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  • Who Owns the Trail?

    Reprint form PinkBike by Charlie Sponsel Follow Add to my FavoritesTrails are a contentious subject. Some trails are public, legal, and regularly maintained by an official agency. Some trails are uber private, illegal, secret-unicorn-societies where you have to know the password and secret handshake to get in. Most trails, however, land somewhere in the middle, and that often creates an uncertainty and a tension between trail builders and riders. A lot times it seems like trail builders think they own the trails they build and they think their word is law. Not surprisingly, this rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Most riders want to see trails open to everyone, and so a lot of people won't listen to an obstinent trail builder who's trying to control who rides the trail when and how. Between trail builders and riders, who's right? And who "owns" the trail?
    My two cents is this: if you're riding on anything less than a fully legitimate public trail, you don't have to do anything that a trail builder or local trail boss tells you to do. Within the bounds of the law, you can do whatever you want on "their" trail. You don't have to listen to them. You don't even have to respect them. But wouldn't it be cool if you did anyway? Wouldn't it be better if you listened to and respected the wishes of trail builders, even when their demands seem completely ridiculous, even when it means missing out on that ride or that jump or that sweet photo? If that sounds completely crazy, read on and I'll explain why I think you should give a little more patience, deference, and respect to your local trail builders, even if they're grumpy and confusing and weird and mean.
    One of my favorite trails of all time, one of the trails in Scappoose, Oregon, is illegal. The trail is short, but itís mega-technical, unrelenting, and fun as hell. It was originally built without permission on private land, it was open for three or four years, and after a multi-year negotiation with the landowners that ultimately proved fruitless, itís now illegal. Sheriffs patrol the road that parallels the trail, and they give out hefty tickets to riders caught trespassing. Itís a bummer, but itís a pretty standard storyline for the trails where I live.It's almost impossible to get approval for any sort of mountain bike trail anywhere near Portland, and asking to legally build a downhill specific trail might as well be a joke - just ask the guys that have spent three years in court trying to get approval to build the Timberline bike park. Out of the twenty downhill trails near Portland, only two were built legally and with permission from the land owner. Every other trail, whether on private land or public, was built without permission. There have been success stories, of course. Blackrock Freeride area has become a big success, as has the Cold Creek recreational area in nearby SW Washington. The trail in Riverview Natural Area has the potential to be the first legal downhill trail in the city of Portland. Still, each of those trails was originally built without permission. Out of a quick tally of 20 downhill trails in the Portland area, only four are currently legal. Eight other trails have been plowed, and eight remain in a tenuous semi-secret/semi-public status.
    Mount Hood Skibowl has been running races down this course for close to 15 years, but even this trail has a shaky past and an uncertain future. Photo by Grub Tubbs.
    New downhill trails are not welcome here in this part of the Northwest, and that fact fundamentally affects our local trail culture. A lot of trails are built in secret and ridden by small, exclusive groups on an invite-only basis. **** hits the fan when unknown riders show up, especially when itís a whole truck full of people. Oregon isn't unique in this secret trail culture, either. I've seen it in Bellingham, Whistler, San Luis Obispo, SoCal, and Colorado, to name a few. It happens in BMX trail culture, in surfing, and in snowboarding. Itís a pretty common phenomenon.And a lot of people just don't get it. Especially to new riders, the whole thing seems unnecessary, unwelcoming, and elitist. And I'll admit, the "secret trail culture" thing can get a little out of hand, and there's probably room on both sides of the aisle for a little more "understanding" and olive branches and crap like that. And there's probably a good discussion to be had in all this: do we really need to be so secretive about our trails? Is this what we want mountain biking to be? What would Jesus or Slayer or the Fonz do? But that's not the discussion that happens. Here is every "discussion" I've ever had or ever witnessed between trail builders and random riders:You politely (or not) ask someone to park far away from the trailhead, or talk quietly near the houses, or don't invite random people, or don't shoot photos or post a helmet cam video of the trail on Facebook, or whatever. They absolutely lose it and start arguing about "freedom of speech" this and "public land" that and probably they're even going to cite the Magna Carta or the Geneva Convention in their impassioned defense of why they can do whatever they want on a trail someone else built. Maybe they'll cite their years of experience as a lawyer or hostage negotiator or amateur frame builder, or how they used to race pro back in the day. But after everything else is said and done, every one of these discussions always ends on this doozie:"Itís not your land, so itís not your trail. You canít tell me what to do."
    "You're not the boss of me, bro."To which I typically respond:
    Here are the top five things you completely overlooked when you said "It's not your land, you can't tell me what to do:"1. You're right, but what you're arguing isn't important at all. You're 100% correct when you say that "it's not your land, so it's not your trail." The trail builder and other trail users probably cannot claim ownership of the trail, and they probably have no legal authority.But that information, while true, is also useless and non-prescriptive. Saying "it's not your land, so it's not your trail" is the moral equivalent of playing "I'm not touching you" with your older brother on family road trips. What this person is literally suggesting is that because a trail builder doesn't legally own the trail, somehow that gives everyone the moral justification to do whatever they want on the trail, with impunity. And again, legally that may be true, but the thing you missed in your massive oversimplification is that:2. You probably still want someone to be the trail boss. Or you should. Having a grumpy trail boss sucks, but the only thing worse is having no trail boss at all. Without a trail boss, one of two things will happen: either there will be no maintenance and future building, or all maintenance and building will be patchwork, random, and inconsistent.Weíve all ridden trails that were built by committee, and theyíre horrible. Having lots of people that are willing to help with a trail is great, but not if they canít agree to a common vision or wonít let one guy run the show. Some sections will end up being sweet, but most sections will be horrible. In the end some sections drain badly, others are awkward and slow, rocks get removed in one section, but in another section theyíre piled up to make ďa new rock garden,Ē and the whole trail ends up feeling like trail building decisions were made by throwing darts at a wall of bad options. And there will almost certainly be ladder bridges.Even worse are trails where the trail builder abandons the trail, and nobody maintains it. Puddles get wider, ruts get deeper, berms get more blown out, and jumps collapse. Yeah, it sucks, but it doesnít suck enough for any one person to step up and fix it alone. So no one fixes it, and it keeps sucking. Somehow random ladder bridges seem to show up in this scenario, as well. Come to think of it, I'm starting to think ladder bridges just grow on trails naturally, like weeds.
    Maintenance is important. Before this trail at Scappoose was fully closed down, there was a weird interim period where we were allowed to ride but not allowed to maintain it. Death mud and mega-ruts developed almost overnight.
    In short, you need a trail boss.3. Youíre probably not a good candidate for the position of ďtrail boss.Ē Iím not sure, but the fact that weíre arguing about this leads me to believe that either A) youíre relatively new to this game, and youíve never built a trail, or B) youíve been riding for, like, 40 years, but for whatever reason life has made you super bitter and you live to argue with people like trail builders. About everything. You tell everyone about how long youíve been riding and how youíve ďearned your milesĒ and how you used to travel with Palmer back in '99, but in all those years you never actually built a trail. Sure, you leaned on a shovel for three hours at a trail day four years ago, but thatís not exactly what weíre looking for.Either way, if we were interviewing for the position of ďtrail boss,Ē you probably wouldnít make the cut. The person that's currently in the lead for that position is the guy who actually built the trail. Hereís a quick look at the score board, as far as I can tell. Let me know if I left anything out:
    Here's another graphic that I think is telling:
    In the end, someone is going to be the trail boss, and youíre probably not going to be that guy.4. This means someone else will be making the rules. And **spoiler alert** youíre probably not going to agree with everything that guy says or does. Even if you have the best, nicest trail builder in the world, some of the decisions he makes will probably drive you crazy. There will be lines you donít like or sections that are too hard or rules that seem arbitrary, and what's even crazier is that you might even be right from time to time. If you have an open, receptive trail builder, he might listen to and incorporate your input. If he doesnít, though, thatís just part of the deal. If you're having trouble swallowing this hard pill, please remember item #2: "You probably still want someone to be the trail boss."
    There are so many other places to build. No trail is the end all, be all of mountain biking.5. If you still canít handle your grumpy local trail builder, good news! You can build your own trail and enforce your own rules. Really, if the rules at this trail spot donít agree with you, you can build your own illegal trail spot at any time, and then you can institute your own rules. Or if you think rules are bad, you can build your own illegal trail spot and have no rules, and anyone can ride or build anything all the time. Or if you think illegal trail spots are bad, you can not build your own spot, and not come back to this one. There are a host of reasonable options open to you, and there's nothing forcing you to deal with any one trail spot or builder.Of course, these are just my opinions, and they do not reflect the official stance of Pinkbike. Trail building is a serious issue for mountain biking, but I think it's widely misunderstood by the public and by mountain bikers. It seems like a lot of people think trails magically appear when the trail fairy comes to town, and as long as that attitude persists, it makes it almost impossible to have a meaningful dialogue about this stuff. The truth is that real people spent weeks, months, or years building every trail you ride, and I think those people deserve your respect and deference when you ride. Figuring out "whose" trail it is. well, that's sort of the least important part of the whole equation.All photos that aren't from Dumb and Dumber or Skibowl were taken by the talented and ruggedly handsome Tim Zimmerman.

    Who owns a trail?

    What do you think? Do trail builders have the final say? Are they out of line if they tell you what you can and can't do?
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