Villagers help build better Florida trail

Don Valcheff, of the Village of Pinellas, makes his way through the forest during a hike on the newly expanded section of the Cassia Trailhead in Seminole State Forest.

Traffic isn’t scenic. That’s why a new 5.3-mile trail was built in Seminole State Forest — to keep hikers in the forest without the need to divert them onto “road walks” where they mix with vehicle traffic. This trail expansion, part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, was partly the work of Villagers. Residents who helped build the trail as volunteers with the Florida Trail Association’s Highlanders Chapter are among a number of residents who help enhance recreational opportunities throughout the tri-county region. Their work is responsible for improving access to trails and preserving the ecosystems within them. It also attracts tourists, as the trail association estimates about 360,000 people annually hike the trail. Local volunteers celebrated the trail reroute’s debut on Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and hike through the Cassia Trailhead that leads into the new section.

“It was nice to see it completed,” said Don Valcheff, of the Village of Pinellas, who helped build the trail. “And we hiked the whole trail.”

Despite the celebration, environmental volunteer leaders see challenges ahead in their pursuit of closing gaps that remain in the federally designated Florida National Scenic Trail.

New Paths in the Forest

The new section of the trail in Eustis was designed to eliminate more than 3 miles of road walks along the route, said Kelly Wiener, the Florida Trail Association’s Central/South regional representative.

After years of trying and failing to negotiate a trail reroute with private landowners in the area, the trail association reached a breakthrough when a park ranger in the Seminole State Forest suggested the current reroute, which crosses about 800 feet of private land.

That land is owned by the Orianne Center for Indigo Conservation, which raises Eastern indigo snakes within its building for scientific research and reintroduction programs. However, no indigo snakes exist within the forest, said Wiener.

The center’s staff approved of the reroute, and work moved ahead.

When trails don’t require a connection along a roadway, it reduces hikers’ risk of getting hurt from passing vehicles, Wiener said.

It’s also designed to make more parts of the route scenic.

A trail segment that diverts onto a road isn’t part of the scenic trail, Wiener said.

The rationale is simple: It isn’t scenic.

“A trail on a busy road would just be a road walk connector,” she said.

Sites like the Florida National Scenic Trail depend on volunteers to build and maintain sections for public access. Villagers played a significant part in making it possible over the years in places such as the Ocala National Forest and Seminole State Forest.

“It gives the public an opportunity to follow a continuous hiking trail that spans the length of Florida in the same way the Appalachian Trail stretches over many states,” said Francis Keenan, Highlanders Chapter president.

Like most of their maintenance projects, volunteers with the Highlanders used chain saws to cut through thick brush and downed trees, lawnmowers to trim high grass, and loppers — or shears — to cut overgrowth.

This isn’t the first time the Villagers-heavy Highlanders Chapter helped build new sections of the Florida Trail.

In 2017, they participated in building another section of the Seminole State Forest, a 2-mile trail south of the Tracy Canal Bridge. Prior to its completion, hikers stuck to the route by walking a section of Maggie Jones Road, southeast of Paisley in Lake County.

That year, volunteers statewide worked more than 24,800 hours and built a total of 22 miles of new trails, according to the Trail Association.

Volunteers have kept busy since then. In the group’s most recent report to the U.S. Congress, they gave more than 25,800 hours and built 38 miles of trails in 2018, on top of maintaining 1,255 miles. It estimated the value of the volunteers’ labor last year was more than $637,000.

Looking Ahead

Trail association leaders aim to build on that momentum, but they also see two significant challenges in the years to come.

One is closing additional gaps in the system — statewide as well as in the region the Highlanders cover — and rerouting trails with road walks into more natural areas.

“It’s a constant effort to try to not get everything in Florida paved,” Keenan said.

While the new trail reroute eliminated 3 miles of road walk, the trail association still has 270 more miles statewide to work on, Wiener said.

The other challenge affects how the organization expands and maintains the trail network — the aging of the volunteer base.

The group is looking to attract younger volunteers to keep the program staffed, and “when we say younger, we mean people under 70,” Keenan said.

Apart from younger retirees, the Highlanders also are reaching out to college students.

Keenan pointed to successes statewide with outdoor clubs with Embry-Riddle Aeronautic University and the University of Florida participating in trail maintenance projects.

The American Hiking Society’s Alternative Breaks — trail maintenance projects scheduled around colleges’ spring breaks — also help, he said.

A Boy Scout troop’s involvement in the recent trail reroute was an encouraging sign for Keenan that a younger generation may take interest in environmental volunteerism in the future.

More encouraging to Valcheff is continued interest in the Highlanders among newcomers to The Villages.

“We’re picking up a lot more and we help the new members get involved,” he said. “It’s a challenge, but people enjoy doing the work. They enjoy being together in a group and seeing a clean trail when it’s done.”

Finding younger members comfortable with using heavy machinery may be difficult, Valcheff said. Using a chain saw or lawnmower requires special certification.

But most volunteers typically just clip branches and overgrowth using loppers, a task anyone with basic gardening skills can complete, he said.

“You don’t really need any unique skills,” he said. “If you trim plants in your yard, that’s all you need to know. But you’ll have to deal with heat, bugs and insects, and know where poison ivy is.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.