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Jack Herscowitz ’20 was a summer intern with the Middlebury Area Land Trust, splitting his time between trail maintenance and GIS mapping of the 19-mile path.

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Student Maps and Maintains Trail Around Middlebury

August 29, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – It’s a sunny August morning on the Trail Around Middlebury, the town’s 19-mile hiking path locals call “the TAM.” Stands of goldenrod dominate this open meadow not far south from the Ridgeline Woods parking lot. White oak and ash saplings planted by environmental studies students dot this stretch of the TAM’s Colin O’Neil Class of ’97 Trail. An occasional monarch flaps by on its way to the next milkweed plant. Last night it rained heavily, but this morning the ground is already dry and the sky is perfectly blue except for a few wisps of clouds.

Trail coordinator John Derick and his two-person summer maintenance crew are sizing up an 18-year-old wooden walkway that’s got some rot and wobble issues.

“It’s a pretty fantastic summer job,” said crew member Jack Herscowitz ’20.

Herscowitz, an environmental policy and music double major about to start his junior year, is this summer’s Middlebury College intern with the Middlebury Area Land Trust. Like his many predecessors, he’s responsible for both trail maintenance and GIS (geographic information systems) mapping. The internship is itself a part of a longtime partnership between the college and MALT.

Jack Herscowitz ’20 crosses a suspension bridge on the Trail Around Middlebury.

    For the next hour and a half, the whine of cicadas and never-ending cricket chirps are punctuated with sharper sounds. Herscowitz takes a pry bar to the structure’s old rotten boards and rips them off, while Derick and crew member Jenn Smith chainsaw new boards out of salvaged lumber. These then get drilled and hammered on.

    “This is a repair job,” Derick comments, as they work. “It might not be pretty but it’ll be rugged.”

    This particular 10-foot span of planks-nailed-on-a-truss rests directly on a low spot in a meadow, where it provides just enough elevation during spring thaws or after heavy rains to keep Class of ’97 hikers out of the mud. By the time it’s reinforced, it’s so heavy it takes all three of them to turn it over and put it back in place. The repaired truss still wobbles, and Derick is not satisfied until they level it, digging dirt out in one spot and replacing it in another.

    “It’s been invaluable,” said Derick, of the hours of trail work Middlebury students have contributed over the years. “Without that help there’s a lot of things that just wouldn’t get done.”

    As in past summers, the trail maintenance part of Herscowitz’s job has included repairing wooden walkways, platforms, steps, and bridges of all types; cutting brush, whacking weeds, and mowing, so the trail stays passable; and stabilizing steep hillsides with stone and rock.

    The GIS mapping part of Herscowitz’s internship has its own history. It is one of several mapping-related internships funded in honor of the late Bob Churchill, a geography professor who built the GIS/cartography lab and established Middlebury’s GIS program.

    Back at the Bicentennial Hall GIS lab, Herscowitz, left, works on mapping software with his internship supervisor Bill Hegman, a GIS specialist and teaching fellow at Middlebury.

      “The College, and especially the Geography Department, have been working with the Middlebury Area Land Trust since I've been here, so close to 20 years,” said Middlebury geography department GIS Specialist Bill Hegman, who oversees all summer GIS interns. “One of the key things MALT needs is maps—maps for all kinds of purposes, map analysis, geographic analysis.”

      In the past, Middlebury students have created the various iterations of the official TAM map and they often put together baseline documentation reports for newly conserved properties. This summer MALT is focusing on kiosk upgrades, funded by a recent grant, and has Herscowitz working on new kiosk maps for individual TAM segments. He spends mornings walking trails, side trails, and boundaries with a GPS app to note any changes or additions or to verify boundaries; in the afternoon he moves to the GIS/cartography lab at Bicentennial Hall.

      “Essentially what I’m doing,” explained Herscowitz, “is I have my GPS app on my phone, and I have the old map, and I just sort of walk until everything that I can possibly find has been walked. So my job is actually to hike! I think that’s pretty amazing.”

      Mountain bikers, especially, said Herscowitz, are blazing their own side trails on the TAM. And, as Hegman noted, with “the Trail Around Middlebury, you would think that once it’s set, it’s set. But there are changes that happen all the time.”

      Herscowitz has also walked and verified boundaries at the historic Salisbury Mills, a 70-acre site conveyed to MALT in 2004. Herscowitz’s summer work puts MALT yet another step closer to its goals of developing the site with trails and historic markers.

      Herscowitz spent mornings on the Trail Around Middlebury, doing mapping and maintenance. The College and Middlebury Area Land Trust have collaborated on summer internships for years.

        “A small nonprofit like MALT can’t afford the technology and specialized skills to complete the GIS mapping that the Middlebury College interns take on each year,” said MALT Executive Director Jamie Montague. “At larger land trusts these skills are in-house, but at MALT we seek partnerships outside our organization to get the job done well. MALT has been particularly excited about the two-way relationship we form with each summer’s intern. The students gain hands-on experience that provides them with autonomy and exposure to a real-life application of their academic studies. MALT gains invaluable expertise through the students and Professor Hegman.”

        In addition to summer and other internships, work on the TAM links the town and the College in a number of ways. The Class of ’97 TAM segment was itself built and designed as part of an environmental studies senior seminar; another senior seminar analyzed possible routes for a Vermont extension of the North Dakota-to-New York North Country Scenic Trail, one of MALT’s ongoing projects. A social psychology class did a series of projects on how to increase TAM membership. Individual students volunteer to do trail work. And like townspeople, students and other members of the College community take to the TAM to unwind and spend time in nature.

        Herscowitz recalled his first steps on the TAM as a first-year: “It was the day of the spring symposium. I had given my symposium presentation and immediately afterwards my friend and I were like ‘All right! Let’s hike the TAM.’ We discovered the [Otter Creek] Gorge and went, ‘Whoa!’—we had no idea it was that close.”

        As part of his summer internship, Herscowitz worked on creating kiosk maps for individual sections of the Trail Around Middlebury.

        For Herscowitz, one of the best parts of the MALT internship is that “this is just a great way to figure out what my values are in work.” In contrast with this summer’s hands-on work for a local organization, last summer Herscowitz interned with a large federal agency doing environmental research.

        “Seeing the tangible effects of what you’re doing is great; working outside is amazing. I love that everything you do is impactful and really important to MALT and to the larger community,” Herscowitz said.

        As with many past summer interns, Herscowitz has also been inspired by trail supervisor Derick, who’s been a driving force behind the TAM since its inception in the late 1980s, has built or contributed to building almost all 19 miles of the TAM, and has been supervising Middlebury students for what he reckons is the past 15 years—all done as a volunteer.

        “John is very much the lifeblood of the TAM,” said Herscowitz. “He’s an incredible person.”

        “It’s a labor of love,” said Derick. “I just love that the trail brings people together.”

        This fall Derick will hand off his trail coordinator responsibilities to Herscowitz’s crewmate, Jenn Smith, but said he’ll still come back to volunteer when she wants help.

        Reflecting on this summer’s work, Herscowitz said: “My biggest takeaways have been the importance of maintaining community relationships in organization building, especially at the local level. Seeing John and Jamie’s connection to and love for the community has been really rewarding.”

        By Gaen Murphree; Photos by Todd Balfour