New GMC director settling in after abnormal year
By Kathryn Eddy
Correspondent | July 01,2012
One thing Will Wiquist can say about being executive director of the Green Mountain Club, — it is never dull.
“A lot of folks ask me what has been the most surprising thing about the job, and it is how big and complex this organization is,” he said. “I don’t have a typical day.”
For the former press secretary to Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that’s saying something.
Wiquist, 33, took up the helm at Green Mountain Club a little over a year ago after spending three and a half years in Washington, D.C., working for Sanders.
He had to jump right into several crises — first, recovering from 2011 spring floods, then dealing with the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Irene later that year.
“Irene was so significant, I think it was the first time that the Appalachian Trail was ever closed,” Wiquist said. “That was intense, nothing compared to what the communities around the state had to deal with, but it destroyed so much.”
Rebuilding characterizes the field season and trail work, he said, now and for the next few years. The club isn’t falling behind by any means, he said, but it is harder to keep up with trail maintenance when they must focus on fixing many projects and bridges that had been finished.
“It is certainly redirecting our efforts,” Wiquist said.
Those efforts have included, beyond trail work, a major project to bridge the Winooski River in Bolton, sustaining a membership drive, launching a website and other projects.
Taking the GMC job brought Wiquist back to Vermont. His grandparents are from Stowe and he spent summers here on Lake Champlain at his family’s camp in Colchester, then moved here in 2005 to work on Rep. Peter Welch’s congressional campaign, then moved to Washington.
Wiquist had a lot of family and friends in the capital, but he said he wanted to be back in Vermont. He yearned for something that he could believe in and that would get him outdoors, he said, but he didn’t think it was possible.
But when he heard the GMC was looking for a new executive director, he tossed his hat into the ring.
“I knew I could use the different skills I had attained and learn some new ones,” he said, referring not only to his master’s degree in public policy but also to his communications and social media experience.
Wiquist handled the budget for Peter Welch’s campaign, organized volunteers and came to understand the different regions across the state after working on a statewide campaign and for a statewide representative.
“Will has so many great connections, a lot of smarts, great writing skills, a love of hiking,” said Jean Haigh, the newly appointed club president.
“Over the past year his grasp of the issues of the history of the club, knowledge of the club’s sections and chapters, his understanding of the board, our policy and our budget, all the those things that make up the directorship, have been meteoric,” she said. “We miss Ben [Rose, the former director] deeply, he was a hard act to follow, but we are just so happy with Will.”
Wiquist was hired after a search committee whittled down 80 applicants to 20, then chose seven for a first interview conducted by nearly a dozen search committee members. Four candidates were chosen for the second interview, in which they were asked to handle hypothetical situations.
“Will did a great job; we had some very qualified people,” Haigh said.
What set Wiquist apart? “Will wrote us a letter that was so well-written and so heartfelt about the GMC we just looked at the letter and said ‘This is the guy for us,’” Haigh said. “He’s proved to be exactly the guy for us.”
Not too far into Wiquist’s tenure the first of two natural disasters struck.
“Spring flooding last year now seems not much, but at the time it was a huge deal and there was quite a lot of damage near the trails and roads,” he said. “The Camel’s Hump road was gone.”
And then at the end of August came Irene.
On top of the effects of those natural disasters, the club has focused on building a footbridge over the Winooski River in Bolton. For years crossing the river has either involved a lot of road walking or even local neighbors and farmers running a ferry service for 25 cents a trip.
According to Wiquist, the GMC has moved the trail back and forth several times to find a protected corridor where hikers don’t have to be on the road.
“A town road, a major river, an active road, a major state highway, and the interstate are all within a few hundred yards and we’re trying to get a footpath appropriately and legally across,” he said. “We don’t want to have people on the roads much.”
Wiquist estimated the project will cost $1.3 million.
Between the construction costs, the logistics of acquiring land and relocating the Long Trail, he said, it’s a major undertaking.
Wiquist said he was looking forward to getting back to normalcy.
“It would be nice not to have a hurricane to be dealing with and the Winooski project is really exciting, but it would be nice to have the simplicity of basic trail work, where major projects are stairs and fixing up shelters,” he said. “It would be nice to get to that point.”
He added, “But there’s always going to be something, that’s kind of what makes it fun.”
Overall, Wiquist said, the outlook is good.
“We made it through what was really a tough year: two major natural disasters and a major project,” he said. “I am feeling really good about it. Considering the challenges we’ve faced, it’s been awesome.”
When the GMC turned 100 two years ago, it made a push to reach 10,000 members; one of Wiquist’s goals is to keep that number steady.
He also hopes to encourage people to use the club as a resource.
The club’s headquarters in Waterbury sells products, has a three-quarter-mile trail with views of the Worcester range, and has staffers with a wealth of knowledge ready to direct anyone to a hike that would best suit them. He encouraged people to call or drop by and the Club would be happy to help them find a suitable hike.
Another resource that anyone can avail themselves of is www.longtrailbound.org, which launched a couple of months ago. In addition to pulling together workshops and information for people who want to use the trail as a classroom, it offers a list of good hikes for kids and other helpful information.
“It’s right in our mission statement, about education,” Wiquist said. “Educating folks about the role of mountains is what we’re all about.”