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Q&A With Kara Wooldrik and Portland Trails: Connecting Portlanders With Urban Wilderness

Kara Wooldrik in Acadia National Park

Since its founding in 1991, Portland Trails has become one of the city's most visible and productive nonprofit organizations. With a small staff, a shoestring budget from membership dues and community fundraisers, and lots of volunteer effort, the nonprofit has built a 50-mile network of trails and open space connections throughout Portland and its surrounding communities, connecting neighborhoods with prized parks and wildlands.

Portland Trails recently hired a new executive director, Kara Wooldrik, who happens to be a former colleague of mine from my days at Maine Audubon. Kara had previously been Maine Audubon's Director of Education, an extremely busy job that entailed running dozens of day camps, wildlife-watching excursions, after-school programs, and nature walks, all in the service of connecting people with nature.

Now, at the helm of Portland Trails, Kara looks forward to connecting Portlanders with the wild places that exist in abundance right here in our city. I recently sat down with Kara to hear more about her new job and introduce her to LiveWork Portland readers.

Q: How would you describe Portland Trails to someone who's never heard of it?

Kara: I think of Portland Trails as connecting people to recreation and their communities via trails and active transportation options. But Portland Trails is most known for the trails it builds and the greenspaces and connecting habitat it preserves as well. It’s acting as this link between humans and nature, and humans and each other. And it plays an active role in promoting a healthier Portland both on the individual level and on a community level.

Q: When we worked at Maine Audubon, I really admired your outreach to city schools in Portland and the Bangor area, and your advocacy for the idea that people don't have to drive for two hours to experience Maine's outdoors and wildlife — that we can and should have the same appreciation for the nature that exists right in our backyards.

Kara: It is amazing to go someplace like the Presumpscot River Preserve and see bald eagles and osprey regularly. It feels like you’re nowhere near the urban hub, yet it's just a couple miles from downtown. Soon there will be a continuous trail connection from the downtown waterfront, around Back Cove and out to the Presumpscot River. It's a few different trails we're going to link up, I think it'll be about a three mile trip to get out there.

I have a neighbor who works downtown and rides his bike to work. He emailed me the other day just to tell be what an amazing city we have, to be able to ride to work along the ocean on the the Eastern Prom Trail. To be able to experience that on a daily basis as part of your routine is pretty lucky.

Q: Do you have a favorite trail or open space?

Kara: I don’t really. I feel like they serve different purposes for me. I like running from my house through the Fore River Sanctuary and through Evergreen Cemetery, and I like taking my dog to the Presumpscot River Preserve. So whether for jogging or walking or dog walking or transportation, there are different trails for different purposes.

It’s just nice to have different greenspaces with different feels, whether the Stroudwater Trail on a snowy day or Back Cove with a friend on lunch break.

Q: Anything new in the works, or new initiatives you'd like to introduce as the organization's new leader?

Kara: I’m eager to increase the number of people, Portlanders and out-of-towners, connected with our greenspaces. To help people be more active and healthy, for one thing, but also so people can connect with their neighborhood nature, and understand the plants and animals that live in their community.

I’m also really interested in the active transportation piece. I'm really interested in increasing the livabilty and walkability of Portland by just shifting how we get around.

Q: You have a lot of experience as an educator, especially in nature-based learning and environmental education. How do you think that might be useful here in your new job?

Kara: I think there are a lot of opportunities to connect people with Portland Trails and our properties through recreation and education, whether through programs or passive interpretation. I'd particularly like to increase Portland Trails membership, and connect more people with the mission and the organization — beyond just enjoying our trails and properties.

There are less than 800 members of Portland Trails, and yet on a nice day there are thousands of people out using the Back Cove Trail alone. Those people aren’t necessarily aware that PT is a nonprofit organization, but we need their support. We need to educate people about who we are and what we do.

The City did a recreation survey, and if I'm remembering it correctly, it said that about 75% of respondents ranked trails as the most important recreational amenity for the city to focus on. We should easily be able to convert more people into members and supporters of Portland Trails.

Q: And if someone did want to get more involved with Portland Trails, what would you suggest?

Kara: I would encourage them to volunteer, either on trail building or repair, or on an invasive species control project, and get them out there in a place they know and appreciate so they get to know the place better and meet some of the people involved in maintaining it. By volunteering in that way they’re enacting the Portland Trails mission.

And for people who are unable to do that physical work, there are multiple events like the Happy Trails auction [coming up on April 27th] and the 10K race, Trail to Ale, where we need a lot of volunteers. And they’re really fun events and the volunteering is a blast.

For me, when I first moved here ten years ago, the trails and the greenspaces were what made Portland so unique and such a great place to live. That network is continuing to expand into the neighborhoods all over the region — no matter where you live, there’s a trail within walking distance.

Portland Trails members and volunteers are the ones who made that happen. And if we get more people involved, we can have an even bigger impact.

To learn more about Portland Trails, visit trails.org. There, you can also find out more about volunteer opportunities, or buy a membership online.

Photo: Kara Wooldrik in Acadia National Park. Courtesy photo.

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