Mount Philo’s ‘good problem’, plan seeks balance in recreation and sustainability

Photo by Madeline Hughes
The lower parking lot for Mount Philo State Park fills up on Monday before the park officially opens for the season.

The process started back in 2013 when concerns about overuse at Mount Philo State Park prompted the state of Vermont to begin looking at a long-term management plan.

Over the past five years, two public meetings and two surveys informed the Rutland Stewardship Team – members of the departments of  Forests, Parks and Recreation, Fish and Wildlife, Environmental Conservation and the Agency of Natural Resources – as they drafted the management plan.

Last week, members of the stewardship team held the final public meeting in Charlotte to discuss the plan’s recommendations and encourage people interested in the park to submit comments by the end of May. Approximately 70 people came to the meeting to learn about various parts of the plan and ask questions to stewardship team members.

Vermont’s first state park is continuously ranked as one of the most-visited parks.
The easy accessibility with a paved road and trail to the top and its close proximity to Route 7 in Charlotte make it an appealing hike or drive for an estimated more than 100,000 visitors each year.

Mount Philo’s draft management plan is a bit different from other state parks’ plans in the state. The long-term plan includes short-term actions to take in order to balance use. For example, in the short-term, the plan wants to limit the number of large groups that enter the park at any one time. However, in the long-term, the development of another hiking trail to the summit will seek to alleviate the stress on the current single trail to the top.

“People are perceiving (the recommendations) as limitations, we don’t want to limit use,” State Parks Director Craig Whipple said. “We want everyone to be there, but we have to manage it so everyone can go.”

It’s a “good problem,” Whipple said. “The use has increased dramatically to over 100,000 people a year. The trails people use have to be sustainable to meet our resource conservation.”

Currently there are no plans for additional parking. However, on nice summer days, holidays and weekends Mount Philo’s 100 parking spaces are often filled, according to Rick Hedding, regional ranger supervisor.

“The (District Stewardship Team) feels that parking is adequate to optimize both high-quality recreational experiences and natural resource protection and that expanded parking would translate into visitation out of balance with visitor experience and environmental protection. For now the plan proposes to keep parking as is but fully utilize its capacity by limiting large groups and buses, moving the dumpster and portalets so that the full parking area is available for cars,” according to information from the Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation.
The plan also calls for the park to be closed when parking reaches its maximum capacity. Previously people were not turned away when parking reached the maximum capacity and people often parked on the streets and in the grass.

Currently the budget allows a possibility for the park to stay open for one additional week at the end of the season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Oct. 9. Nine people are staffed at the park this year with the potential to have a few volunteers, so hours are likely to remain the same from 10 a.m. to sunset every day. Going forward with the plan the hours and season could potentially change.

This plan is for the long-term and does not directly allocate money to the projects described. However, going forward with budgeting year-to-year, the plan will help guide what improvements are made at the park.

Not a numbers game
The mountain isn’t a movie theater with a maximum capacity based on seats. And a varying number of people could arrive in the 100 cars that are allowed to park at Philo during the high season.

“Not a numbers game, it’s impact” said Lisa Thornton, state lands stewardship forester, after being asked about what the maximum capacity of the park was.
It’s a natural resource. Trails erode with use.

“Philo is a great resource for that in its own right and helps us achieve one of our primary objectives – getting people outdoors and connecting them to the land,” Thornton said after the meeting. “However, our responsibilities are much broader than that and we manage the park also to maintain soil, protect flora and fauna, find the right balance of a recreation experience, and make sure Philo remains an important connection to surroundings landscape.

“How many people the park can support is dependent on many factors including weather, size of crowds, time of season, how well we do developing and managing both the people and the infrastructure, and so on. At a popular place like Philo we could significantly increase the size of parking and still not have enough,” she said.

The single 4-foot-wide trail is the main way to get the amazing view at the top of the summit by foot. So, the plan seeks to add an additional trail to the summit from the northern part of the park. It also wants to help promote other hiking opportunities in the area.

Leashing dogs
Recently, local dogs were reportedly getting sick from ingesting human feces that contained marijuana after hiking on Mount Philo with their owners. The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation sent people to clean up and investigate.

“There was no such indication of what was described,” Whipple said, however he noted the team could have missed something. He added: “We advise people very strongly to keep dogs on leashes and that keeps them from stuff off the side of the trail.”

The draft plan acknowledges dogs are a big part of the experience of hiking Mount Philo. It says dogs must be on leashes, even during the off-season, and owners must clean up after their dogs.

Locals milling around during the final public meeting last week were wary of how those rules could be enforced.

One popular idea was a suggestion that park rangers possibly do random checks year-round at the park.

One person suggested that perhaps there be dog passes for owners to carry, which could be taken away; and there could be sporadic checks on those as well.

Seeking comment
The plan is still in the draft stages, but soon it will be finalized.

“This is just the draft plan – minds are not made up,” Whipple said. “We are still seeking public input. All comment is good comment. Study the plan and tell us what you can. All comments are good comments.”

Comments are welcome until June 1 by mail and email. Then the team that wrote the plan will work on a responsive summary to the comments. Depending on the comments received, revisions could be made. Then the plan has to be signed by the department heads and the secretary of natural resources.

The draft plan can be found at bit.ly/PhiloDraft.

Email comments to ANR.MountPhilo@Vermont.gov. And mail comments to  Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation, 271 North Main Street, Suite 215, Rutland, VT 05701.

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