Story and images by Abby Haverty; edited by Aikwan Chong
Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) is a non-profit organization that protects lands through easements and ownerships. Their mission is to conserve endangered and valuable environments. The preserve where I was hired is called Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve (BRMNAP). Virginia Outdoors Foundation conserves more than 750,000 acres in Virginia. BRMNAP is comprised of 2500 acres of hiking trails and historic sites. BRMNAP is land that holds unique ecosystems that are protected and is a great place for a hike.
As a preserve steward, I recorded visitation data and assisted with trail maintenance. Visitation data allows VOF to know how many people are on the trails, and what they are doing. This is useful because there are precious species being preserved, they cannot afford to have too many people on the premises.
One trail is closed because there were shallow rooted trees that were demolished by too many people walking on the root system. One aspect of my job is monitoring people and educating them, so we can avoid catastrophes like this in the future. When I monitor the trails at BRMNAP, I have to turn dogs away. At VOF we love animals, but sadly dogs can be detrimental to fungi species without realizing it. We are monitoring Lichen for a study, and dogs can incidentally kill it when they are on the preserve. These are some of the things I have to look out for when I’m on the trails.
While on the trails I also have to keep an eye on what maintenance might be needed. Perhaps signage needs to be clearer, or there is a new social trail. When I assist with trail maintenance it includes pulling invasive species, covering social trails, and installing trail signs. We have to identify and remove invasive species because they can compete with and kill the endangered species on the preserve.
Another thing we often have to do is cover social trails. When we close trails to limit foot traffic, hikers will often just form their own social trails by stomping and clearing plants. This is bad because it defeats the purpose of a closed trail. To cover up social trails we will drag large branches that have fallen to the ground and put it on the trail. This is a temporary fix, and it makes it difficult for hikers to go off trail. The last responsibility I have is installing trail signs. This is hardcore manual labor because I have to carry the heavy signs to the point in the trail system where they are needed. Once we get to the location we smash the sign into the ground until it is stable. I learned how to perform all of these tasks while on the job.
During my time at VOF I have learned how to identify species. I can easily identify the ferns in fern hollow, and the fungi species growing. I also learned how to identify birds and mammals. These skills came in handy for when I had to remove invasive species or tell a hiker what type of bird we just saw. This new skill set is irreplaceable and makes me a valuable asset to any conservation effort. My knowledge also kept hikers safe. For example, if they ran into a snake I could tell them if it was a harmless or a venomous species.
These responsibilities have deepened my understanding of environmental science and sustainability. My greater understanding of sustainability comes from working with a company that is actively green. In the ranger station we use solar panels to power our electronics. In addition to their mission statement of conserving the beautiful deciduous forest, VOF is trying to reduce their carbon footprint by not using paper. I am grateful to have had this experience at VOF and I hope to further my career with this company, or one that is very similar.