Burlington Wildways Aspires to Connect More than just Trails

By Patrick Dunseith, Land Manager, Intervale Center

On some more adventurous weekends I have been known to ride my bike to Camel’s Hump or Mount Philo, but not everyone has that ability—or is crazy enough to spend ten hours on a Saturday just trying to get outside.  But what if this wasn’t the case? What if “wild” and open spaces weren’t so far away after all? What if Burlington residents only needed a decent pair of shoes to enjoy the great outdoors?

It turns out a small but active group, Burlington Wildways, is working closer and closer to making that dream a reality. No, they aren’t creating forests and hiking trails out of thin air, but instead opening the city’s eyes to the wild and wonderful places that already exist. They’re helping to improve access and education so that everyone in the city can enjoy nature—with or without a car.

As Land Manager at the Intervale Center, I’ve been fortunate to work with the Burlington Wildways coalition for nearly a year. Under the leadership of Director Zoe Richards, Burlington Wildways is addressing conservation, connectivity and access issues in Burlington’s natural areas—and that mission takes many forms. At the forefront of our goals in 2019 is rolling out the first interconnected “Wildway.” This trail traverses a diversity of landscapes and represents the partnership of three landowners, each managing significant portions of open space is Burlington: Winooski Valley Parks District (WVPD); Burlington Parks, Recreation and Waterfront (BPRW); and the Intervale Center.

Stretching from Salmon Hole, at the base of the Winooski Dam, north to Ethan Allen Park in the New North End, the trail takes advantage of many miles of existing trails. However, what will be truly unique is the ability for an uninitiated trail user to find their way from the terminal end of one trail to the origin of the next. This is not only a chance for trail users to extend the distance they walk (dare I say hike?) but experience a wider variety of landscape.

A trail of this length and scope—especially in the urban environment—can offer so much more than the sum of its parts. By tracing the Winooski River for over three miles you can start to understand the dynamic nature of the floodplain and appreciate its role in our city’s geography. At each end, the trail rises from a height just about the river bank back to the delta plateau on which the northern part of the city rests. We can be equally thankful our homes aren’t in the floodplain as we are to have the rich soils that support local farms and produce a bounty of food every year.  The trail provides the opportunity to see active farms and then learn the history of those that farmed the Intervale long ago—not just Ethan Allen, but thousands of years of Abenaki, who understood the land more than we ever will. If they’re paying attention, a hiker might realize the natural resources we rely on today haven’t changed that much in the past thousand years—not only do floodplains grow healthy food, they’re an essential part of a living, thriving river—they’re  worth exploring and they’re worth protecting.

And ultimately this is the goal of the “Wildway”; yes, to provide an enhanced recreational experience, but more importantly inspire the city to recognize and cherish the natural resources we all share. WVPD and the Intervale Center may manage our lands with varying intent but our goals are the same: to nurture and protect the land for the benefit of others. We care about water quality in Lake Champlain, we’re concerned about encroaching invasive species and their impact on native ecosystems, we want to reduce erosion and protect soil, and we want to help people enjoy and recreate on our land. By uniting our trails we hope to show the city that conservation takes many forms. It’s happening on farms and in our parks, it’s good for wildlife and its good for us, it happens in expansive wilderness but it also happens right here in our city!

We hope you can take a fresh look at whatever “wild” space is nearest you. Connect with it in your own way and bring that connection back out into the city. Look out for more information about the upcoming Wildway trail and remember: in Burlington, the wild is never that far away!

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