Local FTA members help keep Santa Rosa trails beautiful

By Jody Conrad | Special to the Press Gazette

Who doesn’t enjoy wandering the myriad hiking and biking trails the state of Florida has to offer? And who doesn’t assume that our tax dollars pay someone to build and maintain these trails?

Such is not the case.

Helen Wigersma leads hikers along the Jackson Red Trail in the Blackwater River State Forest, thought to be the trail taken long ago by Andrew Jackson.

The Florida Trails Association maintains the trails through our state. The FTA is a group of volunteers who are the heart and soul of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a 1,500 mile trail that stretches from Fort Pickens to the Big Cypress Nature Preserve in the Everglades.

A section of the FTA-maintained trail is pictured.

According to their website, “the Florida Trails Association (FTA) is a non-profit volunteer organization that builds, maintains, and protects the Florida Trail. Many sections of the Florida Trail are well-developed, have modern facilities, and can accommodate a broad range of users, including children, bicyclists, and people with accessibility needs.”

The FTA has 19 local chapters, each of whom maintains a segment of the Trail. The local segment is known as the Western Gate.

A volunteer works on the maintenance of an existing trail.

Helen Wigersma is a local FTA organizer. She said that the Western Gate encompasses 110 miles of trails in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

Around 120 members belong to the Western Gate segment.

“What we do on a regular basis,” Wigersma said, “is mark trails, cut brush, and use chainsaws to remove fallen trees. It’s our job to keep the paths clearly marked and debris free. Occasionally we build or replace ‘bog’ bridges, which are timbers spanning boggy areas.”

This Pitcher Plant Hike in Blackwater River State Forest is led by Helen Wigersma.

She said that right now, with COVID concerns still prevailing, the groups are participating in work hikes led by crew members as usual, but the groups are limited in size.

“In more normal times we do all kinds of things besides work hikes,” Wigersma said. “We’ll do ‘leisure hikes’ that take hikers on guided trail tours, and we’ll occasionally do a hike through a nearby town, stopping for dinner in a fun restaurant somewhere.

"We also take kayak and canoe trips, and even visit other states and hike their trails,” she added.

A group of hikers take a short break to pose for a photo together.

Getting involved with the FTA can be done one of two ways: folks can go to meetup.com/ftawesterngate/events, or contact Helen Wigersma at mojuco609@cox.net to learn more about the organization.

Participating in FTA allows local hiking enthusiasts to engage in meaningful volunteer work, be outdoors, and perhaps meet new friends.