Local trails group adopts formal structure for sustainable trails management

Krista Karlson: The Union Village Dam area has an abundance of natural resources and is also highly valued as a recreational resource by the community.

Local trails group adopts formal structure for sustainable trails management
Trail beside the Ompompanoosuc East Branch. Photo credit: Nick Clark

Written by Krista Karlson and Li Shen

In the middle of the Town of Thetford lies an ecological treasure, the Army Corps’ Union Village Dam flood control area. This locale encompasses a rich variety of interconnected habitats including two branches of the Ompompanoosuc River and their confluence, small streams and wetlands, a pond, floodplain habitat, uplands, and majestic rock outcrops. It’s not surprising that it is home to uncommon “natural communities” — assemblages of plants united by common ecological requirements. 

This area also has a rich and unusual history. In the 19th and early 20th century, prior to the construction of the dam, the land was used intensively for farming and grazing. Once the dam was built, the abandoned farmland was replaced by ecosystems influenced by regular flood disturbance. While native plants comprise the majority of species, non-native plants, including those that are invasive, also thrive here. These new plant communities were the backdrop for the emergence of an informal trail system. The initial trails, mainly roads created by the Army Corps, were expanded by unauthorized trail building, much to the frustration of Gary Pelton, the former Army Corps Natural Resources Manager who worked tirelessly to promote habitat and study resident wildlife. Today, the trail system includes trails on private parcels, the Thetford Hill State Forest, and Thetford Academy.

View from the top of the dam, looking up the main stem of the Ompompanoosuc River. Photo credit: Krista Karlson

Recognizing that management is needed to balance the pressure for recreation with the park’s natural resources, a local group, known as the Thetford Trails Team (TTT), formed. They include local residents plus representatives from Thetford Academy, the Thetford Conservation Commission, and the Upper Valley Mountain Bike Association (UVMBA) that provided funding and guidance for managing the trail network. The objective of the TTT is to promote a trail management structure that will safeguard natural resources while fostering a safe and accessible multi-use trail system. Their work is guided by recommendations drawn up by biologist Jesse Mohr, the result of Jesse’s detailed assessment of the “remarkable array of wildlife habitats and natural resources”  in the land covered by the entire trails network (the area bounded by Route 113 to the north and Rt 132 to the south, between Tucker Hill and Academy Roads). The TTT is carefully following Jesse’s recommendations, which include no new trail building as well as closing trails that pose a threat to important natural resources.

The group’s goal is to ensure that the current trail system does no more harm and to improve environmental conditions by tackling problem areas systematically. Initial priorities are to address erosion and stream/wetland crossings since there are “100 locations on the trail system that are experiencing soil erosion, have poor drainage or are at risk of future erosion.” Most of these areas can be remedied either with water bars, correct slope to the outside of the trail, or by rerouting short sections. Ten stream and wetland crossings also need to be repaired, upgraded, or replaced because of impacts or risks to banks, streambeds, or wetlands or safety concerns. Some trails may have to find alternate routes because stream crossings on Army Corps land need to comply with federal standards, which would require upfront investment. 

As a group of volunteers, the TTT has started addressing these needs. The UVMBA has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Army Corps for recreational trail oversight through August of 2025, and  various members of the TTT act as liaisons between UVMBA, the Army Corps, private landowners and trail users. 

In addition to overseeing trail stewardship and the implementation of priority projects, the TTT serves as a central contact for communications with trail users and landowners. This ensures timely follow-up on any issues that arise. The group is also recruiting volunteers to expand the number of eyes and ears drawn from all sorts of trail users and to apply best practices gleaned from experiences in other areas.

Ferns along the west branch of the Ompompanoosuc River. Photo credit: Krista Karlson

The TTT recently entered into a fiscal sponsorship with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance (UVTA), which allows them to raise donations and apply for grant money without becoming a non-profit 501(c)(3) entity. UVTA provides oversight of the funds to ensure they are accounted for and also gives technical support — for instance, with formal landowner agreements. Fiscal sponsorship will allow spending on things like mapping, a simple website, a stewardship fund for trail maintenance, and, importantly, a Paypal site at UVTA for contributions.  

Some donors, notably the Ompompanoosuc Community Trust and the Sands Foundation based in East Thetford, have already stepped up. The long-term goal is to build a broad-based funding network because maintaining trails, while keeping them in balance with sensitive natural resources, will be a long-term endeavor.

With a formalized group structure and a scientifically-informed list of priority projects beginning with erosion management, the TTT has laid a strong foundation for future work. The group is hopeful that they can reach a lasting and sustainable balance between conserving habitats and species in the greater Union Village Dam area and maintaining a multi-use trail network for the enjoyment of a wide range of trail users. Indeed, there is broad community support for sustainably managing this trail network. A posting about this trails initiative on the Thetford Listserv was received with expressions of gratitude by many residents.

The Union Village Dam area has an abundance of natural resources and is also highly valued as a recreational resource by the community. With clear stewardship goals and dedication to balancing the complexities of management, the future looks bright for this beautiful area. 

To contact the Thetford Trails Team, email thetfordtrailsteam@gmail.com.

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