A few weeks ago, 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, causing erosion, “degradation of the natural areas,” and habitat loss for native plants and wildlife. But some outdoor enthusiasts want to get off the beaten path of the main trails and believe the town is being too restrictive with the vast natural areas in the town parks.

Wilton’s Conservation Commission has made the issue its newest focus, discussing it extensively at its May 5 meeting and taking a site walk at one Wilton park to gain an up-close, firsthand understanding of the current state of some rogue trails. At a special meeting last night (Monday, May 17), the commission reconvened to try and chart a way forward.

With more people on the trails during the COVID-19 pandemic, including many newcomers who may not know park rules or how to discern official trails from unofficial, the problem of the so-called rogue trails seems to have grown over the past year. Officials have become particularly concerned about Bradley Park, where some trail users have been repeatedly ignoring the closures of unauthorized trails and interfering with restoration efforts.

Commission members met at Bradley Park for a site walk last Monday, May 10. GOOD Morning Wilton joined six members of the commission for a tour that was guided by Mike Conklin, the director of Wilton’s Environmental Affairs Department. First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice also attended the site walk.

Conservation Commission members inspect a closed trail in Bradley Park on Monday, May 10, 2021

Site Walk Observations

The site walk included trails that the Environmental Affairs staff had marked as closed by posting prominent signage. They also had placed branches across those trails to discourage use.

As town officials had reported, GMW observed signs that had been posted on closed rogue trails now knocked to the ground, such as the one below.

This sign about trail closures, like others, appeared to have been tossed aside in Bradley Park

The commissioners discussed their observations at last night’s May 17 special meeting.

Commission co-chair Frank Simone said he was “uncomfortable” with the trails created by residents on their own, outside of official channels. He noted “the difficulty of the town maintaining those trails” and ensuring public safety, along with his concern that the problem of rogue trails could emerge in more town parks.

Commissioner Kim Healy said she found it surprising how many rogue trails there were. While she felt “people shouldn’t be making their own private access,” she was open to keeping some of the newer paths where it might make sense to alleviate some of the traffic on main trails. As Healy observed on the site walk, the main trails have suffered erosion, exposing rocks and tree roots, making them difficult to traverse.

Commissioner Phil Murphy went further, theorizing that the rogue trails are being created because “the current trails are either inadequate or not properly maintained.”

Murphy was most vocal in his criticism of the town’s handling of the rogue trails. He said that the town’s extensive efforts to block the trails were “misplaced” (even potentially making the trails “more dangerous”) and those efforts would have been better directed toward improving the official trails.

“[The main trails aren’t] in very good shape. In fact, I didn’t see a whole lot of difference between the official trails and the rogue trails. They seem to both be fairly rugged and dangerous. My impression is [blocking the new trails] was the wrong thing to do,” he said.

While Murphy conceded, “it’s not proper for everyone to make their own trails,” he felt the commission could “take a cue” from what some residents have done as an indicator where more trails would benefit the trail system.

While commission chair Jackie Algon acknowledged that some balance between the commission’s goals and the public’s wishes needed to be reached, there are some things she believes cannot be compromised.

“The parks are certainly for all of the people who live here … for their enjoyment,” she began. “It’s very important that we hear what the public feels and that we try to find some ground where we can make the parks available to those who wish to use them in different ways, whether it’s walking or biking or snowshoeing or riding horses, [etc.].”

However, she emphasized that “we do have a number of issues that need be considered as part of that,” including the need to be clear with residents about the town’s policy, which simply does not allow for people to make their own trails or trail markings.

“The [rogue] trails were closed off for a reason that had to do with protection of the habitat, and I don’t want to lose sight of that,” Algon said.

Furthermore, residents should understand that trails must be carefully planned and constructed. Algon said, “This work needs to be done by someone who really understands what’s involved in creating trails. It’s not just making a pathway … it’s taking into consideration the habitat and the ecology of the parks.”

Algon summarized the need for residents to work together with the town. “We have to have an understanding with the public, in the end, that if there are things that need to be changed in the parks, that we sit down together, to hear what is insufficient, to see if we can make some accommodations.”

She repeated, “People cannot take it upon themselves to make those changes.”

Introducing “Friends of Bradley Park”

A key idea that emerged from the May 5 meeting was whether the park might benefit from a resident-led advocacy group.

It was Conklin who raised the idea. He felt the recent rogue trails discussion might be a good context in which to form “a stewardship group” that could advocate for park improvements. Various commissioners sparked to the idea, but Dave Cote, who happens to live near Bradley Park, quickly acted upon it.

After consulting with Conklin and Vanderslice, Cote officially launched a membership drive for the “Friends of Bradley Park.” He circulated a letter to park neighbors and frequent visitors, explaining that the group is intended “to meet the needs and growing concerns of increased trail usage in our favorite town park.”

The letter noted that the initiative was in cooperation with Wilton’s Department of Environmental Affairs and the Wilton Conservation Commission. Similar groups have worked to benefit Kent Pond and Horseshoe Pond.

According to Cote’s letter, “The purpose of the group is to raise funds for trail maintenance and improvements while promoting Bradley Park as one of Wilton’s hidden gems.”

The initial fundraising goal is $5,000.

Budget constraints are a factor in the town’s desire to manage the number of trails. As Conklin said in the May 5 meeting, every linear foot of trail the town must maintain for the public’s safety comes with a real cost — and his department’s budget has shrunk in recent years.

Cote referred to the commission’s “long-standing relationship” with the Fairfield County chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association. He said he hopes to involve FCNEMBA, which has significant trail-building expertise, “to suggest, improve, and reroute new and existing trails.”

Commissioners spoke highly of the FCNEMBA organization, but cautioned that the town would have final authority on any work on the trails.

Anyone interested in receiving more information, joining Friends of Bradley Park, or making a donation may contact Conklin by email with Friends of Bradley Park in the subject line.

Public Comment

Three residents attended the public meeting, which was held on Zoom.

Andy Cox, an Oak Ledge resident since 1998 and avid Bradley Park trail user, said the town’s approach to the trails was “unfortunate” and thought “there has to be cooperation” between the town and residents when it comes to safe and environmentally sound trails.

Cox said he supported the formation of the Friends of Bradley Park and also voiced support for FCNEMBA.

Katherine Silvan indicated she lived near the park and visits it nearly every day. While she considers herself someone who appreciates and cares for the park, she objected to the town’s closing of the rogue trails and what she called “rude” treatment by the town.

“Maybe we can figure out a way to navigate around some of the trails that are heavily eroded and use the trail that’s been blocked off as a way to give the other trails a break,” Silvan suggested.

She also voiced support for the Friends of Bradley Park idea.

Emily Hamlin also joined the meeting, mainly to see “where the conversation is going.” She lives around the corner from the park and enjoys it daily. She said she is “all for a group effort” like Friends of Bradley Park and also hopes to see “better communications and clearer feedback loop between the town and how the park is used.”

At the end of the meeting, Vanderslice indicated she was disappointed that more residents hadn’t joined the discussion to give their input, alluding to many letters the town had received on the subject of town parks over the course of the pandemic, not just on the matter of rogue trails but other concerns about the trails.

She encouraged the commission to seek more opinions from the public. “There’s a lot of opinions out there,” she said. “I’m happy people did come tonight but there’s a lot more people who shared their opinions in the last year about Bradley Park who didn’t come today.”

Conklin concluded his thoughts by telling Cote, “I look forward to hearing about the Friends of Bradley Park group once it’s formed and you have a specific mission, vision and direction,” and he offered to coordinate any volunteer work through the department.

Conklin reminded the commission that groups like the Boy and Girl Scouts must also be allowed “to gain valuable experience in organizing, coordinating and leading” some park improvement projects.

Wilton has many miles of trails on hundreds of acres in over 20 town parks. See the entire list, with trail maps, on the Wilton town website.

To report an issue or damage on any town trails, use SeeClickFix (select Trails under Submit a Request).

Editor’s note:  The article has been updated to reflect that donations to the Town of Wilton may not be tax-deductible, and that anyone with questions or hoping to get involved with Friends of Bradley Park should contact Environmental Affairs Director Mike Conklin. There was also an update to clarify the Conservation Commission’s position on how oversight of trails is managed.