Commentary, opinions, and musings brought about by a PinkBike article on “Trail Ownership”

Let me start by saying you don’t HAVE to read this pinkbike article to get something out of this post. But I do think it will help. So, here’s a link to the post so you can do some background before you read what I’ve got to say about the situation.

http://www.pinkbike.com/news/Who-owns-a-trail-2013.html

Now that you’ve read that, I’m going to cheat a little bit. I initially replied to this article in a conversation about it on http://forums.mtbr.com/ in the trail building and advocacy section. I’m going to past that here so that you can get a grasp on what my real knee jerk reaction to this was.

It’s an interesting article, no doubt about it. I think if common sense reigned supreme, there wouldn’t be any need for “rules” even if there was a trail boss for calling the shots on building a trail. Unfortunately, common sense is….uncommon at best. Which means there need to be rules of some sort. Unfortunately, you then get into the question of who gets to make those rules. Public land, where a club or organization is authorized to build and maintain trails? The trail boss gets to lay down the law, it may have to be approved by a parks director or someone like that, but the signs go up, and that’s it.

It gets more complicated if multiple groups are authorized to build and maintain trail on public land. If the organizations are butting heads, it’s going to be a mess. But multiple groups authorized on public land is my reality, every day. A mountain bike club (me), a hiking group, boy scouts – and the parks department doesn’t really care. They want the trails there because they understand that if they’re well designed, the people using the trails are “good” for the park and the community. But they don’t have the manpower or funds to maintain the trails. So it’s all “You want trails you deal with them. If we have to step in, they go away.” sort of thing. Fortunately, we (all three groups) interact well, and have excellent relationships established. As a result, conflicting trail ideas are usually handled easily by compromise, multiple routes through a section, or simple admission that “That section of trail was not originally authorized, but it was built by mountain bikers, it’s not suitable or desirable for hiking, so do as you please with it, we’re just glad someone is actually going to fix it.” – this sort of thing makes my day. We’ve had hikers take up mountain biking, mountain bikers take up hiking, and lots of crossover between groups on trail work days. Who owns the trail? It doesn’t matter, because we have a good understanding between groups, and all of us will speak up and tell someone when they’re doing something wrong (riding wet trails, for instance).

Since most of the article focuses on …trails built under the table…. I’ll talk about that for a second too. If I built the trail (I probably didn’t, but for the sake of argument) I don’t expect to find someone fundamentally altering the trail. That’d be grounds to end up as a new rolling contour feature on my trail. If someone else built the trail, I’m not going to fundamentally alter the trail in any way. In fact, I likely won’t do anything but ride it, unless I run into the person who built it, and they ask if I can lend a hand. On the other hand, trails like this, you frequently have no actual rights regarding the trail, other than simple protocol as stated above. When you build the trail, you have to accept that you live in a world full of idiots that you can’t control, and that eventually, one or more of them will show up, and do what idiots do. Eventually, that’s going to cause problems, but if you’re dealing with “under the table” trail, then you just have to expect this, and when the situation is exposed, you can either take up negotiations to make it above board, abandon it, go cry in your beer, or whatever. But you have to accept that you have limited (or zero) actual control over the situation. If you can’t accept that fundamental truth, move on.

So, if you’ve made it through that, you probably are either (A) bored out of your mind (B) ready to kill me because you disagree (C) nodding your head because you agree with me, (D) somewhere in between B and C or (E) you’re B because of A. If any of that makes you want to say something, I encourage you to use the comments section to have your say. Just be polite about it. I’ve got a bit more to say about it myself.

See, I thought about this for a while after I wrote it. I should clear a few things up. For those who don’t know, I AM the trails administrator, or trail boss, or whatever you want to call it (we call it administrator, because boss is a four letter word) for my local MTB club. Trail building, maintenance and safety falls into my lap. I work with land managers from two counties, two cities, and the TWRA. All of my trails are not only legal, they’re planned and approved, sometimes to a degree that annoys the land managers. I had one ask my why I couldn’t just build the trail instead of asking about conservation concerns. I told him it was because I didn’t want to put months of work into a trail to be told I couldn’t ride it because it interfered with something someone didn’t want a trail interfering with. That was when he started to understand, it got easier to get answers to questions, and he started to appreciate what I was doing. It was an interesting and eye opening experience for him, he had never worked with a trail builder before. Lets be clear. I haven’t, and won’t build trails on public land without approval or private land without permission. Years and years ago, we used to ride some trails on private land, but they were existing trails, and everyone in the neighborhood rode bikes on them. That all came to a halt when a housing development was put in the middle of the woods where “our” trails were.

I understand there are parts of the world, even parts of the US where trails can’t be legally built. There are well documented success stories of illegal trail builders and land managers finally sitting down after years of below board fighting and establishing relationships that resulted in great riding areas. Unfortunately, it will always be difficult for mountain bikers to establish and maintain a responsible image if things like illegal trail building are taking place. Right now, I have a piece of public land that I could build trail on, and I don’t think anyone would notice. I’ve written a proposal for that land, and had it turned down. Not because anyone is doing anything with the land, mind you, but because the managing body “has concerns” about putting trails out there. That’s an ongoing conversation. I reserve the right to pester said body about trails out there until they relent and allow it. But I’d rather be viewed as annoying and above board than sneaky and dishonest.

Ok, if you’ve built illegal trails I’m not calling you a shady lying character. I get it. I actually understand you, but look at where most land managers/owners are going to be coming from – you’ll find my description probably matches what they’ll say. They have a point, and so do you. So let’s get to the rat killing here.

Why is it so hard in some places to get authorization to build these trails on the up and up? Liability, sort of. Liability can be addressed in a number of very effective ways though. So that’s not really a valid reason. Concern for the environment? Don’t mountain bikers cause massive damage to areas where their trails are? No, not if the trails are designed and built correctly, and trail users respect things like trail conditions. But don’t mountain bikers pose a danger to other trail users? Don’t they run over hikers and stuff? Um, no. At least not riders who have been properly mentored and taught trail etiquette. See. the biggest problem with being able to build trails and ride legally on public land is misinformation and image.

Every time you’re on the trail with a bike, you represent everyone who wants to ride on a trail, or does ride on a trail. One slip up around the wrong person can damage the reputation of an entire group of trail users. It’s important to keep that in mind, and practice proper trail etiquette at all times. Because the reality of trail ownership, regardless of who is actually responsible for the trails, is that the community or land owner owns the trail. In every case, they will respond to feedback from users. Most land managers are smart enough to know the difference between something that’s a real problem, and someone who just likes to complain about other trail users, but why give anyone the excuse? People who complain for the sake of complaining will be ignored in the vast majority of cases, but other’s will be heard and questions will be asked, and future projects possibly jeopardized. Unless you want that on your hands, it doesn’t matter if you’re the trail boss, a guy who has never touched a shovel, someone who does their fair share of the work, you must yield ownership of the trail to EVERYONE who uses it.

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