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Closures to protect the Glen trails

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The sunny, mild weather on a recent weekend offered just the sort of break from winter that draws cabin-fevered walkers to the wood. So why, over a span of lovely days, did Glen Helen close?

The answer has to do with spring thaw, and mud. And the fragile plants that are coming up, or soon will, from ground that stays frozen even as its top inches soften and ooze.

Nick Boutis, the Glen’s director, made the tough call to close the preserve on the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 19, and keep it closed until sunrise on Monday, Feb. 22. He did so with little advance warning; Glen officials had not expected to need to take the step of closure until mid-March. But the sudden warming that happened two weeks ago — temperatures spiked to 70 after a week with lows in the single digits — called for a quick decision.

“We realized we needed to close in order to protect the Glen,” said Boutis in an interview last week.

So signs went up, and with them yellow fencing at a couple of entrances. Susan Smith, the Glen’s ranger, patrolled the park through the weekend, turning back walkers and answering questions about the reasons for the closure. Glen staff put the word out through social media. WHIO Channel 7 showed up and did a spot about the closure — the Glen’s first in response to spring thaw conditions.

But probably not its last. Boutis said the Glen may not need to close again this spring, but brief closure periods are likely during future spring thaws.

“Last year’s long winter was an epiphany for us,” he explained. “We’ve been aware that trails are a lot wider than they used to be. I’d always chalked that up to large groups who walked too wide.” But last winter, Glen officials saw the dramatic impact of sudden warm spells on the trails.

“The weather’s nice, but the ground is still frozen. On Friday evening, everything’s fine, then on Saturday, hundreds come up and muddy spots develop,” Boutis said. Hikers (understandably) skirt those spots, widening existing trails by four or five feet a day in an effort to avoid the mud. Others veer off-trail into the woods, creating what Boutis called “rogue trails” that later hikers then follow.

“Anything that’s growing at the side of the trail — like the spring wildflowers that we love so much — can be totally decimated,” he explained. Hikers don’t necessarily know they’ve done damage, he said, because even plants that aren’t up yet can be harmed. “The result of one person after another avoiding the mud … is to undo the habitat for plants and animals.”

Swings between highs and lows are what create havoc, he explained. Steady, gradual rises in temperatures that allow the ground to gradually thaw do not pose the same danger.

Most visitors to the Glen respected the decision to close, according to Boutis. “We’re super-thankful that people worked with the inconvenience,” he said. The Glen experienced “a few annoying vandalistic acts,” such as the cutting of the yellow fencing Glen staff erected, but “people were mostly very understanding.”

Ranger Smith, who spent both weekend days patrolling the Glen, agreed.

“A lot of people thought it would be a positive thing. People had seen first hand the widened trails,” she said. “A few were disappointed, and a very few were a little upset. But most were okay with it once we explained the reasons behind it.” Three Antioch College students assisted her in speaking with visitors, she added.

Comments on the Glen’s Facebook page over the days of closure reflected this largely supportive public response. Quite a few “likes” and “shares” accompanied the announcement, while only one user demanded that staff “open the Glen.”

Smith said she typically encounters 300 to 400 people on the trail on a mild, sunny weekend day. According to Boutis, because the ranger only sees a portion of the Glen’s hikers, the true number of visitors on a single springtime weekend day probably numbers between 500 and 1,000.

In view of that volume of traffic — and, most importantly, the visible lack of damage to the trails over the closure weekend — Glen officials felt their decision was sound.

“We made the right call,” Boutis said.

“I believe it was very helpful to close the trails,” Smith agreed. “I didn’t see the damage that I usually see.”

The decision highlights the balancing act that is intrinsic to the work of managing a nature preserve, according to Boutis. “The Glen was set up under an ethos … to preserve the land and to use it for educational and recreational opportunities.” Those two halves of the mission sometimes come into conflict, he added.

“As our knowledge of best practices [in land management] has evolved, we realize we can’t maximize everything,” Boutis said. “When we evaluate what we can or can’t do in the Glen, we have to evaluate it in terms of its likelihood of harming the Glen.”

No program or activity can be undertaken that “meaningfully hurts” the preserve, he said. “The Glen is here for the long run. Even the most inspired program is a one-shot deal.”

Boutis said he was grateful that most visitors recognized the decision to close, while disappointing to individual hikers, was in the best interests of the Glen, now and in the future. He urged those interested in land stewardship to consider volunteering for “Stewardship Mornings” the second Sunday of the month beginning in March to clear honeysuckle and plant trees on the Camp Greene property.

With deep winter behind us, and seasonable temperatures predicted in early March, the Glen may not need to close again this spring. But if adverse thaw conditions dictate it, Glen officials will again make the tough decision to close the preserve for a day or more. The health of the habitat — and the wildflowers of this and every spring — could depend on it.

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