Trail Signs


(This 1054th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 5, 2011.)

An early draft of one of the Swallow Hollow Trail Interpretive Signs


About ten years ago Mike Noonan, Tony Wagner and I took on a major project. We were asked by the Friends of Iroquois National Wildlife Preserve to prepare a series of large educational posters that would be mounted along the Swallow Hollow Nature Trail whose reconstruction was then being planned.


Our signs were to extend the experience of visitors to the trail. They would not only tell them more about the wildlife of the area but they would also encourage them to think about the ecology of the region: about plant communities, about the interaction of the various animals and about how they could consider more seriously what they were seeing around them.


We soon realized that we had taken on a very substantial task and we devoted hundreds of hours to planning and conceiving the dozen or so signs that we finally produced. We met first to winnow down a number of concepts to the few signs that the project could support. We then took individual assignments to prepare draft text and proposed art for several signs each. Once we had conceived our initial designs, together with professional staff of the Reserve we carefully critiqued each other's work. In every case this led to revising and redesigning what we had already done.


Another part of our task was to research sign production. That meant contacting other nature reserves and to many visits to local sign companies and phone and mail contacts with national concerns. We learned a great deal from this process. In particular, we learned how expensive these signs are to produce even after all the design work has been completed.


When we had a final set of signs designed and approved by both the Friends and the Reserve staff, we submitted our work to the sign producer we had chosen. Much to our chagrin we found that we had still more work to do, that what we were providing was not yet acceptable for the quality artwork that we wanted.


At this point we needed professional assistance to modify our designs to meet the necessary production standards. We were fortunate to find a young woman, Melissa Graham, with whom we worked closely to address these final concerns. With her assistance final designs were prepared and the signs finally went into production.


Separately, refuge staff and the designers of the new trail developed plans for mounting the signs. They chose the best locations for the signs and built the structures to hold them. Finally, shortly after the Swallow Hollow Trail was completed, the signs were mounted and we were able to see the product of our years of effort.


None of our names appear anywhere on the signs but every time I visited the trail and came across one of them I swelled with pride at our accomplishment. And I couldn't help it: whenever I was with others and came across a sign I had designed, I had to tell them, "That's one of mine."


I have told you that long story not to brag, but to set the stage for what has followed.


You may have noticed that I used past tense in talking about those signs. When Chris Hollister and I walked the trail a few days ago, the signs were gone and the stands on which they were mounted showed indications that they had been pried off. At the refuge headquarters we were told that they had been stolen. On Sunday night, May 15 several of them were taken and the following night the thieves returned to take those that remained.


This was an act of willful vandalism that should shock us all. This kind of violence against society cannot be stopped by police or fencing; we have to address it as a community. The cost of replacing those signs has been estimated at $15,000 and that does not count any of our hundreds of hours of volunteer efforts. The Friends group has offered a $500 reward for information that will lead to recovery of the signs. I urge those who committed this felony to reconsider the damage they have done and to return the signs. Barring that, I urge anyone who can help us regain them to call the Refuge at 585-948-5445.