Charlotte Staats, trails manager for Adirondack Mountain Club, makes her own path
By Betsy Kepes
Growing up, Charlotte Staats heard stories about Adirondack trail work from her mother. “It was like a fairy tale to me,” Staats said. Others might have thought it a nightmare—the swarms of biting insects and the deep mud—but Staats was enchanted by the idea of moving huge rocks and creating beautiful trails made of stone and wood.
Staats, 27, is now the trails manager for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the first woman to hold the position. She’s responsible for hiring, training and outfitting 19 seasonal employees as well as overseeing the trail steward and lean-to adopter programs and supervising volunteers. She designs, advises and educates on all matters involving sustainable trails.
In 2019 Staats was the trail master for the ADK pro trail crew. “Char was an amazing crew boss,” said crew member Caitlin Kelly. “She was organized, tough and commanded respect not by asking for it but because she was such a dedicated and talented trail builder.”
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Perhaps it is in her blood, this love of the outdoors and of improving wilderness trails. Her parents met when they worked for the ADK in the 1980s, her father as a summit steward and her mother as a leader for volunteer trail crews. And Staats’ grandfather, Dick Purdue, was the town supervisor in Indian Lake. He was able to secure funding for ADK to improve the trails on Blue Mountain and Snowy Mountain.
Staats, the oldest of eight children, grew up near Lake Champlain in Westport, surrounded by love and the Adirondack Forest Preserve. Staats’ mother, Peg Staats, said that as the oldest sibling Charlotte was expected to be a “role model” and she delivered on it. After graduating with nine classmates from Westport High School she enrolled in Clarkson University, hoping to become a physical therapist.
Her father, Lloyd Staats, ran his own forestry business until 2015 when he died of melanoma. Staats was 19 and had switched her major to environmental science and policy. That summer she worked her first season on the ADK trail crew. “In a lot of ways, I felt that being in the woods was a way for me to feel connected to [my father] and heal.”
After her college graduation, Staats knew she might have to move away to find a job in her field. “For kids like Charlotte who are thinkers and doers, there’s not that much for them to do here,” her mother said. But an internship at the Adirondack Council led Staats to a full-time job there.
It was 2020 and pandemic restrictions meant Staats stayed home and worked in front of a computer screen all day. She missed working in the woods. When she learned of the opening for an ADK trails manager, Staats applied. “I’m still young,” she said, “I knew I could physically do the work.” It was a dream job.
In a meeting at the Adirondac Loj in late autumn, what Staats called “stick season,” she showed a visitor the work the ADK has done improving the trail up Mount Jo, a favorite hike for visitors to Heart Lake. Staats has a shy smile and a quiet manner but she lights up when she talks about trails. “Educating folks on what trail work is and the importance of well-planned trails and regular maintenance is awesome.”
While sitting on the bedrock at Jo’s summit, Staats responded to a question about whether the eroded trails in the High Peaks would receive needed maintenance or re-routes. She said she is optimistic that state funding will increase as interest in hiking in the Adirondacks continues to grow.
Staats explained that for many years the ADK received trail projects from the state Department of Environmental Conservation as single source contracts. After complaints by a competitor, the state reviewed the matter. As a result, the job designation of Adirondack Forest Preserve trail worker moved into the category of construction worker. Any state contracts for public work must pay trail crews the prevailing wage for construction jobs. In the Adirondack counties that wage is $30 to $50 an hour.
On very short notice, the ADK was faced with a new business model—reimbursement contracts. If they used that model, the trail crew would be some of the highest paid workers in the ADK. Instead, the club decided to find alternate sources of funding for their trail projects.
This meant a few lean years for the ADK trail crew, but in 2022 Staats brought in new nonprofit partners who will fund future trail work. She now has a budget able to support 16 trail workers, filling every bed in the bunkhouse. Trail workers for the ADK pro crew make a wage above minimum and get room and board as well as tools and gear. They’re busy with a project to reroute the trail between Avalanche Lake and Lake Colden, funded by a grant from the 46ers. The crew is also working on improving a trail up Poke-O-Moonshine, a project funded by a grant written by the friends group for the mountain.
Crew members appreciate Staat’s passion. Lyza Berg, who trained under her said, “Char is definitely the most inspiring leader I’ve had the pleasure to learn from as she pushed the crew so hard from a place of such support and care.”
Last spring Staats traveled to a conference with the Professional TrailBuilders Association in Bentonville, Ark. She discovered that many trail managers have plenty of work and common challenges. They’ve secured contracts to meet hiking and biking trail demand, and they are looking for workers. Staats is happy to be able to offer people careers working on trails: “We’re training young trail building professionals and providing much needed trail workers to organizations searching for employees.”