The accredited Land Conservancy of West Michigan involved veterans from the start when it sought a solution to the community’s lack of recreational opportunities for people with disabilities by creating a universal access trail on the Anderson Woods Nature Preserve, a 76-acre undisturbed forest near the shores of Lake Michigan. The site was entirely flat, which meant the idea could work.
Steven Knox, adjutant for the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 11 in Muskegon and veteran’s counselor at Disability Network West Michigan, wanted to get veterans involved with trail construction. “Once we had begun discussions, I realized this was something veterans could do. If they were going out to walk, they could go out to work. And because of what I do, I had a lot of people at my disposal.” Indeed, Knox had a group of about 20 veterans with disabilities that he tapped to mark off trails, clear brush and help in a variety of other ways.
“This was a unique project — different from other Americans with Disabilities Act trail projects — because we got the veterans involved in designing the trail so that it met their needs,” says Vaughn Maatman, former director of the conservancy.
“Our vision needed to be shaped by the veterans’ vision and excitement,” he adds. “We needed to make room for their contribution. That’s community conservation.” And on the day the Anderson Woods Nature Preserve opened, motorcycles rolled into the parking lot, and veterans wearing leather vests got off their bikes, families in tow, to proudly show off the trail they had built.
Another trail project, by the accredited Prickly Pear Land Trust in Montana, connects veterans, active military, people with disabilities and the community to the land.
Prickly Pear Land Trust recently purchased two tracts of open space near Fort Harrison military base totaling 556 acres. The Army Compatible Use Buffer program provided a portion of the funding, and Prickly Pear took on the rest with the help of a loan from the accredited Conservation Fund.
Fort Harrison hosts one of the region’s top soldier training centers and the state’s only Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. Planned trails will link these resources to Spring Meadow State Park and Montana Wild, a wildlife rehabilitation and nature education center.
The trails will offer safe commuter routes accessible to people with disabilities. With them in place, veterans receiving medical care at the VA hospital and their families can escape the sterile confines and enjoy fresh air and exercise. People who work at the fort or the hospital can commute on safe bike routes or take a walk at lunch.
These trails will also give people in wheelchairs, including patients at the VA, a way — in some cases, their only way — to get in the woods. Land trust director Mary Hollow says, “Prickly Pear Land Trust looks for projects that bring diverse partners and community interests together with conservation. This project does exactly that.”