Stewardship in a Time of COVID-19

by Fran Lawlor, Land Manager

We have all been cautioned to stay at home to avoid potential contact with the Coronavirus.  Solitary outdoor recreation is considered an essential activity for both mental and physical health and our community has responded – the trails at Baltimore Woods Nature Center have rarely seen the levels of hiking activity they have received every day in the past few weeks. With increased use many trails in our region are at risk of “being loved to death.”

Our Nature Center buildings are closed and staff are working from home. Our trails, however, are essential to the public and we have to assure our trails are safe. During mud season it also means we have to assure our trails are welcoming. Muddy stretches can be challenging to hikers who often solve the immediate problem of walking directly through the mud by going around the muck, trampling trailside vegetation, increasing soil compaction and compounding the problems.

With no staff on site we obviously needed an alternative plan to scout trails and troubleshoot as problems arose. Our usual trail maintenance crew, the A-Team stewardship volunteers, typically meets on Wednesday mornings. This crew is mainly retirees, high-risk senior citizens, and we – and they – are very protective of their health and safety. We quickly organized a schedule by email that allowed our volunteers to continue with their commitment to our mission at the same time honoring the COVID-19 guidelines for solitary outdoor exercise and safe distances. There were daily morning and afternoon shifts, and the time slots filled quickly. The volunteers wear official Baltimore Woods Nature Center Volunteer name tags and, from the recommended social distance, help lost hikers, gently remind hikers that dogs are not allowed on the preserve, offer alternative routes when conditions are difficult, report maintenance needs and maybe do a little invasive species removal. They report to each other by email about the upbeat mood of the hikers, the respectful and cautious distancing, and the appearance of spring flowers.

Our big challenge is mud season combined with our greatly increased trail use. In one week of rain and snow, a stretch of trail targeted for remediation this summer turned into a barnyard like mire and was getting worse, fast. We needed immediate intervention before the trail was 30 feet wide. The work required rapid coordination and had to respect the social distance and no congregating rules. 

Wet trails can’t take wheels, so delivery of materials for the trail infrastructure was out of the question. Corduroy, a less frequently used back-country solution to wet trails, could be created from materials on site. The word went out, again by email, and the volunteers nabbed their time slots. We needed a safety certified chainsaw operator and a second person as a spotter for the sawyer’s safety. Within 24 hours with the sawyer cutting up downed and dead wood and the spotters building the road we laid 80 feet of corduroy road through the wallow of boot-sucking mud. There was no trouble keeping the social distance, chainsaw distance is even greater.

We at Baltimore Woods are humbled by, and grateful for, the dedicated commitment of our volunteers. We could not do our work without them.

Head out the Boundary Trail and take a walk on our new corduroy road!