The Maine Trail Center will house the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s trail crew, shown above, but also serve as a facility that other land managers can use to teach trail-building design and skills. Lester Kenway photo

The need for more durable and sustainable hiking trails in Maine has come into the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic as land trusts have experienced a surge in hikers, some of them on trails badly in need of repair.

Soon there could be help for those trails, as Maine becomes one of a handful of states in the nation to offer a fixed-site, trail-building school.

On Monday, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club will launch a public fundraising campaign for the $1.3 million Maine Trail Center, a multi-use facility it plans to build near the Kennebec River in Skowhegan. The center will serve as a site to house volunteer trail crews working on the AT, and as a facility  other groups can rent or use for trail-building workshops or to teach trail-building design and skills.

The Maine club, which maintains 267 miles of the Appalachian Trail, needs to raise $600,000 by year’s end in order to break ground next spring. Already, the club has raised $733,000 through private donations and grants from private foundations. And it has secured the 55-acre Skowhegan woodlot where the center will be built with a lease from the Somerset Woods Trustees, said MATC President Lester Kenway. 

Trail experts in Maine are thrilled about this new opportunity.

“Trail development is only growing in demand, especially coming out of the last year when people are realizing how critical trails are to personal well being and the healthy infrastructure of communities,” said Mike Smith, director of the Outdoors Sports Institute in Millinocket, which helps rural communities build trails. 

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“And in Maine, we are not unique in having a certain amount of bad trails. In general, it’s safe to say that across the country the idea of sustainable trails has picked up a lot of momentum. And with more people getting outside more, trails that are not built well degrade.”

The Maine Appalachian Trail Club, founded in 1935, is one of 31 volunteer-led clubs along the Appalachian Trail that each spring bring in hundreds of volunteers to repair and maintain the AT. The club hires experienced trail workers to lead crews – with a total of about 40 individuals each season – to maintain the long-distance trail in Maine, one of the steepest, most rugged and remote sections of the AT. Historically, those trails crews have tented on land rented by the club, which provides their meals. 

But finding the land to rent has become challenging, Kenway said. The Maine Trail Center will have two large buildings with a large conference room, kitchen, pantry, two bunkhouses that sleep 24 people, bathrooms and a large barn for storage. It will be located just 40 miles from Caratunk, about midway along the AT in Maine. 

In addition, the Maine Trail Center can function as a trail-building training center for other land stewards in Maine, which has around 90 land trusts and a half dozen mountain bike clubs, all of which are building and maintaining trails.

“We can facilitate learning so people can stay for two-day workshops and actually do the work. These kinds of things you can’t learn through a book or website. It’s best done in the woods,” said Kenway, who owns a trail-building company, Trail Services LLC, and has led workshops for the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service out West.

Lester Kenway, left, shown working with Tom Cavanaugh on a section of the Appalachian Trail next to the Kennebunk River, has spearheaded the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s effort to build a trail-building school. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

While trail-building companies like Kenway’s have become more common in recent years, a fixed-site trail-building center where workshops are taught are uncommon across the country. The Maine Trail Center would be the first in Maine.

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Most fixed-site, trail-building schools in the United States – the few that exist – are located at colleges, said Taylor Goodrich, American Trails communications specialist in California.

“As far as a school or center – they’re growing, and there are sure to be more in the future. But this represents a great opportunity for Maine,” said Hawk Metheny, the Northeast regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the management of the 2,193-mile AT.

And with more people getting out on trails and public lands across the country during the pandemic, the need to educate land stewards on how to build trails that will drain properly and not erode from heavy foot traffic is a growing concern.

In the past year, the Outdoor Sports Institute partnered with the International Mountain Bicycling Association in Boulder, Colorado, to offer online trail-building courses when they couldn’t be held in the Katahdin region during COVID-19. The 50-person course that cost $425 sold out each of three times and drew people from across Maine, as well as Canada and Europe, said Smith, the institute’s director.

Artist rendering of the Maine Trail Center.  Courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

“It’s been fun to watch folks engaging with – and learning from – each other,” Smith said. “If there is a place like the new center in Skowhegan that will host trail education, we very actively support that.

Along with the explosion in trail building, there are miles of older hiking trails in the state that were built poorly, said Gary Stellpflug, Acadia National Park’s 20-year trail superintendent.

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“There are so many land trusts here. And when people first get hold of land they want to conserve, the first thing they do is put trails on them. And they’re not always good at it. I know, because I hike everywhere in Maine,” Stellpflug said. 

At Acadia, there is a lot of institutional trail-building knowledge on Stellpflug’s staff. But he said new employees still are trained by experts that Acadia brings in or new hires are sent to trail-building seminars at other national parks. Once, Acadia brought in Kenway to teach a workshop. 

In-depth training is needed because there is a complex science to building sustainable trails that drain well or bridges that will last for more than a few years, said Jane Arbuckle, the 25-year stewardship director at Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Many land trusts don’t have that expertise in-house, Arbuckle said.

“A lot of places where trails are built, the trail builders are doing the best they can but they don’t have the experience to understand what it will look like in 10 years,” Arbuckle said. “All kinds of trails have been built over the years. We need to have the trails withstand the increased use, and withstand the changes to climate change. With increased rain events, there is increased erosion. Having well-built trails now is pretty important.”

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