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(Don't) DIY Trail Maintenance

Volunteer Jim Runk helps build a new section of the Buckeye Trail. Photo by Mary Reed.

Getting involved in trail building and maintenance does not mean that you should grab a mattock and a chainsaw and start hackin’ away. Hook up with the right people to make sure the job is done right.

Why not DIY? “If we get folks who want to help, we need to get the help done to our specifications,” says Vicki Gullang-Harris, the outdoor recreation planner at the Hoosier National Forest (IN). Proper trail maintenance and construction require the right methods. Improper trail building can cause erosion that degrades soil and water quality, which is one reason most land management agencies have volunteer opportunities that you can easily plug into. Vicki points out that for forest service maintenance outings, most times you’re with an experienced group leader to organize the tasks at hand and make sure work is done in an ecologically sound manner.

Spencer Powlison, the field programs coordinator for the International Mountain Bicycling Association says the goal is to “create a trail that’s hydrologically invisible.” This means that the trail should not channel water and become a stream.

Spencer stresses that it’s key to work with land managers not only so the job gets done right, but also to foster good relationships with the people in charge. “It’s a way to show your commitment.” Land managers will be more aware and understanding of trail users’ needs by being active in the maintenance and construction of trails.

But don’t wait to be invited. Some parks may not have a formal volunteer system in place, but don’t let that discourage you. You can form your own trail group by enlisting some fellow trail users. Start with your pals. Then round up people who patronize the local gear shops and talk to the people who run the place too. Then approach the agency in charge and ask if your group can help. Pete Kotses, who owns Athens (OH) Bicycle, has been instrumental in building 20 miles of singletrack mountain bike trail at Lake Hope State Park (OH). He recommends that you “feel out to see who’s receptive to your ideas.” Generally, he says, you should go straight to the top of management. Anybody can say no to your ideas. It’s important to talk to the people who have the authority to say yes. But don’t expect overnight acceptance of your ideas. “It took a while to win them over. About a year or year and a half.”

Do it right. Pete outlines the process in three steps: 1) present a trail plan to management and work with them to refine it, 2) get your plan approved and 3) implement the plan.

He recommends having a single person as the liaison between the volunteer group and the management agency to facilitate consistent communication, two or three people for the planning process, and as many as possible for the physical trail building. The number of bodies working will often be dictated by how many tools available. “You don’t want a bunch of people showing up and just standing around,” he says.

Importantly, Pete also enrolled in the IMBA Trailbuilding School, where he learned about sustainable trail building techniques.

Try a volunteer trail maintenance vacation. Enthusiastic trail volunteers can hook up with a group like the American Hiking Society, which coordinates seven- to 10-day volunteer vacations all over the United States. The AHS provides food and sometimes accommodations while the volunteer pays for travel and a registration fee. AHS Director of Membership (and Trail Guru) Peter Olsen says that “trails keep people where you want them to be” – and away from where you don’t want them to be, often for ecological reasons.

Only when you are trained in sustainable trail building and maintenance – and you can prove this to public land owners – can you go out and start hackin’ away. But please do.