The Town of Gardiner has been advertising for some time now seeking volunteers to fill open slots on several committees. In December, the town board approved the application of a relatively recent arrival to town with a skillset that should prove most helpful to Parks & Rec, via her work in Springdale, Utah, the gateway to Zion National Park.
A New Jersey native from an outdoorsy family, Toni Benevento first visited the Gunks for rock-climbing outings when she was still in high school. She earned a master’s degree in library science from Pratt Institute and went on to work as a public librarian and a school media specialist. She always made time for active recreation and exploring nature. An opportunity to work as membership coordinator for the Mohonk Preserve brought her to live in the Hudson Valley for the first time in 2011.
But the national parks and big skies of the West were calling her. Benevento moved to Utah in 2013, volunteered for the Springdale Planning Commission the following year, and found herself hired as town planner six months later.
Learning something new
“I had no previous experience in rural or urban planning, but my enthusiasm and commitment to the cause paired with my short time on the planning commission prepared me for what to expect in general,” she recounts. “Graduate school and library studies in particular made me meticulous when it came to research and writing reports, and this was actually a very big part of the planner’s job.”
She proved a quick study. “This job taught me so much about the inner workings of local government, from writing reports for planning commission meetings or updating the general plan to researching and writing new codes for things like cell-tower installation or parking meters. Every day I was learning something new.”
Springdale, which Benevento describes as “a town with 600 residents but four million visitors,” was, in a sense, Gardiner writ large: a rural community with a tendency to resist change, in danger of getting overwhelmed by the demands of tourists and second-homeowners drawn by the area’s natural assets. Outsider dollars supported the local economy more and more each year.
“It was a place where the norm is not to be an environmentalist,” she notes. “It was eye-opening. Recycling was a new concept when I got there.”
As town planner and member of a countywide tourism and trails committee, it fell to Benevento to partner with many other agencies, including Zion staff and federal officials, to craft policies to protect the area’s priceless natural resources from development pressures.
“Our entire town staff worked closely with the Utah Department of Transportation to roll out a huge roadway infrastructure project,” she recalls. “One of my favorite collaborative projects was working with a team of experts and volunteers from Washington County and the National Park Service to create a river management plan to protect the Virgin River,” which carved out Zion’s spectacular canyon and supplies the town with water.
The fun side of government
Though she says she loved the planning work, Benevento couldn’t turn down another job opportunity that soon opened up in Springdale. The longtime director of the town’s community center, a former park ranger who had spearheaded the building of a LEED-certified library, decided to retire and urged Benevento to apply for her job, which was being merged with the town’s parks-and-recreation director position.
“It was hard to pass up an opportunity to try my hand at what I saw as the ‘fun side of local government,’” she says. “I quickly started to learn what goes on behind the scenes of planning large community events, managing and maintaining community property and reviving/creating programs for a very diverse and transient population.”
That was in 2016. After a year in the new position, Benevento found herself called back East by a cluster of family emergencies. She continued to spend as much time as possible exploring the outdoors, and notes how the grander scale of the physical environment out West had taught her to look at nature differently.
“The southwest corner of Utah has endless open space. It does change your perspective about land and open space and distance .… Around every corner was something so magnificent and huge and mindblowing .… I started to appreciate the feeling of being small, feeling insignificant.”
Upon her return to Gardiner, she had to relearn to appreciate smaller details, “noticing things I hadn’t noticed before.” She toyed with the idea of applying to serve on the Parks & Rec Committee but felt she didn’t have the time to commit to such an endeavor.
A better place to live in
Then the pandemic began. With her partner, brother and brother-in-law, Benevento used the forced downtime to launch a new business, Hudson Valley Trailworks, which assists people who want to build natural-surface hiking paths, mountain-biking loops, or meditation areas in their own backyards. “It’s a way to bring people happiness close to their home, to cope with the depression and isolation.”
And now she finds herself ready for the plunge into municipal volunteer work. “I’m excited that people around here like to do things outside, that they have the environment in mind and want a healthy community,” she says. “I hope with my prior work experience I can offer some insights, but for now I’m just excited to learn about current and future projects, meet community members, and be an advocate for parks and recreation.”
At the top of the committee’s agenda is building a network of hiking and biking trails around the Gardiner transfer station, but Benevento already has other ideas, such as expanding the project of putting up peace signs to make the hamlet more inviting to pedestrians.
“I want to tap into things that are really inclusive and can bring the community together – not just recreation,” she says. “We’ll make this a better place to live in.” She wants to hear from other residents about how that can be done. Gardinerites are invited to share their thoughts by e-mailing her at email@example.com.