Talking Trails with Chris Strohler

If there’s one thing we know, it is that Pennsylvanians love getting outdoors. Wildlands worked with the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC) in 2014 on a study to understand the economic return of our natural environment here in the Lehigh Valley. As noted in this study, approximately 75% of people in Pennsylvania enjoy some form of outdoor recreation on an annual basis.

So when looking to hike, bike and just generally get out and about, imagine what it would be like if the premier destination for recreation, and possibly even your commute, was a trail right in your neighborhood?There’s LOTS going on locally when it comes to trails and trail network development, so we decided to get the scoop from our senior conservation planner, Christopher Strohler:

Let’s start with the basics - what is a trail network?

Trail networks are described as an interconnected system of trails, typically consisting of multi-use trails. A multi-use trail is built with a wide, flat surface capable of two-way travel. The term multi-use refers to the multiple activities that it can support including biking, running, and sometimes horseback riding. A trail network is the larger web of several trails coming together, sometimes creating optional routes and loops. These networks usually cover a larger geographic region and might have specific destinations like a park, urban center, or body of water. Sometimes a network might utilize other forms of infrastructure like sidewalks, bridges, or shared roadways to help close a gap in the system.

What is the importance of closing trail gaps?

Trail gaps are missing segments within an existing trail or between two or more trails. These gaps prevent a seamless route along the trail corridor or within a network. Trail connectivity is vital to establishing a network that benefits recreational users, tourists, and the community.

These gaps are often left as the most difficult section of the trail to build either because of impeding infrastructure, natural barriers, or a lack of funding to construct the necessary connection.

Closing gaps is what makes a network complete and can transform a few individual trails into a full network, opening up opportunities for recreation, transportation, or commuting to school or work.

Can you provide a little background or history to trail networks in the area?

The Lehigh Valley has a robust history of building many types of trails including rail trails, hiking paths, bike routes, and more. There are closed networks of hiking and mountain biking trails at places like Trexler Nature Preserve, Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center, and South Mountain Preserve. We are also very fortunate to have a robust list of multi-use trails in this region including the Ironton Rail Trail, D&L Trail, and Saucon Rail Trail, all offering their own unique experience. Lots of work is currently underway to extend these regional, multi-use trails and solidify their connections to each other, creating a larger network.

What actually goes into building these trails?

Building regional trails can be fairly complicated, especially in a developed area like the Lehigh Valley. When going through the phases of a trail project, “building” is usually the last piece of a larger puzzle. The first step is to plan your trail corridor and decide what type of trail you are going to build. Rail Trails often have an existing corridor that follows an old rail line or greenways can sometimes run along a stream. Whether it be for enjoying nature, restoring heritage, or commuting to work and school, the end use for the trails Wildlands and partners plan is traditionally understood prior to planning.

For most trail projects, one of the biggest challenges is to secure all the necessary land in public ownership. Once all land is acquired, the actual design of the trail can be another daunting task. Trails, like any other development project, are engineered to understand the appropriate surface material, drainage, and landscaping for sustainable trails and minimal impact to the surrounding environment. Before construction can begin, all regulatory approvals and permits must be obtained.

After these steps, you are ready for trail construction. One of the most important components of trail building that is sometimes overlooked is maintenance. Building sustainable trails with maintenance in mind can help to save significant time and money in the long run when managing these trails over time

How do communities benefit from these trail networks once they are built?

A complete network of trails can be a huge benefit to the region’s transportation system. Networks can make it easier for people to find ways to travel locally without having to drive in their own cars. Proper planning can help connect trails, sidewalks, and transit locations like bus stops and regional rails, making it possible to travel further distances without getting into a personal vehicle. This has huge impacts on the local transportation network, helping to eliminate traffic congestion, improve air quality, and reduce maintenance costs on roads and highways.

Having a large network of trails is a great way to promote the region’s recreational opportunities and get people outside. Using trails for recreation and travel can lead to healthier, active lifestyles and sustain a high quality of life in the area. It is no secret that communities see this as a way to attract tourists, new residents, and business. This is important to consider when planning communities and recruiting a workforce.

Jordan Creek Greenway -Whitehall trail construction: before & after
What are some of the most notable accomplishments of the trail networks so far?

In 2016, the William Penn Foundation out of Philadelphia awarded $750,000 to the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor (D&L) and Wildlands Conservancy to help develop and promote the growing network of trails in the Lehigh Valley. Since then, we have worked with organizations including the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC), Discover Lehigh Valley, the Lehigh Valley Greenways partnership, and both Lehigh and Northampton counties, to help close gaps, educate the public, and plan for a regional approach to completing our trail network.

Out of this initiative, a regional brand for this trail system was created. It’s called THE LINK! THE LINK trail network offers safe opportunities for outdoor recreation, alternative transportation, regional heritage appreciation, and healthy. This growing network of offers 125+ miles today – and the vision to add 100 more! THE LINK will provide access to Philadelphia, the Pocono Mountains, and beyond.

We’ve also been able to align similar efforts to carry this mission forward including the work of LVPC on Walk/RollLV, the regional active transportation plan. This plan will help guide both the strategy of how to better connect our community through multiple modes of transportation and pay for the infrastructure to do so.

What are you most excited for in the future for trails in the area?

I’m very excited about level of coordination between regional entities, including state and local government, nonprofits, and community organizations. We are seeing an incredible focus on planning and prioritization of trail projects that can be both challenging and expensive. I’m encouraged by the future concentration on closing major gaps in the D&L Trail through the Lehigh Valley and connecting other multi-use trails to that corridor and the Lehigh River. We have trail opportunities to bring the residents of the Macungie area, the Slate Belt Region, and rural communities of Lehigh and Northampton counties back to the Lehigh River in the not too distant future.

Beyond just building and connecting these trails, I’m excited for the future reach of THE LINK as a tool to highlight our region as an incredible place to live, work, and play. It is estimated that about 25% of all tourism in the Lehigh Valley comes from recreation, which is one of the highest percentages in the state. I can only imagine how this number will grow once we close more gaps and continue to connect the network.

Christopher Strohler, Senior Conservation Planner, Wildlands Conservancy

A native of the Lehigh Valley, Chris has enjoyed exploring the regions parks, trails, and natural areas since he was a boy. Whether it be splashing around the Little Lehigh Creek or hiking at Trexler Nature Preserve, he has always found a connection to nature is easy to come by in the Lehigh Valley. Lately, he enjoys walking with his wife and son in the Lehigh Parkway.

As a part of the conservation team, Chris helps facilitate land acquisitions, particularly for open space, public access, and recreation. He oversees the trails and greenways initiatives, including the development of THE LINK Trail Network and serving as manager for the Lehigh River Water Trail.

Chris has served on numerous steering committees for regional trail projects and is part of the State Trail Gap Task Force. He holds a BA in Geography from Kutztown University.