It’s been a tough couple of years for our trails. Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an enormous surge in the number of hikers, mountain bikers and other recreational users out there, with many new enthusiasts getting in on the outdoor action. Along with this spike has come a whole host of issues that have affected the trail experience for everyone. This monumental increase of people in the wilds has dramatically stressed the carrying capacity of our beloved outdoor resources, from trails and campsites to facilities and parking and more. Land managers across the country with their limited assets have been challenged, perhaps like never before, in working to address the environmental impact of more boots, bikes and boats.

The trails are littered with the usual snack wrappers and beverage containers, but it seems there are more of them. Doggy poop bags, used toilet paper, tissues and wet wipes, too. And a new item that’s often found discarded in these pandemic times: surgical masks. The list goes on: illegal fire pits, renegade campsites, cutting switchbacks, creating herd paths, painted rocks and stacks of rock art. All of these have serious effects on our trails that are not only unsightly and unhealthy but wholly unsustainable. Something’s got to give.

Most every outdoorsperson worth their hard-earned sweat knows the seven important Leave No Trace principles and practices them to the best of their ability. LNT grew out of the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” drives of the 1960’s and 70’s, and in recent years, it has become a bullet point in a larger set of ethics known as trail etiquette, but is this enough? Outdoor gear sales are booming, and the popular trend for active recreational pursuits is expected to continue for some time to come. The downsides are real, yes, but we can also look at this growth as a golden opportunity to garner greater support for trails and conservation and to enlist ever more environmental stewards of the lands we use and love.

One place in far western Maine is determined to do just that and more.

Courtesy: The Mahoosuc Way

What is the Mahoosuc Way?

Surrounded by the Mahoosuc Range, the White Mountains and the Oxford Hills, and threaded by the Androscoggin River and the Appalachian Trail, the  Bethel Region is a year-round hub of outdoor activity, where opportunities abound for hiking, biking, paddling, climbing, camping and skiing. It’s here that a dedicated contingent of local people, businesses and organizations have banded together in a determined effort to frame their tomorrow.

Launched in 2021 but a couple years in the making, “The Mahoosuc Way” takes a holistic approach to building a sustainable future that balances not only critical land use and recreational visitor concerns but the health of the local economy and the values of the community. It’s an ambitious campaign that could easily be a model for other areas to follow.

Through “The Mahoosuc Way,” visitors and locals alike are invited to pledge to “Embrace Our Place” to “ensure these lands and ecosystems are able to be enjoyed for generations to come…We are inviting you to be part of our shared experience here in the Mahoosuc Region. We can all play our part, and the collective sum of our actions will shape our future,” according to the program’s website.

“The Mahoosuc Way” is designed to help outdoor users understand the lands they’re visiting and what’s gone into preserving these special places. It’s a guide of sorts to recreational access as well as a primer on landowner relations across the four participating towns of Bethel, Newry, Greenwood and Woodstock, where pledge placards are posted.

“We took a region-wide view at what sustainable tourism should look like and what kind of experience we want to showcase,” says Gabe Perkins, Executive Director of Inland Woods + Trails, a Bethel-based non-profit. “The carrying capacity of the land is finite and we don’t want to lose the uniqueness of the place. It’s a culture shift that’s going to take time, but we’re trying to help ourselves and our visitors acknowledge the way things should be, now and for the future.”

By visiting their website and taking the pledge, you’ll join the many hundreds of people who have already committed to definitive action on its five key tenets: “Honor This Land,” “Explore Wisely,” “Show Respect,” “Cultivate Community,” and “Be Climate Conscious.” Then create your own “Way” by taking the spirit of this great ethos with you to where you live, work and play and sharing it with others. Plant the seed and it will surely grow.