When Wanaka business consultant and planner Dave Howard decided to get involved in designing trails, he did not realise how much he would be helping reduce isolation and stress and promoting love.

Mr Howard works for survey and planning company Southern Land, which has a contract to deliver government-funded national cycle trail projects.

Late last year, he was appointed the Upper Clutha Trails Trust chairman, replacing trust stalwart John Hare, who has moved to Russell.

The trust is a voluntary, charitable organisation that has delivered many trails over the past two decades and has more big projects to do.

“On the face of it, it’s making a scratch on dirt and putting a plank across a puddle,” Mr Howard said.

“But why do we do it? We do it because it is our passion, more than just a job. It’s about providing a space for experiences.”

After moving to Wanaka from Wellington with his family six years ago, Mr Howard joined Bike Wanaka and ended up on the committee.

He had now collected so many stories about how being in nature had made someone’s day that he knew a trail was “so much more than a scratch on dirt”.

“A woman approached me, squeezed my arm and said, ~You have changed my life’.

“She told me she had been quite lonely but now belongs to a walking group . . . I see a lot of those little moments, like a mother with a pram and a baby and children and a coffee in her hand and a look of bliss on her face. It helps them get through the day.

“And lovers! How many times have I heard about lovers who have gone along a trail for a picnic and some skinny dipping!”

The Upper Clutha trail network provided customers for cafes, bike shops and physiotherapists, helped build resilience, would be part of regenerative tourism and was even being prescribed by doctors, Mr Howard said.

He believed that on a cost per use basis, trail investment would boost happiness and wellness far more than investment in a public pool or sports field, but he acknowledged he did not have the figures for that.

“But I think Treasury and Government are quite well advanced in putting a dollar value on wellness . . . I would like to see a case for value on wellness from Otago’s cycle trails,” he said.

Some of the major regional projects he had been involved with professionally or voluntarily included the new Lake Dunstan Trail, the Clutha Gold Trail and the Kawarau Gorge project connecting Cromwell and Queenstown (in the consenting phase).

It would not be long – maybe just a matter of months – before people should be able to cycle or walk most of the way from Wanaka to Milton on an off-road track, he said.

Work was now happening on a 12km “missing link” near Roxburgh and another trail from Milton to Lake Waihola was also in the pipeline for completion, possibly next year.

His dream was for all Otago and Southland trails to join up.

Two other trust stalwarts have also retired. Rachel Brown is focusing on teaching and Paul Hellebrekers on conservation.

The trust will be calling for up to three new volunteers to join Mr Howard, John Wellington (treasurer), Quentin Smith, Alan Gillespie, Tom Rowley, Grant Fyfe, Geoff Wilson, Brian Weedon, Anita Middlemiss (Department of Conservation representative) and Diana Manson (secretary and Queenstown Lakes District Council representative).