With Help From AmeriCorps, Chatham Spruces Up Conservation Trails

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Conservation , Recreation

AmeriCorps member Brian Wagenaar installs a sign at the Valley Farm conservation area off Barn Hill Road. Wagenaar spends two days a week helping the town's conservation and shellfish departments. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – For the town's conservation department, a couple of days of work by14 AmeriCorps Cape Cod members can clear six months worth of projects from the calendar.

“They're terrific workers,” said Assistant Conservation Agent Paul Wightman. “In one day they can go in and clear a trail, create a scenic overlook and put signs and a fence up.”

The town has more than 22 conservation properties, and last month the AmeriCorps members worked at three of the most visible, doing exactly what Wightman said – clearing out existing trails, installing new conservation area and hiking signs, erecting fencing and placing benches at scenic areas.

“The goal is to make the property inviting, safe, and to manage the habitat for whatever our plans call for,” he said.

Maintenance of the areas had fallen off in recent years due to changes in personnel in the conservation department. Former agent Kristin Andres and former assistant agent Lara Slifka had developed a plan to maintain the properties and created or enhanced a network of trails; they'd also overseen a stewardship program, enlisting volunteers to watch over conservation properties, walking them a few times a year and keeping an eye out for illegal dumping and other detrimental activities. They oversaw those programs with help from AmeriCorps members.

When Wightman, who briefly served as conservation agent, began working full time for the town last October as assistant conservation agent/North Beach manager, he decided to use the winter months to give a few more high profile conservation lands some long-needed attention.

Two days a week, he gets help from AmeriCorps member Brian Wagenaar. Originally from Minnesota, Wagenaar is also working with the town's shellfish department on a long-term shellfish population survey, but during the winter is able to devote more time to conservation projects. He also spends one day a week in Eastham, where he's working on a project to certify six vernal pools, and is also working on building a shellfish upwelling system for Pleasant Bay Community Boating.

“Getting to know about shellfish has been cool,” he said of his experiences on the Cape. He also got to assist in a dolphin stranding and helped rescue cold-stunned sea turtles on Cape Cod Bay.

Not all of the town's 1,000 acres of conservation land contains trails, but those that do need to be maintained regularly to keep paths open and keep invasive species in check, Wightman said.

“Signage is very important,” he added. The recent improvements have included signs with the universal hiking symbol at trail heads, as well as signs with trail maps and information about the specific property. AmeriCorps crews put up split-rail fencing at train heads, and even cut a new trail at the Valley Farm conservation property off Barn Hill Road. The trail leads to a scenic spot overlooking a marsh on the Oyster River, where the group placed a bench.

In May Wightman hopes to have the AmeriCorps group back to work on the Goose Pond and Forest Beach conservation properties. Eventually he'd like to implement some habitat management efforts, such as installing bluebird boxes.

Wagenaar will work with him through the spring, when he'll go back to the shellfish department. “We all work together pretty well,” said Assistant Shellfish Constable and Propagation Specialist Rachel Hutchinson, who oversees the town's interaction with AmeriCorps Cape Cod. One reason for that may be that she came to Cape Cod as an AmeriCorps member. “I didn't know what a shellfish was before I showed up,” she said.

Work with AmeriCorps members, most of them fresh out of college, is “as much an experience for us as it is for them,” Wightman said. He added that it's refreshing to work with young people with an interest in the environment willing to make the year-long commitment that AmeriCorps requires.

Trail maps and information about the town's conservation lands are available through the conservation division page on the town's website at www.chatham-ma.gov/conservation-division. The page also has a link to the 2007 conservation land management plan.