The Path To Conservation Is Right Outside Your Door: A Conversation With Nicole Zussman, President And CEO Of Appalachian Mountain Club

The state of our climate is a constant and growing concern. And we need to look no further than out our own front doors to see the impact: this year was the first time on record that there weren’t any subfreezing days in our area during the month of February. Outdoor enthusiasts seeking winter adventures were left waiting for snow. Plants and animals that need cold in their life cycles are forced to endure or evolve. New England’s changing seasons bring the urgent need for action into even greater focus. Nicole Zussman, President and CEO of Appalachian Mountain Club, shares her simple approach to inspiring more climate action: be outdoors.

Climate change feels like such a big issue to tackle; Is there anything we can do about it?

It’s true that combating climate change requires a global response. The threats posed by a warming world have many people worried, if not downright alarmed. It’s no wonder that Google searches for “climate anxiety” have increased 27-fold in recent years. But what can we do with all of this emerging anxiety? Instead of avoiding the news and remaining paralyzed by fear, there’s one simple and straightforward step everyone can take in the right direction: a walk in the woods.

Trails are also one of the easiest ways for people to enjoy the outdoors, and at the Appalachian Mountain Club, we’ve demonstrated for almost 150 years that connecting people to nature is a critical first step in moving the needle on conservation efforts.

Why are trails an important part of combating climate change?

Trails are a powerful resource management tool and a vital part of protecting the landscapes we seek to preserve and enjoy. Whether you are walking or biking, trails link us to natural wonders that often would not be otherwise accessible. They also provide a necessary buffer between visitors and the natural environment, mitigating human impact. Trails can route traffic away from washouts and flood zones, minimizing soil compaction, vegetation degradation, and erosion. Basically, trails can be thoughtfully designed to work with the natural landscape and in response to severe weather impacts, reducing the risk of irreparable damage to the land.

How can trails inspire us to do more about climate change?

Trails also happen to be one of the easiest ways for people to connect with the natural world. Those connections have a big impact. In fact, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that time spent in nature increases the likelihood of pro-environmental behaviors.

The more people that are able to get outdoors, the more mobilized and committed those supporting the fight against climate change will be. That’s a goal within reach. Massachusetts currently has thousands of miles of trail, and many trailheads can be reached by public transportation. For example, the 230-mile Bay Circuit Trail that meanders through communities like Lowell and Framingham or the Coes Reservoir in Worcester can be accessed without needing a car.

What is AMC doing to help more people connect with the outdoors?

We are working hard as an organization, and with our many partners, to make trails more accessible for everyone. For example, AMC opened an All Persons Trail in 2023 at our Cardigan Lodge in New Hampshire. All persons trails are designed with hard-packed surfaces with no obstructions and minimal slope, making them navigable for walkers, wheelchairs, and strollers. It’s a pathway into nature for everyone. And this year, we are working with organizations like Mass Audubon to open similar trails across Massachusetts.

What do you tell people who are worried about climate change?

When I speak with someone struggling with climate anxiety or someone who is perhaps just unsure of where to start, my answer is always the same and it’s so simple: be outdoors. Being on the trail reminds us that critical landscapes are worth fighting for — it’s an experience that fills our hearts and strengthens our spirits. Take a walk in the woods. Let your time on a well-built trail remind you that the outdoors is worth fighting for.