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Volunteer is ‘heartbeat’ of rail trail

Volunteer Greg Williams holds “dibble,” a tool used for making holes to plant trees in the Mount Etna area of the Lower Trail. Williams, a former school teacher and principal, moved to Williamsburg from Philadelphia six years ago to retire and has since played a key role in maintaining the rail trial. Courtesy photo

WILLIAMSBURG — Volunteers are the key to maintaining and improving the Lower Trail as they take on tasks such as mowing, weed whacking and making repairs to keep clear the 17-mile biking/walking trail that runs from Canoe Creek to Alfarata.

One of those volunteers is Omaha, Nebraska, native Greg Williams, who moved to Williamsburg six years ago and has since taken on a key role in that upkeep.

“People like Greg are the heartbeat of the trail,” said Ethan Imhoff, president of Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania.

Imhoff credits Williams’ work ethic, which is critical to keeping the trail maintained.

“Our trail is completely maintained by volunteers. We have no paid staff. So without people like Greg, the trail wouldn’t exist. It’s that simple,” Imhoff said.

Williams and his wife, Cynthia Potter, were living in Philadelphia and looking for a place to retire and a place where they could continue to work on habitat restoration.

Williams said the duo were looking for a place that was less expensive to live versus Philadelphia.

With his wife’s grandchildren in Ebensburg and State College, “this was in the middle,” he said.

“This was perfect for us,” Williams said. “My wife is a naturalist. Being along a trail was like we scored.”

Since moving to Williamsburg, Williams, a former school teacher and principal, has been a very active volunteer.

He has 25 years of environmental education and habitat care experience and is a board member of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, one of 45 Interfaith Power and Light state chapters across the U.S. that lift a faith voice around the issue of climate change.

“PA IPL is a collection of congregations of people of faith who feel God is real, science is real and climate change is real. We are compelled to do something about it,” Williams said.

“Habitat restoration is the key thing that we do.”

Over the last five years, Williams has led hundreds of work parties removing invasive plants that have been crowding out native shrubs. He has planted and maintains thousands of native plants, like maple leaf viburnum, which support local fauna. His work parties tamp back the re-emerging non-natives and nurture the natives using protective tree tubes and stakes provided through a partnership with Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 10 Million Trees Initiative, said Ed Donahoe, Rails to Trails past president and board member.

“We are trying to restore native plants, insects and birds and protect the ecosystem. Planting trees has been determined to be the number one way to soak up excess carbon in the atmosphere. Using a natural solution to climate change is one powerful tool,” Williams said. “I am not doing this by myself, I have had about 500 volunteers who work with me.”

Williams enjoys working with students and has managed and educated large groups of Hollidaysburg Senior High School students, who, for the past four years, have performed three days of community service every May.

In 2018, they removed grass turf and planted a large native wildflower meadow that supports butterflies and other beneficial insects.

“His knowledge and passion for ecology and helping restore native plant species is infectious and students respond to his enthusiasm,” said Mike Rawlins, social studies department chair.

“For the last several years, our students have learned about invasive species and why we should be restoring native plant life to help the life cycle of all species and they have helped remove invasives and plant native plants along the Lower Trail,” Rawlins said. “Greg is truly an asset to our community. His volunteerism has helped hundreds of students at our school.”

Williams is also partnering with the Penn State Sustainable Communities program to study and plan various environmental features and to make the trail more accessible for people in wheelchairs or walkers.

Rails to Trails officials can’t say enough good things about Williams.

“Greg is a man of action. If he talks about an idea, and builds support for an idea, you can bet he’s going to see it through,” Imhoff said. “He brings a positive energy and enthusiasm to the trail and our work.”

“All you have to do is travel the trail and you will see projects that Greg has implemented from start to finish,” Imhoff said, noting one of Williams’ core projects is invasive species removal.

He credits Williams and his crews with the removal of thousands of invasives along the trail.

“He’s worked on flower gardens, tree plantings, you name it,” Imhoff said. “You literally cannot travel far at all on the trail without seeing his work.”

Donahoe said Williams has organized hundreds of diverse work parties and educated a lot of people in his practical approach to environmental sustainability. He calls Williams a modern day “Johnny Appleseed.”

“Greg is transforming our 17-mile trail like no one else could. As invasive species are being removed, new native growth is starting to blossom. As each year goes by, those new plantings will continue to improve the beauty of our trail,” Donahoe said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.

The Williams file

Name: Greg Williams

Age: 72

Position: Volunteer at Lower Trail

Education: 1967 graduate of Rockhurst High School, Kansas City, Mo; 1971 graduate of University of Kansas with degrees in American studies and education.

Family: Wife, Cynthia Potter; children, Jesse James in Jacksonville, Fla., Josh Potter in State College and Emily Potter in Ebensburg; five grandchildren.

Quote: “When I taught environmental education, I was fascinated by the natural world and the

complexity of it.”

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