One Step at a Time

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(HOST) Pardon the pun – but this is peak time for hiking on Vermont’s mountain tops. On Labor Day Sunday alone, more than 700 people climbed to the summit of Mount Mansfield. Commentator Vic Henningsen was among them.

(sound of hikers up and under)

(HENNINGSEN) Okay, I’m standing here on top of Mount Mansfield surrounded by Middlebury students. (laughter) Want to tell me what this is all about?

(Alyssa Panning) Well, we’re out doing a Freshman orientation trip. We’re going to – is it Twin Brook Campsite?

(Max Constant) Being a larger group, it’d be nice if you could really pay attention to the fragile alpine vegetation that’s up on this ridgeline and you know – really just carry a sense of pride with you guys and help others understand and learn. And that’s – that’s the main goal.

(HENNINGSEN) Forty years ago, visitors to the high ridge of the Green Mountains walked into a natural area in crisis.
On the open summits of Mansfield and Camel’s Hump fragile arctic-alpine plants disappeared by the acre under the relentless tread of thousands of hikers, some of whom tented and built bonfires on the summits.

In 1969, the Green Mountain Club and Vermont’s Department of Forests and Parks began a collaboration to educate visitors to Mount Mansfield about the fragility of the summit ridge, an effort that spread, first, to Camel’s Hump and eventually throughout the Long Trail system. Since then, hikers from Stratton Mountain north have encountered GMC summit stewards and shelter caretakers working to educate visitors about preserving Vermont’s wild lands: leave no trace; carry out your trash; use portable stoves instead of campfires; don’t wash in streams; camp at designated areas rather than on summits and open ridges; stay on the marked trail across the rocks in order to protect fragile alpine plants.

For five years in the ’70’s I was part of that effort. I learned that protecting the backcountry is about education. Hikers do modify their behavior when they’re shown their own role in environmental degradation.

But it’s a never-ending job, as I recalled when I visited Max Constant and Sarah Link, two GMC summit stewards on Mount Mansfield.

(Max Constant) You know, It’s not that the people don’t care. They care a lot. But they really just don’t know.

(Sarah Link) A lot of the sedge up here is just incredibly fragile and if people do walk on top of it they compact the soil which basically stops the sedge from growing.

(HENNINGSEN) It’s not easy. I remember being told to mind my own business and Sarah says that hasn’t changed:

(Sarah Link) I have had some people tell me that I’m hugging the tree a little too tight, but generally people are pretty psyched to be up here and they’re really receptive.

(HENNINGSEN) When people despair about environmental degradation today, I share their concern – but not the despair.
I remember how bleak things looked when I started working on Mansfield in June ’71. Today the summit ridge never looked better. Erosion is under control; the plants are coming back. That’s the result of almost forty years of patient work by people like Sarah and Max, people who believe that – once awakened – taking responsibility for the environment is both instinctive and contagious.

So who says we can’t do anything about the environmental challenges that confront us? Up there on the Long Trail we’ve been doing it successfully since the 1970’s – one step at a time.

(sound of hikers up and out)

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

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