A group of younger riders who show up for the Wednesday night MBA pump-track session seemed a little down. It turned out that a trail they had been working on was “discovered” and bulldozed by authorities. “We would have liked to do our trail construction through proper channels, but where do you begin?” explained one of the riders. Creating a new trail, opening an existing trail to mountain bikers or revitalizing a forgotten trail all require a lot of investigation, plenty of perseverance, the diplomacy of a State Department official and a healthy dose of good old-fashioned salesmanship. It can be done, and the reward to you, your riding buddies and the community is enormous. Here is how you can get started.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
You don’t want to go on your trail-building mission alone. You need a coalition to get the attention of land managers and other public officials. The absolute best place to start is to find an existing IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) chapter or club. IMBA passes all its hard earned knowledge about opening trails, keeping trails open and creating trails to these chapters and clubs. Instead of starting at ground zero on your own, being part of a chapter or club means you are starting with an extensive track record of success.
You can get the name and contact info of an IMBA chapter or club near you by searching online at www.imba.com/near-you.
BUILD YOUR OWN CLUB
If there is no IMBA chapter or club in your area, the best course of action is to build your club or chapter before you build your trail. IMBA clubs design and construct trails, organize events, and advocate for bike access. Club membership costs $30 per year for clubs with less than 100 members and $60 per year for clubs with more than 100 members’so IMBA has kept it affordable. An IMBA chapter is a step above the club level that allows individuals to join IMBA and their local organization with single memberships (club members need a club membership and an IMBA membership). Rather than compete for members with local clubs, the chapter program links member databases, increasing both organization bases. To fund the program, membership dues are split 60/40. In return, IMBA reduces administrative burdens and provides chapters with the tools for success. IMBA chapters are more closely connected to IMBA and have an increased level of support for sustaining the local group.
THIS LAND IS WHOSE LAND?
Once you have a few like-minded riders in your club or chapter (or a posse if you try to do this on your own), it is time to do some digging; not on the trails, but on maps, through the Internet and in the County Hall of Records or Town Hall. You need to establish who owns the land that you want to put the trail on, and then who manages that land. U.S. Geological Survey maps (www.usgs.gov) and Google Maps are both good starting points. These sources should allow you to determine if the land is public or private. If you can’t establish who owns the land from the maps, a trip to the area’s City Hall is your next option. Expect to spend time and be ready to do your best detective imitation. You will need to introduce yourself to the receptionist and explain what you are looking for. If the land is privately owned, you can contact the owner with your proposal, but don’t expect a positive response. There are more reasons a private landowner would not want to open their land (e.g., liability, vandalism, privacy) than there are reasons to open it. If the land is public, you need to find out which government agency has authority over it, and don’t be surprised if the land is managed by multiple agencies. We wish we
could say look under “land managers” in the Yellow Pages, but, of course, it is not that simple. Start searching the same places where you dug up those maps. Get on the phone. Visit City Hall. Beat the bushes. If you reach an agency that is not responsible, ask them if they know the right place to start. Many times the wrong contact can point you in the right direction. Once you know the correct person to present your idea to, stop. There is another important step that can make all the
difference between getting a polite rejection or a genuine interest to make something happen.
BUILD A COALITION
Before you approach a land manager, do your best to build a coalition that includes people outside of your IMBA club or chapter. This coalition should be as diverse as possible?a trail proposal with broad community support will succeed far faster than one coming from a single group of users. Some groups might slam the door in your face, but don’t let that derail your ambitions. It doesn’t hurt to ask, and everybody you convert to supporting your plans will be a valuable ally.
Some suggestions for partners are:
Hikers: Most successful trails are used by a wide variety of people. Getting support from people who are not mountain bikers helps your cause tremendously. If the group is against your plans, don’t just shut the door. Listen to them. Can their concerns be addressed? Is there a compromise to be reached? If they are out to get you or refuse to budge, move on. You can still make this happen without them.
Scouts: Get the local Boy Scouts (www.scouting.org) involved in your trail-building idea. They can help you on so many levels, from the actual trail building to trail maintenance. Of course, you are also giving them a great place for their outdoor activity at the same time.
Churches: Almost all local churches have some kind of youth group organization. They are great allies. All you need to do is explain to them how mountain biking is an ideal activity for their youngsters in a healthy and beautiful outdoor environment and your trail will be open to them. Just like the Scouts, these youth groups may be able to invest a bit of sweat equity into your trail building.
Business owners: A popular trail network can be a major boost to a local economy. The obvious business to benefit from your hard work is going to be local bike shops. They are good to have on your side, but many land managers may see their involvement as too self-serving. Think outside the bike shop. Convenience stores benefit from hungry riders and hikers. Restaurants will feel the impact. Hotels will fill more rooms if your trail entices people from further away. Stores like Walgreens and Rite Aid benefit from increased sales of sunscreen, bug spray and Advil. Don’t sell your trail short. It can have a big impact on the local economy. These businesses don’t have to kick in money for your project (although that would be a nice gesture). You simply want them on your side. When you present a plan, being able to say it is backed by 20 or 30 local businesses gives you clout with civic leaders.
Developers: Aren’t these the guys who ruin riding areas and closed off trail access? They could be, or they could see your trail network as a selling point for their new community. This is not some pipe dream. There are documented cases of developers who worked a trail network into their master plan, and then assisted with money and equipment to make it all happen.
The mayor: There is nobody better to have on your side than the town’s mayor, and if that mayor has been keeping up on current events, support should not be a problem. IMBA has plenty of case studies that show how a developed trail network can benefit a community. Trails don’t cost a city a lot of money, and the return can be huge. Most mayors running for reelection would be proud to brag about the 20 miles of singletrack they opened.
Mountain bikers: Hard to believe, but a tough group to win over from all your potential allies is other mountain bikers. We are not talking about the riders in your club or chapter. If they are not on the same page, you’ve got bigger problems than building a trail; we are talking about riders who may be poaching a trail now or have developed trails without the knowledge of land managers. This group might even work against your plans to do things the right way. Try to get them to see things your way. In the long run, it will be better for everyone.
Equestrians: Horse riders will be the hardest sell. Still, your goal is to be as all-inclusive as possible. Let them know about your plan and invite them to participate and contribute their ideas. If they are against your plan, move on.
When speaking with non-mountain bikers, be as forthcoming as possible about your plans. Keeping your cards close to your chest is counterproductive. Revealing your plans openly allows you to establish who your allies are and who will be working against you. You want to create a coalition of the willing, and not lose sleep over those who oppose the idea. There will always be people who won’t get what you want to do. Just like an obstacle in the trail, you need to ride around it.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
Now that you have built a coalition and they have your back, you are ready to approach the land manager or city official. Unlike the private landowner, there is a good chance that the manager of the public land you are asking about will be somewhat receptive to your group’s idea. Don’t expect them to say, “Go ahead and build away,” but they will at least listen and explain the steps you need to take to make it happen. A land manager’s job is to use the land to the benefit of the largest number of people?and that might mean restricting it to certain user groups. This is the time when going it alone works against you. Representing hundreds of people will always make a larger impact on a land manager than an individual request.
A WINNING PROPOSITION
No matter what level of decision-maker you meet with, from town councils and regional chambers of commerce to leaders of the House and Senate, it’s a good idea to come prepared with specific strategies, memorable statistics and realworld success stories to bolster your case. You’ll want to showcase evidence that natural-surface trails and bike parks represent a low-cost, high-return investment. Some key advantages to point out to officials for adding trails to a community could include:
-Trails are low-cost additions to the recreation infrastructure that improve the health of the community.
-Trails can reduce the impact of pollution and noise while improving the quality of public spaces.
-Trails consistently rank near the top of the amenities that people look for when deciding where to live and work.
-Fun trails bring visitors to the region, enhancing local businesses.
-Trails transform the abstract notion of “community” by creating identifiable assets.
-Trails promote health and fitness by providing safe surroundings for families to enjoy active lifestyles. Some statistics that might help your proposal include:
-The U.S. bicycle industry sold $5.6 billion in bicycles and equipment (retail value) in 2009 (National Bicycle Dealer’s Association).
-Bicycle-related economic activities provide $90 million and somewhere between 850 and 1150 jobs for the city of Portland, Oregon (Alta Planning Design).
-The percentage of kids who walk or bike to school has dropped from 50 percent to 15 percent (Safe Routes to School).
-Childhood obesity has tripled since the Centers for Disease Control started tracking the issue.
THIS WILL TAKE SOME TIME
The bad news about establishing a trail network is that it will take years. You must be patient in working through the proper channels. Getting frustrated and taking things into your own hands (such as building a rogue trail) will backfire nine out of 10 times. Land managers who uncover unapproved trails on land under their trust are almost certain to close the trail and remove trail features no matter how well constructed the trail appears.
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