work on revegetating the tent site area June 2023.

Once I had done some trail work days and obtained some education and experience, I was ready to adopt my own trail! Here in the WMNF, trail adoption volunteers take care of three basic functions for many of the trails.

Firstly and most importantly, we clear the drainages of debris and overgrowth, so that water can flow off the trails. We use rakes and hoes, and sometimes more specialized tools. Our second task (and my favorite!) is clearing blowdowns. Blowdowns are trees that have fallen across the trail and are an obstruction. We remove the obstruction with handsaws. When the blowdown is too large for a handsaw, or is in a position in which it would not be safe to be removed by a volunteer, we report it to the USFS. They then schedule a time to come out to take care of the problem. Blowdown removal is the most obvious of our three volunteer tasks.

Example of a blowdown: Before (left) and after (right). I cut this with a hand saw, June 2023, Spruce Hill Trail in Evans Notch.

Example of drainage maintenance: Before (left) and after (right).

The last task, which is the most tedious, but can be the most important to the passing hiker, is called brushing. Brushing is when you cut back overgrowth to maintain a specific corridor, so that hikers can pass without having to drag themselves through the bushes. Though important on a regular day, this is particularly important if it is has recently rained, or is currently raining. Trails that need brushing can feel like a carwash if you hike them on a rainy day. This will quickly get you drenched (ask me how I know!)

Example of brushing: Before (left) and after (right), June 2023, Spruce Hill Trail in Evans Notch.

The volunteer commitment for trail adoption, through the USFS, is visiting your trail at least twice per year. In the spring we clear blowdowns from the winter, and clear the drainages of built-up debris. And, of course, we do brushing. In the fall, we clear new leaves from the drainages, clear blowdowns from the summer months, and brush back vegetation that has grown during the year. I live close to my adopted trail, the UNH Trail to Hedgehog, and my trusty Silky Saw (my handsaw) and I hike it nearly monthly year-round. I like seeing the different seasons on this wonderful trail, and I always get excited when I come across a blowdown!

Cristin Bailey, the Trails Manager for the Saco District, says “We have about 250 volunteers maintaining trails in the Saco Ranger District. They do 75% of the critical maintenance annually. Along with our Trail Crew of 5, volunteers work over 2000 hours annually on about 500 miles of trails. Sustainable trails can only happen through sustainable partnerships!”

Steve Smith, owner of the Mountain Wanderer bookstore in Lincoln and co-editor of the AMC White Mountain Guide, has been a trail adopter since 1986. He is currently responsible for two trails: the Kettles Path in Waterville Valley, and, through the AMC Four-Thousand-Footer Committee, the Passaconaway Cutoff on Mt. Passaconaway. Smith says, “I enjoy trail adoption because it is very satisfying to give back to the trails that I hike so often. As an adopter, you, in a sense, take ownership of a trail and tend to it through the years. Volunteering is important— funds are limited for professional trail crews and volunteer efforts in basic maintenance make it possible for the pros to focus on major trail repair and reconstruction. Without volunteers, many of our trails could fall into disrepair.”

The top is a blowdown. The middle is what I could remove with a handsaw. This is called delimbing and allows the blowdown to be hiked under temporarily. The bottom is after the USFS professional trail crew came by with a chainsaw. 

The first step to trail adoption is to find out what trails are available. Use the USFS email links above to find out about adoptable trails. I would recommend a few things when choosing a trail to adopt. Firstly, pick a trail that you really love! Secondly, once you are thinking about adopting a specific trail, hike it with adoption in mind. Look at the drainages and see how many there are. Take notice of previously cut blowdowns. And, look at how much vegetation is potentially encroaching on a trail. Some trails have significant needs for maintenance, and others have less work. You will want to pick a trail that you love and that will not feel like too much work to maintain. If this sounds like even a little bit of fun, consider giving it a try, and if you have any questions, let me know!

Replanting a bare area at the Sawyer Pond tent site, with the USFS and Redline Guiding for Trails Day June 2023. We harvested the saplings under the direction of the USFS, from areas around the tent site.

In addition to a Trail Adopter, Fawn Langerman is a Trailhead Steward for the USFS/White Mountain National Forest and a 2024 Seek the Peak Steward for Mount Washington Observatory. Since moving to NH, Fawn has completed the Hiking the White Mountain Guide project solo, the regular, Winter and Seasons 48, the 52 With A View and the Terrifying 25. She is currently 68% completed with the Grid (392/576). 

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