Tolland resident Ken Hankinson has an important mission with some serious obstacles; he wants to conserve Tolland's open space and natural beauty with a shoestring budget and a handful of dedicated volunteers.
But all the hikers and nature enthusiasts enjoying Tolland's almost 1,000 acres of open land parcels can confirm that he's been a roaring success with only hard work, the assistance of Tolland's dedicated conservation movement and a mere $500 a year to help him get the job done.
For his conservation efforts and service to the community, Hankinson was chosen to be honored as the Huffington Post's Greatest Person of the Day.
Hankinson, who has always loved the outdoors, said that nature has always been an important part of his life.
"We got involved in the outdoors way back with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts," Hankinson said of his childhood. "We used to do hunting and fishing as a boy," he said, adding however, that he no longer hunts or fishes after his service in the Vietnam War.
Hankinson said that the conservation movement became especially crucial to him again since he's witnessed land disappear in nearby towns like Vernon and Manchester in his lifetime.
"I spent 30 years in Manchester, and the complexion of that town has changed," Hankinson said. "I used to hunt where Buckland Hills is. I used to be able to walk across where I-84 is."
Hankinson is doing all he can to make sure Tolland doesn't have the same fate. He serves as the head steward of the Conservation Corps, a group of volunteers who care for the 12 parcels open to the Tolland public, maintaining and creating trails, signage and parking lots on their own time.
He is also the Regional Coordinator for 12 of Joshua's Trust's properties and is a steward of the Tobiasson property. Hankinson is a member of regional and national conservation groups like the Connecticut Forest and Parks Association, the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy, to name a few.
Day to day in Tolland, Hankinson organizes the work of the Conservation Corps stewards, which has become especially time consuming due to Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm. He said that volunteers were working for 10 to 12 weeks with chainsaws and a lot of elbow grease to ensure that hiking trails were safe again, only to have the severe land damage recur.
"We finally took a breath, and now we have to start all over again," Hankinson said, who estimates that clean up could stretch on for months. After Irene, Hankinson said that it could sometimes take 30 minutes to clear just 200 yards of trail. He estimates that the corps manages around 30 miles, all together.
Despite all those hours, Hankinson doesn't think that the group will exceed its average yearly expenditures of $500. The group generally spends its budget on lumber for bridges and signs, fuel for chainsaws and a few equipment purchases. The Department of Public Works provides gravel for the open space parking lots, but otherwise, the group runs entirely from donations.
Hankinson said that he is always thinking about how to save; he has reused the exact same paintbrush to mark out all 30 miles of the trail systems all over town. His fiscal conservatism is copied throughout the corps; members use recycled lumber from old decks and stockpile supplies whenever possible, Hankinson said.
"We're mindful of the costs," he said.
Hankinson is also enthusiastic about spreading the conservation message to the new generation. He said that the corps has worked with 10 to 12 different Eagle Scouts on projects and often works with Boy Scout troops.
"You need that upcoming generation," Hankinson said. "I think it's something you constantly have to keep working on keeping young people involved."
And although there's no pay and little recognition for all of his own hard work and the dedication of the corps' volunteers, Hankinson said that it's all worth it when Tolland residents go for a hike and are overwhelmed with the beauty of the preserved wilderness.
"They go and walk and say, 'Wow, it's really beautiful," he said. "Tolland is really fortunate."