Acquiring land for preservation is one thing; managing and caring for that land is another—especially if public access is part of the management plan. In our land-conservation work, we are continually weighing the need to preserve natural values and protect habitat against the need to connect people with land by adding trails, signs, and other accommodations. Striking this balance between preserving wildness and providing human access is a never-ending quest.
Rob Roy decided to address these issues in response to an email from a Guemes resident. While complimentary of SJPT’s conservation work on the island, the email writer posed the question: “Why is it necessary to weed-whack at the peach preserve? The trails are beautiful as is. The latest episode wiped out an orchid colony that was just getting ready to go to seed.”
We think Rob Roy’s thorough and thoughtful response is worth sharing in full. It lays out the issues that we, and all land trusts, face when seeking to balance habitat protection with public access. He writes:
Thanks for contacting us.
I am the Land Steward responsible for the management of the Peach Preserve. The path is maintained by a volunteer at my request, so you are welcome to direct your concerns to me.
I understand your distress about the orchids. I understand how magical it can be to see an uncommon plant and how disturbing it can be when plants are destroyed. I did not see the orchids myself but I’ve seen the scenario before. Trust me when I say that the trimming along the meadow trails is not without reason. I also understand that the split rail fence may seem unnecessary, but again the fence was not put in place without reason.
A wide range of people with different ideas of how they would like to experience nature come to the Peach Preserve. Some are looking for quiet and solitude, to watch nature unfold around them or to escape the noise of the developed world for a minute. Others are looking to share a walk with a friend and have a conversation in a beautiful place. Some people want an easy hike or a jog in the woods to stretch their legs after work. Others are just trying to access the beach without trespassing across private tidelands. There are also more visitors to publicly accessible natural areas than ever before.
How do we manage for a range of uses and increasing number of users while minimizing the impact on the primitive qualities? It’s difficult and we don’t always succeed. A public trail can’t be everything for everyone. Will there be impacts on the conservation values? Yes. There are always impacts on conservation values when public access is encouraged. This is why we don’t open all of our Preserves to the public. Some areas are best left natural.
This site, while an important wetland area, beach, and forest, is not a pristine property. It was an industrial shipyard at one point, left fallow for years, and historically has had use by the public with and without permission long before the Preservation Trust owned it. The species composition here is reflective of this high-impact history, especially in the meadow. The grasses and forbs are predominantly non-native, the Preservation Trust and dedicated volunteers have been removing scotch broom since they acquired it, and there is a bevy of other non-natives that we haven’t had the time or energy to tackle. These are the things that make it a good site for public access. While we are managing the land with an eye toward protecting the conservation values, we also recognize that there are sacrifices that are made in allowing public access.
Every management decision on a property that’s open to the public is tricky. It can be a downright struggle to strike the balance between over-management vs under-management. What one might see as an improvement, others might view as overkill or a threat to the rural or primitive qualities of a trail. On the other hand, decisions we might make with the intention of having a light touch are just as frequently viewed as neglect. For instance, the signage on the property surely must seem like overkill to people who have been visiting the Preserve for years. They know where the trails are and where they go. But before the signs were up I also received comments from people visiting for the first time who were confused and frustrated by the lack of signs. There was even vigilante signage nailed to trees by well-meaning visitors. This is also true of the dog leash signs—probably my most frequent complaint from visitors of the Peach Preserve was of unleashed dogs—so we made a sign and tried an experiment with loaner leashes. As far as I can tell, there’s been an improvement there.
Another example is the turnpike section of trail that goes through the wet forest just before coming out into the meadow. For years that area was seasonally flooded and some folks laid down two-by-fours wrapped in chicken wire through the muddy sections. Again, a valiant effort—but unfortunately the boards floated up whenever the trail flooded in the spring. The trail was very difficult to get through if you didn’t want to get your shoes caked in mud or soaking wet. If you jumped from one board to the other, it was liable to slip out from under you. So we built up the trail through that section and installed a culvert to allow flow of water under the trail. During the work on the trail I had numerous people thank us. Several people chastised us as well. They said it was “fine as it was.” Fair enough—I know that some people go to natural places to get their shoes muddy or grass seeds in their socks. I certainly don’t mind wet feet, but many people do.
My goal with widening the meadow trails was twofold: I wanted to make it more accessible and I wanted to make it perfectly clear where the established trails are to discourage the creation of “social trails.”
While the Peach Preserve is not considered a fully accessible trail by the ADA’s standards and is certainly not wheelchair accessible, it is probably one of SJPT’s most accessible public properties for people with a range of mobility challenges. It has a very gentle grade and a lack of technical sections on it. This is important to me, and I’ve made efforts to increase this accessibility where it made sense. I’m not trying to make it Disneyland, just more accommodating. There are other places on the island where able-bodied people can enjoy a challenge, like Guemes Mountain.
For years the meadow trail was about a foot wide. Because the substrate in that meadow is sand, the narrow trail gradually eroded to a rut and became narrower and deeper over time. I had people tell me they wouldn’t walk it anymore because of the narrow footing and the grass and roses that were growing so thick along the sides of the trail. My hope is that the trail bed will widen over time if the grass is trimmed and people can walk along the sides of the rut.
I also wanted to make it perfectly clear where the established trails are. This property is by far the most frequently visited property that I manage. It’s also one of the most visited properties that SJPT owns and one of the most frequently visited properties on Guemes. It’s used by long-time islanders, part-time residents, guests and tourists. I celebrate this. I believe that people who interact with nature are more likely to respect nature. I also believe that people will explore and visit places whether it’s encouraged or not. Tourists will come to the island whether residents want them to or not, and if they don’t have a place to go they’re more likely to trespass.
Similarly, if people aren’t sure where the designated trails are because they are narrow and overgrown, they are more likely to create their own trails. These informal trails are called “social trails,” and they can have serious impacts on natural areas. If you’ve ever visited popular alpine areas in the mountains you’ve surely seen the labyrinth of confusing trails and trampled vegetation. As more social trails become established, it starts to become more “acceptable” to create your own trail. The problem feeds itself. Social trails are frequently forged with little regard to the sensitivity of plant communities or wildlife habitat, they also tend to increase the introduction of weedy species into undisturbed areas. The solution to social trails is to anticipate the desire of visitors and make sure that reasonable desires are met in a way that mitigates the impact of access. A sign and a trail that appears intentionally created and maintained is part of that process.
The split-rail fence was installed with two goals in mind, as well. The first goal was to protect the restoration work that been done by volunteers and members of the Guemes Island Planning Advisory Committee. This project sought to re-vegetate the shoreline, which had been trampled to bare sand by people accessing the beach. It’s been a multiyear project experimenting with native species and planting techniques. Many hours have been spent establishing that vegetation.
In the early days of the project we tried demarcating the planting area by using small pieces of driftwood collected below the high tide line. It took less than a week for the driftwood to be removed and scattered. So we put it back in place and soon it was scattered again. The next step was a diminutive dark green wire fence. This was frequently knocked over and stepped on by folks who probably just didn’t see it. So it was determined that something more intentional was needed.
We decided to use a split-rail cedar fence, something that would be clearly seen, but would create a minimal aesthetic impact, especially as it weathers and grays over time. The second goal of this fence is that it would delineate clear paths to the beach and the impact to vegetation would be concentrated to specific areas. Which is the same goal of the wider meadow trails. It’s not that anyone intended to trample the shoreline vegetation; it just wasn’t clear where the established access point was, so folks took whatever path seemed easiest.
I’m sorry to hear that the work on the Preserve has been unwelcome by some on the island, such as yourself. I’m also not surprised. I understand that people might see it as overkill or don’t want to see their special places change. Guemes is a rural place and people like it that way. I live in a rural place, too, and I get it. I also grew up playing on the property when it was the “Demopoulis Marsh” (although I didn’t know or care who owned it at the time). But that was almost 20 years ago. The island has changed a lot since then, and will continue to change whether we want it to or not. The population will continue to grow and visitation of our special places will increase. What can we do? All we can do is try to guide the increased use in a way that minimizes impacts and hope that people will meet us halfway.
Please do let me know if you find any rare plants that may need to be protected. That would be very helpful. Feel free to email me directly.
I very much recognize that it was a community effort to protect the Peach Preserve, and I wouldn’t want to deny people their connection to the property. I take the community’s concern seriously when I read criticism of management. That criticism is always in mind when I make management decisions. I also consider proposed uses carefully. But there are many opinions and ideas for how the property should be managed, and often they don’t agree with each other, and sometimes they would have deleterious effects on the conservation values of the property, so at the end of the day I make the call that I feel will best strike that balance of public use, limited development, and conservation.
Thanks again for reaching out. I appreciate your candor.
All the best,
If you’d like to help us care for one of your local preserves, please look into our Preserve Steward Volunteer Program. Managing over 300 properties is a tall order and the more volunteers who send in reports, the better informed our decisions will be, ultimately benefiting wildlife and visitors alike. Thank you for your support!