Scaling up: Volunteers dedicate thousands of hours to maintaining the region’s myriad hiking and biking trails

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As walkers, hikers and cyclists make their way over the crushed limestone gravel of one of western Pennsylvania’s many trail systems, it may not seem like they’re merging onto an economical highway.

But if they take the Great Allegheny Passage — the trail between Pittsburgh’s Point State Park and Cumberland, Md. — this “highway” generated more than $121 million in economic impacts in 2019, according to a report prepared by the national community. consulting firm Fourth Economy.

Across western Pennsylvania, residents have access to over 300 miles of trails in over 25 locations. And many benefit from it: estimates show that the trails receive around 3 million visitors a year.

Many trails are heavily traveled and require regular maintenance, which is largely achieved through a cooperative effort between trail managers, volunteer groups, and the towns they pass through.

Mileage management

In West Newton, Leslie Pierce is the business director of the non-profit Regional Trail Corp., which acquires land, promotes trail development and helps maintain sections of the Great Allegheny Passage, Westmoreland Heritage, Coal & Coke trails. and Five Star.

“We have a core of people that we rely on,” Pierce said. “But we are not getting any younger.”

The RTC organizes trail maintenance through 10 local chapters or organized local trail councils.

Bryan Perry, executive director of the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy, said volunteers are the main force behind maintaining the GAP’s trails, handling everything except projects that require contractors.

“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the good graces of people who come on a Saturday morning or a Wednesday with hedge trimmers and mowers,” he said.

The GAP Trail is owned by seven major entities, ranging from nonprofits to county offices, Perry said. Each of the owners maintains the section of the trail within their regional footprint. Although some entities have a few paid employees, few focus solely on trail management.

According to Perry, this is what makes volunteers so essential. He estimates that there are hundreds of volunteers who do more than 10,000 hours of trail maintenance each year.

“It’s quite remarkable what these volunteers are doing,” said Perry.

Friends of the Riverfront, a nonprofit and primary overseer of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail which features portions in downtown Pittsburgh, is one of the conservation partners – about six miles of heritage are also part of the GAP.

Executive director Kelsey Ripper said Friends of the Riverfront has about seven part-time or full-time employees, two of whom focus solely on trail maintenance. But the 1,500 volunteers who help maintain the trails each year are what make much of the day-to-day work possible.

“Volunteers play a really vital role in making sure the trails are usable for everyone,” Ripper said.

In the Alle-Kiski Valley, the Roaring Run and Rock Furnace trails are managed by the Roaring Run Watershed Association, established in 1983. Its 13-member volunteer board helps maintain more than 650 acres in southern Armstrong County, which includes 6.5 miles of both trails.

Over the years, the trails have been expanded as the association has secured grants and donations, according to association president Ken Kaminski, who said the entire Roaring Run trail works. through volunteers, fundraisers and donations. The association does not receive money from the government unless it receives a grant, and often the association must match the grant money awarded. He recently had to match an $80,000 grant he received for trail repairs.

“You could always use more volunteers,” Kaminski said.

Financial burden

Perry estimated that GAP spends about $5,000 a year on maintenance, which he says is a conservative estimate. Larger construction projects such as re-decking, repaving, or bridge repairs may need to be done about every ten years, but the cost of one of these projects can easily reach $1 million.

Ripper said the financial situation is further complicated by the fact that there are more funding opportunities to build new trails than to maintain what exists.

“There usually isn’t enough money to maintain the trails,” she said.

Ripper said larger projects can be funded through grants from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Allegheny Regional Asset District, the Department of Community and Economic Development, and municipal budgets from local municipalities. Daily upkeep, however, requires donations and volunteer labor.

For a flood and drainage project near Hays Woods, Friends of the Riverfront has raised over $200,000 over three years. Ripper said the nonprofit also receives $70,000 in individual donations and $65,000 in corporate donations annually, a portion of which is used for trail maintenance.

Considering the impact trails have on the cities they pass through, the lack of funding they have to work with may seem shocking.

According to the 2019 Economic Impact Report, the estimated average annual salary for GAP-supported jobs is $38,000. This estimate is equivalent to $52.6 million in labor income and 1,393 jobs generated.

The GAP recorded 1.4 million visits to the trail each year in 2020 and 2021, Perry said.

Still, its latest nonprofit revenue report detailed about $563,000 in expenses and $358,000 in revenue, leaving the reserve with a shortfall of nearly $205,000.

To top it off, Perry said maintenance dollars aren’t having the same impact as before the pandemic.

“With the cost of limestone and the price of labor rising, maintenance is becoming difficult, but we intend to keep all of GAP open,” Perry said. “We’re all working hard to raise funds for maintenance, knowing maintenance dollars during the pandemic were harder to come by and don’t go as far now.”

A cooperative effort

Cooperation between trail management groups, volunteers and the towns where they are built can result in welcome additions.

In Murrysville, city officials partnered with the county and used state grants in 2017 to build the Roberts Trailhead, a small car park with easy access to the Westmoreland Heritage Trail, where the city’s recreation department organized nature programs and published information for trail users. .

But the day-to-day trail maintenance work is almost exclusively done by volunteers.

“In today’s world, honestly, young couples with kids get out and enjoy the trail, but they don’t have the time to devote to maintaining it,” Pierce said. “Many of our people were already retired when they started helping. The hope is that people using the trail will be interested in taking on the same type of property, but will it be time to take the place of our people who are ready to put their shovels in?


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The groups are also looking for ways to unify the region’s trail network through interconnections.

Kaminski said an Avonmore-area group is exploring ways to connect the Roaring Run/Rock Furnace Trail to the West Penn Trail that runs north from Saltsburg.

“It would be great if they could,” he said. “But the big hold-up is the railway. (They) want to follow the tracks, but it is not possible (for security reasons).

In Delmont, a group of citizens called the Delmont Visionary Committee would like to build a branch line from the as yet unbuilt fifth phase of the Westmoreland Heritage Trail, which would lead directly into the heart of the borough.

But if those connections and spurs are built, they will need to be nurtured, and that job will likely fall to volunteers.

“That’s not to say we don’t have young volunteers – we have a few,” Pierce said. “But people are just too busy in the world today. Even retired people, many want to travel.”

Patrick Varine is an editor at Tribune-Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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