Over the last five years we’ve seen the tasks of trail advocacy change fairly dramatically. The following is an attempt to define what trail advocacy means today in the context of a mountain bike, non-profit organization in Delaware and Maryland. We believe that the same concepts and efforts are involved in most other parts of the US but cannot speak to these.
Trail advocacy means working to increase access for mountain bikers to more miles of fun trails. There are several subparts to this definition. Diversity of trail systems allows a user to decide what experience he wants to have on a particular day and find it close by. Almost every mountain biker has a different vision of what an “ideal trail” is and this can change from day to day. Trail systems also need to provide for a wide range of fitness, skill and riding purpose (kid friendly to race training) and usually safely support many user groups at the same time. Land managers are being driven to manage for more “active recreation” and easier access by communities (without the use of a motorized vehicle).
RELATIONSHIPS WITH LAND MANAGERS
The basic idea in trail advocacy is to create a positive relationship/partnership between yourself and the manager and his staff who oversee the land you want to have trails on. The first thing we learned is that as budgets are cut from public sources to manage public land, volunteers (free labor and money donations) must play a key role to maintain and grow trail access. Budgets from public sources are reduced every year and thus volunteers play an increasing role every year. Increased productivity of getting work done with fewer manhours and dollars also becomes more important every year.
POLITICAL FORCES DRIVE LAND MANAGERS
It doesn’t take long to find out that trail advocacy also involves helping land managers with the many forces that control what and how they can do their jobs. This means also working with many State, County, Local and National political entities. This also means finding and supporting influential trail advocacy groups at each level like IMBA, American Trails, and Greenway organizations. It turns out that if you can commit a credible and capable organization to supporting trail growth and maintenance you have much power within these political groups. Many organizations promise this but only those with a history of delivering can actually create positive outcomes. The awards DTS has received over the last sixteen months or so are part of the feedback to land managers that we can deliver on our commitments.
By nature every trail effort is a project with scope, cost and time definitions. This means we need to have a number of projects and project managers in the pipeline at any point in time to continue to grow safe and fun trail systems. A relatively simple three-hour trail cleanup requires labor, tools, PPE, and management in order to achieve a successful outcome and a happy land manager. So does a several mile new trail system. As the scope of projects grows so does the need for better project management, scope and cost definition, funding sources, subcontracts, material purchases etc.
CURRENT TRAIL SPINNERS STRATEGY
In 2010 and 2011 we found that by pledging our organization to supplying volunteer labor we could gain approval to lead new trail building efforts that mountain bikers want to use. Basically we gained access for our user group to land and trails that were previously either closed to us or in such poor shape that very few mountain bikers wanted to ride. We also found that increasing productivity of our labor force and broadening our labor pool were necessary to complete projects in a timely fashion. Currently volunteer labor on many projects is from a combination of Trail Spinner and non-Trail Spinner organizations led by a few experienced Trail Spinner project managers, using mechanized equipment to increase labor productivity.
While the key’s of volunteer labor, project managers and mechanized trail building are important we also need to be able to “guarantee” performance by pledging money in the event we do not perform as committed. We do this by holding fundraising events and by donations. We also do this by obtaining grants (some of which are project specific). Many of these grants pay for performance so before any money is given out a certain percentage of the work needs to be completed. This means we need to provide working capital to buy materials, pay subcontracts and rent equipment plus supply volunteer labor before the grant pays money to reimburse our organization. Over time as our cash balance increases we will be able to take on larger projects (or multiple small projects) and meet the increasing needs and desires of the regional mountain biking community.
Unless a person is actively involved in the details of what successful trail advocacy is all about it’s easy to misunderstand what’s involved behind the scenes. Most of our organization’s members and the mountain biking user group do not have the time to become and stay heavily involved in trail advocacy. We’ve set up the Delaware Trail Spinners to have officers and a board of directors with the responsibility to make decisions on advocacy efforts, finding funds to build the treasury and commit the organization to trail projects of all types and sizes. Hopefully writing this strategy and plan down will increase the understanding and support of the organization and the larger user group we try to accurately represent.
If every rider in our area volunteered only 3-6 hours per year we could do even greater things! We expect to use this new website to greatly increase the communication about how and when volunteer opportunities arise. When you can manage it, please sign up for a volunteer effort that sounds like fun to you and help us grow the trail system to be increasingly more relavent in 2013.