Happy Trails

New Year’s Day brings hope and resolutions--many of the latter having to do with increased exercise and healthier living. One way to achieve these goals is walking on the abundant trails found within parks nationwide. Maintaining existing trails and creating new ones are on the agenda of many parks and rec departments, but the popularity of walking makes this difficult because the trails are often in use. That is why wintertime trail grooming is gaining in popularity.

A Multi-Purpose Tool

Private contractor Jody Lance of JCL Industries in Molalla, Ore., does a fair amount of trail grooming in the winter because the trails are largely empty. He uses that time to show what his tracked mulcher can do. “I can work in snow, sleet, ice and rain when rubber-tired machines or larger-tracked machines can’t,” says Lance. The Fecon FTX90 he operates offers a firm grip, but a light footprint. “The machine has good finesse,” Lance continues. And he can selectively remove trees; if there are two side by side, he can remove one without harming the other. Underbrush also can be removed without damaging a tree or its root structure.

A Virginia contractor uses a similar mulcher to create trails in his area. “We can grind four- to six-inch saplings, which are way too big for a bush hog,” says John Sutherland. “We mow slowly, taking a pass in one direction, and then come back in the other direction.” With this approach, Sutherland is able to grind stumps down to and below ground level so that the trail can be maintained with a bush hog.

A Fraction Of The Time

Alex Stout of Lackawana County Parks in Pennsylvania used to oversee trail creation and maintenance when it was done by hand. “If we could get in with a machine and mow trails, we would do so,” says Stout. “But once vegetation was too big, we couldn’t get in with those tractors. We’d … bust blades on the flails [and] then it became a manual thing with loppers and chainsaws. If we created any new trails, it was the same thing--a very time-consuming effort.”

With the aid of a tracked mulching machine, however, the process (not to mention the trails that are created) is much smoother. And it’s faster. By Stout’s estimation, it is probably five times faster, maybe more.

In addition to having walking and hiking trails, some parks also are developing snowmobile trails. Forester Scott McDougal, who manages some tribal lands in northern Wisconsin, has experienced trail creation by hand and appreciates the time savings that mechanized mulching can provide. “We created a trail that was several miles long in 16 hours. It would have taken weeks to accomplish by hand.”

Other Benefits

Time is not the only savings that mechanical mulchers offer for trail grooming. Typically, mulchers are one-person operations, so the machine replaces a three- or four-person crew. Thus, productivity is greatly increased. At the same time, safety is enhanced because the need to handle sharp pruners, chainsaws and other potentially dangerous items can be eliminated.

Plus, the shredded material created by the mulcher makes a pathway that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. A carpet of mulch is softer than bare dirt, provides better footing in wet weather, and is less messy in rainy conditions. Practically speaking, this mulch also prevents erosion and keeps trails from becoming rutted--a potential risk for turned ankles or worse.

Mechanical mulchers can play an important role in trail grooming and creation. As Americans hit the trails to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions, it is comforting to know that both park officials as well as visitors can do so safely and comfortably.