A FORK IN THE TRAIL


A personal note: It’s easy for everyone to sit back and feel justified in their position. I implore everyone to consider Option C: Everyone is right but we still need to meet in the middle. We need to focus each action and decision together. Like it or not that’s where we’re at. You’re not going to find a person more supportive of trails and trail organizations than myself. I am also very realistic about us and our tendencies to develop tunnel vision. By “us” I mean people in general. This whole post is meant to draw attention to the fact public resources are being developed (and at risk) if development of the resources is not done in a manner that brings us together. I don’t care who is building the trails or what their mode of recreation is – they are accountable to everyone and should represent everyone. Failure to do so will hurt us all in the long game. 

 

Organizational culture is “the way we do things around here”. For more on the topic of culture go here.

Sometimes… you have to change your ways.

On a podcast in the not so distant past I talked with Mark & Sean about a bunch of trail topics including trail access and trail-user relations. Trails for Marquette County have become an economic driver with the boom of mountain biking and a coast-to-coast marketing campaign of our homeland . One could argue and would be correct in saying trails already were an economic driver and I would agree. However, it would be difficult to argue the recent exposure and popularity hasn’t created some new challenges and opportunities for evolution.

The setup: Trails are nothing new in Marquette County. They’ve been here for decades. Some of them marked. Some unmarked. A few of them undoubtedly were someone’s “secret trail”. I’ve heard friends tell me about a favorite route “no one knew about” they’d hike with their mom and dad years ago. When they walk it with their kids today they have to be careful because the secret trail has been turned it into a mountain bike trail. They’ve considered abandoning the old route altogether because it doesn’t feel safe anymore.

Before I go much further though I think the most important point to this whole post needs to be shared.

The trail systems currently built and maintained by groups such as Noquamenon Trails Network and Range Area Mountain Bike Association live either on public land or land the groups have been granted access to build and maintain trails upon (some of the land is private). In short they do not own the land. 

Much, not all, of the land is a public resource. WE all need to look in the mirror and accept land is finite. The pressure on public land and trails is real. WE must collaborate and present a unified community front to protect our assets. WE cannot allow our distinction as a biker, hiker, walker, snowmobiler, runner, NTN, RAMBA, or any other label we apply to divide us.

We all have a lot to lose.

Definition of who owns the property is important because:

  1. Trail-building groups need to understand the delicate dynamics involved in building upon public land. In my estimation if you are building on public land your identity as a mountain biking group, running group, or the whatever club is irrelevant. You are responsible for public community resources that will serve a wide range of citizens and enthusiasts. If you do not want to deal with other user groups then by all means buy land, post it as private, and build whatever you want. Otherwise you need to modify your paradigms to include all members of the public. All PR media and communication should come from a perspective of WE. Placing ownership and responsibility equally amongst the user groups.
  2. Community members yelling about their trails disappearing. This is not an all or none rule but we have to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes those “secret trails” no one knows about… are secret because they’re on private land. Private land you do not own. When users go undeterred for years on a particular tract of land they begin to feel like it’s “their place” and “my trail”. Sometimes assumptions are made the land in public. Or perhaps a sale occurred and what was once public turned private without your knowledge. What I am trying to get at is we should not villain-ize trail-building organizations for carrying out their mission with the proper approvals and oversight.

Change. Evolution.

  1. The mountain biking boom is going to force us to accept change. We’re fortunate to have multiple trail-building organizations in one county. Not only do we have two trail-building organizations but they specialize in very different types of trail builds on opposite ends of the county – on very different terrains. We’re spoiled and should be prepared to offer some concessions. It is very likely some folks still have secret trails and spaces people play in away from the trails… that may someday see a trail. Again, with land being a finite resource and the cities supporting the build of new trail, there is no way to avoid it.
  2. We MUST be more effective communicating unbiased information focusing all of US on a solution.
  3. We MUST provide more education on trail etiquette. More education on trail master plans. More social events bringing users together to discuss projects, challenges and solutions.

Trail Supremacy

In the case of the NTN their mission (according to their website) is: to develop and maintain an interconnected, year-round, non-motorized land and water trail network in the central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. 

The NTN is an amazing non-profit group right here in Marquette. Visit their website and you will learn they act as an umbrella for silent sport enthusiasts of every discipline, incredible local events for runners, bikers, skiers, and heck… everyone else! Their mission and the dedication of tireless volunteers has secured access and created many of the assets we’re benefitting from today.

Under the NTN umbrella there is a committee referred to as NTN Singletrack. This is the biking arm of the organization and also the arm doing all of the singletrack builds around North and South Marquette.

  1. NTN Singletrack is a mountain bike group. They are building trails purpose built for mountain biking. At the same time, if you look at their Facebook page, they note this as their mission: The singletrack mission of the NTN is to create sustainable trails for multi purpose non-motorized uses such as hiking, mountain biking, trail running and general human powered recreating.
  2. Why am I pointing this out? Well, with the publicity mountain biking gets and the NTN acronym tied to it all the time I feel like the actual identity of their organization and their overall mission gets lost. The NTN represents all trail users but right now mountain bikers are making the most noise. Oh… and they happen to be the group doing the all building.

So far we’ve determined mountain biking is the hot commodity and the mountain bikers are building all the trails.

  1. We’re (mountain bikers) not always the best PR people.

I want to go back to what I feel is the most important part – and I am saying this for the intended benefit of every mountain biker and trail organization in a position similar to ours in Marquette County:

We do not own the land. We are licensed by the cities, private land owners and businesses of this community to build trails for everyone. Our failure to remember this, our inability to properly manage relationships, could someday lead to loss of trail access somewhere. If we’re not careful maybe everywhere. Building trail is a privilege not an entitlement.

Trail-building organizations are providing a public service – and should be receptive to public input. I think trail-building committees and boards should be assembled with representatives of significant user groups sharing the trails. In this example bikers, walkers and runners. When an entire committee or board is run entirely by one user group there is no way to avoid a sense of Trail Supremacy.

I am a mountain biker.

But more importantly I am a member of this community who believes my mode of recreation does not entitle me to anything more than an equal voice at the table with the rest of you.

Play the long game.

Attempting to break rules, ask for forgiveness later, being lazy with communication, and showing disregard for other people – might lead to short term goals? But all of those decisions have long term implications.

Ask yourself – what am I really in this for? Is it the greater community good? Is it to serve all users? Or am I truly serving my personal wishes and desires. If any one those answers are YES… you’re doing long term damage for short term gains. Your gains.

What are WE doing to include the users we try to “educate” with random signs? Why can’t we just makes signs indicating the proper etiquette for everyone? I’ll tell ya this… I can say with 100% certainty I have watched more bikers destroy winter trails than any group of runners and walkers x 2.

This is where stuff gets weird. I’ve never seen a sign depicting a hapless fat biker trenching the trail or destroying the tread while he or she pushes her bike. Never. But I’ve seen my share of ridiculous signs depicting feet (walkers/runners) and even a dog shitting – yes that really was a sign. Who made them? Mountain bikers. I’m not proud of it. But it’s true. And I think we do it because we build the trails and we think… you should just be happy I take all of this time out of my day to build you a trail. We feel entitled to call the shots.

Side bar but relevant: In the mid-90’s I was a delivery driver for SYSCO. Delivery drivers were often looked down on by sales people. I will forever remember one interaction I had with a salesman. Back in the day they (sales people) would have to meet the driver to pick up mail from the office. This particular day the salesman I had to meet kept telling me he’d meet me at the next stop to get his mail. Then he wouldn’t show. By the time he finally showed up that day I had lost a lot of time waiting for him and fallen behind in my day. Drivers were paid for efficiency – he was costing me money. When he finally showed up I mentioned to him that I would appreciate it in the future if he would show up where and when he says he’s going to meet me. Like a true ass he responded: You should just be happy I get up and go to work every day and fill that truck so you have a job.

Not getting along with everyone will only jeopardize our long game.

Parting Thoughts.

I’m not entirely familiar with the agreements in place between NTN and the City of Marquette or the Township. But I think it is important for people who do not know much about it to understand how an organization becomes the local trail-building group and what is involved. I am more familiar with the relationship between RAMBA and the cities of Negaunee and Ishpeming so I’ll use that model as an example.

A few years ago RAMBA formalized their organization and became a non-profit 501(c)3. The city of Ishpeming and Negaunee then entered into a land-use agreement with RAMBA making them the only licensed steward of the trail system on the west-end. This land-use agreement allows RAMBA to build trails on city property – with prior approval from the city. This is an important point. RAMBA presents new trail plans to the city. Once approved they can build. Without approval they cannot. Violation of that agreement could result in loss of their license.

About a year ago RAMBA had to address an issue with rogue trail-building. There were some local folks building trails on city property (and some onto private land) in the RAMBA system without oversight from RAMBA or the cities. Rogue trail-building is another example of an activity that could have long-term implications for an entire COMMUNITY.

Land access is finite. We are in this together. The conversation should always be from a position of WE.

What can we do together? How can we do this together? What can we do to fix a problem?

Without unity we’re in trouble.

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