“In 2000 I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. And on that trail, and in research afterwards, I learned that there are certain barriers that prevent some people from recreating on trails, or in forests, or natural places. So I decided to pull together my skills and figure out what could I do to break down some of those barriers. [O]ne of the things I did was join the RTF because their missions and strategies were just perfect in line with what I was doing at that time.”
Those are the words the former president of the Rivanna Trails Foundation, Diana Foster. She could not have picked a better organization to do her work. Founded in 1992 by a pair of birders, the Rivanna Trail was created by and for the Charlottesville community. It has since expanded into a twenty-mile network of trails that circle all of Charlottesville– every neighborhood in Charlottesville is only a few miles from the trail. While Charlottesville is lucky to be situated an hour from the Shenandoah National Park, and a few hours from the Chesapeake Bay, accessing those wilds is often time consuming and costly for residents. The trail brings access to nature outside our front doors.
After spending a few years as a volunteer, Diana Foster became president of the Foundation, serving from 2002-2005. She led the second-wave push to keep building, particularly on the south of Charlottesville, and emphasized trail maintenance in particular. Building a segment of trail, however, isn’t as easy as just clearing away some bushes.
“Basically the strategy was [to] scout out where a good trail could be, talk to the landowners, see if they would give us permission for the public to walk on their lands. Then organize work parties, huge national trails days events… and just come out and build the trails, pretty much as you see them.”
The trail exists on both public and private land (including a significant amount of UVA property). So every new segment of trail comes with legal work: negotiating with or convincing landowners, and writing up official permissions with the private property owners. This is easier now, as the Rivanna Trail is a more “established” idea, but there are still some very reluctant landowners that make connecting disparate sections of trail difficult. Plus, Charlottesville’s landscape is under constant revision, so the RTF is in close contact with UVA, VDOT, and incoming developers– new roads are built or landscapes altered, sections have to be rerouted or fought for in order to be preserved. This twenty mile circuit was built bit by bit, parcel by parcel, slowly but surely.
Once permissions are granted, the trail segment itself has to be created. This is done entirely by volunteers. They show for “work parties” the second Saturday of every month for several hours in the morning, usually about 20 strong, and get to building. Whacking, cutting, flattening, but not much else: the trail is very low impact and is built to Appalachian standards.
“It took so many people. It took hundreds of people. And it took hundreds of phone calls, and hundreds of [hours] walking with people…. we would get a new Parks and Rec Director come into town and I would get him on the trail before he had even hit his office, like, “you have to back us on this.” So it’s a constant [effort of] getting support, and building relations, and maintaining those relationships.”
The trail network is loosely based around the rivers that run through and around Charlottesville- including the Rivanna River, but also all its little tributaries: Moore’s Creek, Meadow Creek, Pollock’s branch, and Schenk’s branch. Being near water makes for an awesome walking experience, but it poses some design difficulties. “The absolute hardest places [to build],” says Diana, are stream crossings. Because of the floodplain, and potential erosion, a tiny creek requires a pretty huge bridge, bigger than you’d expect. “And then the cost factor for that is just so exorbitant,” adds Diana. Typically, the Foundation relies on larger, project-based grants to complete bridges, but some private school classes and the Boy Scouts have also contributed projects.
It cannot be emphasized enough that the trail exists because people of Charlottesville have dedicated themselves to it. Diana beams when she talks about the turnout to work parties, or the crazy, rainy volunteer days, or the little sacrifices community members make for the trail. Diana loves to tell the story of an older woman who adopted a particularly thorny rosebush on a segment near her house. Dedication and a pair of clippers was all she needed to keep that bush back no matter what. Many people do this, in fact— volunteered, regular maintenance is part of “Adopting” a section of trail. This “elite group,” as the RTF website calls them, keep an eye out for erosion, washouts, or potential dangers, as well as keeping their section of the trail accessible and tidy. “It is very much our trail,” Diana emphasizes. “It is very much a community trail.”
Some of the most gratifying times for her have been to see the trail become accepted as an official part of Charlottesville’s community.
“Some landowners…were a bit hesitant to have some people walk on their land, so we would do it as a trial basis, with a letter of permission, and when they found out that it would be absolutely fine, that they would be welcoming to it… One of the biggest accomplishments was that we would start seeing real estate ads, where developers were advertising that their new homes were “on the trail” or “near the trail.” That’s when things really came to life, you know, that this was a real thing in the community. Even the City of Charlottesville decided to put [it] on their website, or UVA, for their cross country and track teams, will advertise the trail for practice.”
“Everyone is welcome to use the trail,” says Diana. But much of her work with the trail— and Charlottesville’s other natural access points— has to do with enforcing that idea.
“The thing that I noticed… is that I saw one person of color the entire 5 and half months I was on the [Appalachian] Trail. So when I came home, I wanted to find out why that was…. that’s when I found out about a very complex history among some groups of African Americans, primarily stemming from the Jim Crow days.”
For some African Americans, forests were historically considered to be a dangerous place– loose dogs and unfriendly neighbors were two of her examples. These “oral traditions,” as she calls them, were passed down through families and in neighborhoods.
“For many people, however, hiking and trails just [aren’t] a high priority. They don’t have the financial means to have a vehicle to go to a National Park. It costs a fair amount of money to go to Shenandoah National Park, for a day-pass, there are people who work weekends, working several jobs. Just having time for recreation is a challenge for some people.”
Her personal mission is to bring people to love the trail who might have never had the chance to otherwise. As president of the RTF, in her current work for the Ivy Creek Foundation, and in her work with the Southwood Boys and Girls Club, her goal is to truly make the trail a place where everyone feels comfortable She’s brought preschoolers, elementary schoolers, groups from Friendship Court, seniors; any first timers she could introduce to the trail, she did. She also started the Loop de Ville tradition of taking people completely around the trail loop, which still happens every year the first Saturday of November.
“[I was having] having people out on the trails for 6, 8, 9, hours and seeing every aspect of it… it was a chance to tell everybody every single story that went along with every little parcel of property and every landowner and every accomplishment and what fun work days we had and where some catastrophe happened. There’s just so much community history that went into this trail.”
Nature is important to Diana, and she wants to share that love and joy with everyone around her.
“I believe strongly [that] if you get people into nature they will appreciate it and be more apt to work [to protect] it. My particular passion is getting young people out so that they don’t have any fears about being in the forest. So I work with children, getting them in the forest for fun experiences. We learn ecology, we learn some science, we learn a lot about self confidence. And I just have to believe that when they grow up they will be protectors of our forests.”
The Rivanna Trail was built by Charlottesville and is used by Charlottesville. It is a great equalizer; nature benefits everyone and can be appreciated by anyone. Birders, walkers, runners, families, hikers, relax-ers: no matter who you are, the trail is yours. But just as it serves all of Charlottesville, it depends on all of Charlottesville to use it, appreciate it, and preserve it.