From September through May Alan Hershey *69 heads into the woods and meadows typically Sunday mornings with a group of volunteers. Armed with shovels, pickaxes, crowbars, saws and other tools, they move heavy stones, clear fallen trees, build bridges, and shape paths around hillsides. Their mission: to create inviting trails that the public can enjoy.
A longtime volunteer of D&R Greenway, a land preservation organization in central New Jersey, Hershey has been leading and organizing trail crews for about 15 years and founded New Jersey Trails Association, which provides trail maps and guides on its website.
Building trails with other people can be “a very therapeutic process, either physically or emotionally, or both,” says Hershey. “If I’m bothered by something, … I come back after a morning of trail work and I am always so happy. … It has to do with being outdoors and, of course, the work, but it has to do just with the people, too.” He learned from a widow that trail work helped her work through grief. And a man who had been hit by a car told Hershey that it “saved his life” — through the camaraderie and making him feel he could still do something physical.
“I tell the volunteers … that we’re building trails, but we’re really building community,” says Hershey, who earned a master’s in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School, and spent most of his career at Mathematica, a public policy research company, retiring in 2013. D&R Greenway honored him with a conservation award last May for 30 years of service, including building and maintaining trails, serving as treasurer for 16 years and chair for three of D&R Greenway, as well as preserving land and protecting water quality in Maine.
Initially Hershey got involved with D&R Greenway in 1989 after returning from his honeymoon in the Cotswolds in England, where he and his wife, Phyllis, hiked on paths — some through cow pastures, opening and closing gates along the way. Back home, he was frustrated trying to find local places to walk. “I was sort of ranting and raving about ‘no trespassing’ signs,” he says. He learned about an organization forming, D&R Greenway, and before long joined the board. His trail work grew out of a requirement that land preserved through Green Acres funding must be open to the public.
His crew of volunteers forged its first trail around 2004. It goes from a parking lot at the base of Baldpate Mountain near Lambertville, N.J., to the top, where hikers enjoy sweeping views of the Delaware River and Pennsylvania. “I had no idea what I was doing,” said Hershey, so he hired a consultant. Today, Hershey often teaches skills, including sidehilling — making a path that crosses a slope flat.
When he goes for a hike, he says it seems like a long time. “Being outdoors expands time,” he has said, because “there is so much stimulus … the feeling of the breeze, the smell of rotting leaves, the sound of a stream.”
Maine is another place he’s spent a lot of time outdoors since going there in summers as a boy. He has organized residents around the lake Abrams Pond, where his family has a cabin, to secure a grant to fund projects that protect water quality. He also purchased and donated 135 undeveloped acres near his family’s cabin to a local conservancy. The land features shoreline, forest, some wetlands, and a boulder strewn hillside.
Hershey made the decision one day while bushwhacking with his wife on that land. He remembers saying to Phyllis, “When I’m on my death bed and I look back, will I be happier about leaving an extra X dollars to my heirs, or would I be happier if this land were preserved and there was a trail here?” He answered his own question: “I know there is no doubt in my mind which would be better.”