Vermont’s Ridgeline Outdoor Collective is all about access. The Vermont-based organization, originally called Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA), works closely with stakeholders ranging from nonprofits to landowners to create trail and glading networks that extend across public and private land. In a state where over 80 percent of land is privately owned, that means a good deal of communication and coordination with individuals to create sustainable access for recreation like skiing, mountain biking, running, snowshoeing, and more. Angus McCusker, one of Ridgeline Outdoor Collective’s founding members and a Trails are Common Ground Ambassador, reflects on how, exactly, they’re able to foster landowner relationships and trail access.
By Lucy Higgins • April 9, 2022
As told by Angus McCusker:
Working with private landowners, it’s a balancing act. A lot of folks take for granted going on a trail or backcountry skiing—sometimes people don’t know that they aren’t on public land. I think Vermont had a strong history with shared land access. For a long time, land generally wasn’t posted, so there was an understanding to respect each other and be good neighbors.
With more and more people getting out into the outdoors, there are more trails. That’s the growing trend. It’s crazy seeing the dynamics as the population has changed over the years. Folks who may have had a second home here are now living here full time and may post their land, so we’ve had to work with some new landowners.
You can’t just create more and more and more parking. There’s a capacity to things. So we’ve done a lot of work right from the get-go to spread people out.Angus McCusker
You have to be in constant communication with landowners to be sure any issue that they might have with someone is heard and being addressed in a way that meets their needs. Sometimes it’s just being honest with them, and explaining that some of this stuff is out of our control—the number of people on a trail, for example. Usually, they just like to know that they’re being heard. These are unusual times with the Covid pandemic and the sheer volume of people out there.
Things seem to be calming a little bit at trails and trailheads. But, generally, you can’t just create more and more and more parking. There’s a capacity to things. So we’ve done a lot of work right from the get-go to spread people out. The Granite Backcountry Alliance is trying to do the same thing in New Hampshire. So there are more and more opportunities. In our efforts to develop trails, we try to avoid just creating more looping, spaghetti-bowl-style trails, which aren’t the best for the land and not good for management. Instead of doing that, we’re just connecting with our neighboring networks and spreading folks all throughout the state.
I’m just constantly communicating with landowners. If a landowner is willing, we’ll try to do a permanent land-use easement but for the most part, it’s a handshake deal. It’s fragile. The other part is educating people on how to use trails correctly, because one or two apples can ruin it.
If you’re creating a new trail network, and you create a parking trailhead, you aren’t just affecting the landowner, you’re affecting all of the other neighbors. You’re increasing traffic on the road. All of a sudden, you’ve created a road that has access to powder, and on powder days people tend to drive faster, so that’s an example of a safety concern. So you need to plan and understand the dynamic that anything you do is changing that environment. You need to be very delicate, very honest.
We communicate with the town selectboard, conversation commissions, and town lands to get everyone at the table involved. They provide input, suggestions. The more transparent the project is, the more it might slow it down, but the upside of that is you will have a better product, result, network.
That’s the beauty of working with the Forest Service. It’s a good step-by-step process. They put a project out for public comment, and they have a team of scientists—ecologists, biologists, all types of soil scientists—to review components and look at management plans. It’s a lot of planning, and even the most well planned things are going to have issues. But at least we can try to minimize that. Human nature struggles with change. Even the best intended things—people can still be upset.
Most often, you’re going to find landowners who are willing and excited to collaborate. Nobody should ever make them feel bad about it or pressure them into anything. They own their land, so it’s about trying to understand their perspective. When you meet with a landowner for the first time, it’s about, “What are your goals, what’s your interest, what’s your vision?” With new landowners especially, it’s really about what their vision is for their property and how we can work with them without getting in the way of that. Generally, people are really nice. People like the idea of being a part of something bigger.
Angus McCusker at home in Vermont. Photo: Marius Becker