Raising Our Standards: Quality over Quantity
The core of ACRES mission—to protect local land—drives everything we do. Protecting land is possible only when people participate by volunteering, donating and sharing ACRES with others. Because more people participating means more land protected and better cared for, our current strategic plan focuses on building capacity: increasing the number of people supporting this meaningful work.
Based on 2018 research conducted by ACRES, we know a sizable number of folks first learn about us through trails offered at our open preserves. They may finally check out a property after driving by it daily on their way to work. Maybe they were invited by a friend who’s an ACRES member to explore a nearby preserve. We know that people from all walks of life enjoy ACRES trails: parents exploring with kids, runners logging miles of trail runs, individuals seeking a place to reflect and recharge. Although trails are not our primary mission, they benefit the general community while functioning as a useful way to draw people to ACRES.
Based on this same research, and anecdotally, we know there is often confusion about who owns the preserves and what guests can expect when they stop for a visit. Is it a county park? What kind of parking is available? What rules should I follow? Why doesn’t this property “feel” like other ACRES preserves I’ve visited?
ACRES leadership realizes that the preserve visitor experience varies greatly from property to property, and we’re missing opportunities to encourage support for ACRES mission. If we’re going to raise awareness about these special places and increase support for them, it’s time to raise our standards for that portion of a preserve experience that we can control.
ACRES leadership recently set new minimum amenity standards. These standards will help send a clear message to preserve visitors that this is an ACRES property, thus strengthening our brand in hopes of inspiring more people to participate in our mission “to value, appreciate, and support these places for the benefit of all, today and forever.”
At the very least, preserve visitors can expect:
- Entrance sign informing visitors they have arrived at their destination while raising awareness of those driving by that the preserve exists, and that it is owned and protected by ACRES Land Trust and its members
- Gravel parking lot big enough for six vehicles, well-maintained and free of potholes and ruts
- Trailhead sign encouraging respectful use of the property and asking visitors to help by joining ACRES
- Trails are clearly-defined, well-maintained earthen paths. Forested trails are maintained at least monthly, with grass trails maintained more frequently during the growing season.
- Trail map available online for address and most current wayfinding. (Yes—we’ll be updating the book too!)
This process led us to realize some very tough decisions needed to be made. Not all of our open preserves can accommodate these new standards. And compared to similar organizations and even some trails groups, ACRES offers an extraordinarily high number of trails (read more at acreslandtrust.org/beyondtrails). It also can be argued that by offering trails, we are negatively impacting the land we promise to protect and care for. For all these reasons, we will retire trail systems at approximately 20 open properties by the end of 2024, leaving about 30 trail systems open to the public, from dawn to dusk, every day of the year.
This decision was not made lightly. Great time, care, and consideration was given to each trail system slated to retire. Criteria included proximity to other trail systems, size, inaccessibility due to flooding, low visitation and the inability to enhance visitor amenities to our new standards. ACRES staff presented this approach to both Land Management & Protection and Advancement committees before sending it to our Board of Directors for final approval. Staff also discussed this approach with surviving land donors to secure their approval.
ACRES leadership feels this approach is better aligned with our mission to protect land. Instead of reducing the amount invested in visitor amenities, it will be reallocated and concentrated on fewer trail systems. Although the number of trail systems will decrease, the quality of the visitor experience will increase, inspiring new support for protecting local land.