by Greg Ritson, ATC Technical Trail Specialist

Season in Review

Greg Ritson joined the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for the 2023 season as the Technical Trail Specialist to serve the network of A.T. partners along most of the Appalachian Trail. The role, supported by the National Forest Foundation, Athletic Brewing, and the gift of a donor (who also volunteers), delivered training and development opportunities to new and existing volunteers with the goal of building the base of volunteer stewards and strengthening volunteer leadership.  

Greg Ritson headshot. In the photo, Greg smiles with a pack on his back.

These are Greg’s reflections on the season:

I came into this role with a lot of trail experience, but a vague understanding of how the ATC operates through the Cooperative Management System to accomplish its goals. I have had a great privilege to be able to work closely with folks on all sides of this collaborative management framework- ATC, clubs, and land managers. Talent, passion, and dedication abound in support of the Appalachian Trail.

The role I was tasked to fill is a direct response to a need identified by clubs: support in trail maintenance skills and volunteer recruitment. By offering workshops, we set the stage for newcomers to learn on level ground with experienced volunteers and opened the invitation wide to new volunteers. This was the second year of the program; my predecessor inaugurated this position by providing essential maintenance workshops. I continued sharing fundamentals, expanding training to even more clubs, and supported the development and facilitation of Field Leadership Training workshops. (The first two modules are found here and here, with the third module taking place in person.)

I attempted to execute this role with a philosophy of “meeting people where they are at.” What I mean by this phrase is that in the larger scheme of cooperative management, we have all had diverse experiences in trail stewardship, but our goals are all shared – steward the A.T. so it can be enjoyed by future generations. Every hour of work, mile driven, Saturday sacrificed, and ounce of dirt moved is done with this in our minds and hearts.

I introduced skills, techniques, and ways of looking at trail work that were familiar to some but new to most, with the intention to empower volunteers to do the most effective work possible. As conservation stewards we must continue to always learn, adapt, and improve to do work in the best interest of the Trail and nature.

I was asked to support a couple events in addition to regular workshops, including: Wilderness Skills Institute, Boonesboro Trail Dedication, Latino Aventureros, Emerging Leaders Summit, as well as support for the Rocky Top and SWEAT Crew programs. Latino Aventureros is a North Carolina based organization empowering Latinos in outdoor spaces, and the Emerging Leaders Summit supports the development of leaders in outdoor spaces. Both transformational events included powerful conversations on diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces.

Personally, I was privileged to witness what our volunteer base looks like. We have a great breadth of diversity: teachers, engineers, students, industry professionals, retirees, and working parents. I truly feel like I made a great many friends over the course of the season.

I took great joy in what I affectionately referred to as “work sanctioned van-life”, sharing in the passion for the A.T., conservation, and the outdoors in general. Among the clubs I was a recipient of great hospitality and generosity while camping out for the night or sometimes spending an entire weekend for a multi-day workshop.

It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. The outpour of gratitude from hikers as they walked by and marveled at our work enriched the experience. Inevitably a short ten-second exchange of smiles and pleasantries would morph into a ten-minute story of their connection with the Trail or the area.

For me, this experience deepened my insight into conservation stewardship, and I hope through my role I have inspired that in others, too.