By Sally Loomis, HLT Executive Director
Perhaps more than ever, I feel immense gratitude to live here in the Hilltowns. We have access to public trails that aren’t crowded, scenic views from the safety of our cars, and a community that cares about protecting these things.
In every part of the world, every one of us is slowly adjusting to a new reality that seemed unfathomable not that long ago. You don’t need me to tell you that the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are being felt in every part of our society.
At Hilltown Land Trust, like everywhere else, our circumstances changed very quickly. We went from promoting public events to cancelling them in the course of one week in March. Our staff and AmeriCorps members are all continuing our work, but doing so from home or out on our properties while maintaining a safe distance. We are still pursuing land conservation projects and taking care of our protected properties and trails, and we have shifted to offering virtual events and ways for people to interact with the natural world while social distancing.
With most places where people normally socialize and spend their free time closed, our public trails are seeing more use than ever. In many parts of the country and the state, increased usage of parks and trails quickly became a problem. Overcrowding of those areas made safe social distancing an impossibility, and organizations made the decision to close for the health and safety of both the public and their staffs.
Fortunately, the Hilltowns have been mostly spared such closures and the majority of our public access properties remain open and appropriately used. We have only had to close one trail (the Historic Dam Trail in Williamsburg), because extensive sections of the trail are too steep and narrow for people to use it safely and responsibly. Our other seven public trails remain open.
Many people have reached out to let me know they feel a renewed appreciation for open space in their communities now. The mental and physical benefits of exercise in nature, or even looking at images of forests, have been proved in many scientific studies, but I am finding I feel that effect almost instantaneously these days. When we are feeling cooped up at home, having somewhere we can safely get outside, away from the home, is a huge relief.
It is important to remember that not everyone is able to get out for walks or hikes in the woods. Another benefit of living in the Hilltowns is that many roads in the area offer views of the forests, fields, farms, and rivers of our community. My work at HLT has included protecting some of these scenic views in addition to these lands.
Whether we are protecting forests, farms, or views, land conservation has always been about long-term thinking and planning. Writing a conservation easement document means considering the future needs of both the community and property owners. Since HLT was founded in 1986, and in the 34 years since, I don’t think any of us involved could have predicted just how much our public trails and views would mean to people during the spring of 2020.
I want to encourage you to get outside and explore these hills in whatever way you can, both now and in the future. Use our trails and enjoy the views of our Hilltowns. Please be safe and respect other trail users by using proper social distancing to help us keep these open spaces available to all. This land sustains our life and health, including our mental health, and that is more crucial now than ever before.