Recently, the town of Wilton issued a stern warning to residents who have been forging unauthorized new trails in local parks and trail systems. Officials say the environmental impact of what they call “rogue trails” is significant, including erosion, “degradation of the natural areas,” and habitat loss for native plants and wildlife.

The problem happens in many of Wilton’s open spaces but is most acute in Bradley Park. Town officials felt the public warning was necessary when efforts to block the unauthorized trails and restore damaged areas were repeatedly thwarted by trail users. But some residents–many of whom live closest to Bradley Park–want more off-trail freedom and say the town’s efforts to limit trails are overzealous.

Wilton’s Conservation Commission took up the issue at its Wednesday evening, May 5 meeting.

Commission chair Jackie Algon began the discussion by saying, “we have a serious problem” and reiterated the “deleterious effects to the ecology and to the habitat of the animals that are living in those parks.”

The commission’s subsequent discussion was lengthy and productive, with a number of ideas and action steps emerging. (There is a video of the recorded Zoom meeting, but as of publication time, it was not yet uploaded to the town website.)

One Problem, Many Motivations

The meeting shed more light on the wide-ranging reasons why some residents have been going rogue on the trails.

Mike Conklin, the director of Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Department, summarized the reasons, drawn in part from several emails the department has received (and which GMW has reviewed) from residents:

  • Poor condition of the main trails (worn out, eroded)
  • Avoiding other people during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Avoiding dogs, particularly off-leash dogs (commissioner Dave Cote estimated the vast majority of the dogs in the park are off-leash, contrary to park rules)
  • Neighboring residents seeking more convenient, direct access to main trails
  • Bikers looking for additional terrain and landscape features that don’t exist on the main trails

One resident’s email to Conklin bemoaned the closed, unauthorized trails, “Now the only ‘open’ trails, which are already over 10ft wide in parts, are going to continue to be worn out. The trails that your office closed were doing a great job of taking some of the traffic off of these main worn-out trails.”

Emails GMW reviewed make clear that some residents regard these unauthorized paths as legitimate “trails”. Conklin told GMW that some rogue paths have been so heavily used that they now look just like the main trails, thus inviting even more hikers and bikers who may not even realize the paths are off-limits.

Residents’ emails to town officials reveal how passionately they feel about the parks and how much they enjoy their activities in the natural environment.

Algon shares their passion for the parks, but feels visitors should view themselves as “guests”. She said, “These parks are really exquisite, and all of us who have walked any of the park trails understand that they’re nice for us to have… [but] I see these parks as conservation issues, and from my point of view, they belong to the challenged wildlife. And we are guests there, anytime that we go in. And so from my point of view, everything that we’re aiming toward should be brought back to that focus.”

While Algon seemed open to soliciting and considering more input from the public, she offered a reminder, “Our primary reason for having these parks is not to entertain people, it’s to protect the wildlife and the ecology of the open spaces that we have in town.”

Financial Impact

Although trails may appear to visitors as untouched, mapped trails are maintained by the town on a regular basis. Trails are “constructed” by design, to help manage things like water runoff and erosion. Arborists prune and remove trees for public safety, and cleanup is often necessary after storms.

Wilton is responsible for ensuring safety in town parks, and Conklin said maintaining safe trails has a real cost.

“The more linear feet of trails that we maintain, there is an additional cost to that [and] we are working within a limited budget every year. Going forward, if you just have people making new trails, as they see fit, we don’t have the additional resources necessarily, or the awareness, to keep maintaining these things.”

He added that as a matter of policy, the town simply cannot allow everyone to create new trails for their own purposes, even homeowners with properties bordering parks. “We don’t just make new trails for that. That’s really a policy decision that I’ve stood by. We just don’t do that,” he said.

Commissioner Frank Simone validated Conklin’s point. “You can only do so much with your staff and your resources,” he said in support of taking a hard line on requests for convenient trail access. But he felt the commission could consider a request for a trail extension that would enhance the public’s experience “if it makes sense.”

Requesting Trail Changes

Residents who take it upon themselves to modify trail systems without permission or oversight from the town are at the very core of the problem.

Conklin noted, “The last time we had an official request to change a trail system was with the Nick Parisot trail,” referring to the trail dedicated in 2018 in memory of Nicholas Parisot as a model for how residents should proceed. It had been “requested properly, through my department, to the Conservation Commission.” He added, “It wasn’t a lot of hoops to jump through. It’s just doing things the right way, not just randomly doing it on [your] own.”

A Delicate Balance

The commission worried the rogue trails could become, figuratively and literally, a slippery slope.

Conklin called for consistency across all town trail systems.

“Wherever we’re trying to maintain a certain level of trails, and not have rogue trails and cut-through trails, we’re trying to do the same thing at all of our parks, whether it’s Bradley Park, Cherry Lane Park, [Wilton Town Forest, etc.]. We can’t have people going into [parks] and they want their own private access way and they create it. If everybody did that, we would have… an unsustainable network of trails in the parks.”

Algon summed up the quandry between the public’s desire to enjoy the parks as they wish with the commission’s goal of protecting the environment: “Somehow we have to be able to negotiate a balance.”

Awareness and Education

While not excusing some residents’ flagrant disregard for the rules, the commissioners seemed to recognize that many residents (particularly the large influx of new residents) may simply be uninformed or don’t understand the reasons behind some of the department’s actions.

Commissioner Kim Healy called for more public outreach. “I think that people don’t understand a lot of why things are done the way they’re done. There may be pushback, but I think if they really did understand why things are done [in such a] way, why there are certain trails marked, [etc.],” the situation might improve.

Potential Action

Several ideas and action steps emerged from the meeting.

Will “Friends of Bradley Park” Step Forward?

Park neighbors, frequent visitors and other members of the public often make the best stewards.

Conklin said the rogue trails discussion might be a timely opportunity for creating “a stewardship group that was neighborhood driven, that could help fundraise for things like small park improvements, or any changes, or just continual maintenance.”

Various commissioners expressed support for the idea, including Cote who lives near Bradley Park, and Algon, who cited successful examples of past “friends of” groups for Horseshoe Pond and Kent Pond. “This is a method that works. There’s no question that people who live nearest, and are the biggest users, care the most,” she said.

Trails Committee?

The Conservation Commission already has at least two sub-committees–a tree committee and deer committee.

“Why don’t we have a trails committee? We have a lot of trails,” Algon suggested. “Maybe we need a group who meet on a regular basis, talk about the trails and can be supportive to Zen [Herter], [environmental analyst in the Environmental Affairs Dept.], but also serve as a place where the public can go to air any issues or requests that they’ve got.”

Commissioners agreed to further consider the Friends of Bradley Park and/or trail sub-committee ideas, including what the membership of those groups might consist of.

Commissioners, Take a Hike

In order for all commissioners to have up-to-date and firsthand knowledge of the trails, the commission agreed to take a “site walk” of Bradley Park on Monday, May 10.

While the site walk is technically a “meeting” of the commission which the public is entitled to observe, the meeting will not include any discussion with members of the public.

However, public comment is welcome at a follow-up Zoom meeting on Monday, May 17 where the public is encouraged to speak or submit letters in advance.

Meeting dates, times and agendas (which contain the Zoom link) can all be found on the town website.