Private fundraising solves trail maintenance problem
By Gary Sprung, International Mountain
Two energetic and creative fundraising programs in the resort area of Ketchum/Sun Valley, Idaho, have yielded over $70,000 for local trails. Mountain bicyclists played lead roles in the effort.
The problem is long term, but crisis stimulated this year's project. The local USDA Forest Service (USFS) office informed the public early in 1996 that their budget for trail maintenance had dropped from $61,000 to $2,000. (This is an increasingly common problem throughout the National Forests system.) Adding to the crisis was the problem of impacts caused by huge numbers of mountain bicyclists. Forest Service recreation specialist David Gordon observed that cyclists were not the only source of trail erosion, but attributed the "vast majority" of impacts to the increasing amount of bike use on area trails. He maintained that trails were in excellent shape in the spring of 1995, and had deteriorated to poor condition by the fall.
Gordon brought together a group of bicyclists in January, '96, to address the problems. That group considered many ways to educate users and help maintain trails. They realized that volunteer efforts would help, but would not be sufficient. They also decided their efforts must include all trail users. By the spring they had decided to launch the fundraising effort, and named it the Big Wood Backcountry Trails Maintenance Fund. Chris Leman, a carpenter, former bike tour leader, and author of mountain bike guidebooks, led the group.
Meanwhile, some progressive bicycle dealers had already begun to address the problem by organizing a system which they liken to "self-taxation." The dealers agreed that each would donate five dollars for every bicycle sold, and 25¢ for every rental of a bicycle or in-line skate. The money went to either the USFS trails, or to a paved bike path system which runs throughout the resort area -- with the customer making the choice. The Sun Summit Ski and Cycle shop initiated the effort and brought in up to six other dealers, representing 80% of local bike shops. They named their program the Wood River Bicycle Dealer Association. The dealer program has now operated for three years (only during the three months of summer when cash flow is high) and has raised about $3000 each year.
Also assisting is an Adopt-A-Trail program. Fifteen trails have been adopted by local bike shops, backpacking stores, hotels, equestrian groups, and construction companies. From four to 35 employees in each company go out with Forest Service supervisors once or twice each year.
Sun Summit helped launch the larger, community-wide, Big Wood Backcountry Trails Fund by inviting a variety of trail users to a meeting. With hikers, equestrians, cyclists and motorized users together in the room, "it was a little tense," said Sun Summit partner Don Wiseman. But they quickly realized their common interest in the local trails resource and agreed to move forward together. Sun Summit agreed to provide logistical support, such as use of their graphic artist to create a brochure. But they agreed to not mention the company name, nor any other organization, in the publicity materials. "We did not feel as a store we should take the lead. If it's a community thing more funds will be raised," Wiseman explained.
Organizers of the Big Wood Fund knew they faced a significant challenge. "The valley and community does give so much to so many worthy causes. They're pretty much tapped out," Chris Leman explained. "So we wondered what kind of response we would get." The response was phenomenal. By the fall of this year they had raised $63,000. "It was really gratifying. It's close to home for people. They really care about the trails. Trails are non-controversial, non-political. You could hardly go wrong," Chris commented. The largest donation was $5,000.
The group gave $25,000 to the USFS Ketchum Ranger District to fund a three-person trail crew, which maintained 185 miles this year. That work cost only $20,000, so the crew was able to add intensive maintenance, bridges, and trail reroutes in some areas.
Additional money went to purchase materials to harden trails at points of greatest erosion. Gordon has struggled with the erosion problem, finding that many normal solutions such as waterbars and geotextiles are inadequate in the face of really heavy use. He now plans to try a pine resin substance, derived from manufacture of turpentine. The resin is mixed with soil, compacted, and left to set up.
The Big Wood group is considering what to do with the remaining funds. One option is to set up an endowment, so that a pool of invested funds provides interest money for trail maintenance every year. That will take more fundraising to build the pot to a sufficient size. Trail users around Sun Valley can expect to see more requests for financial assistance in upcoming years.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has designated the Ketchum Ranger District as a site for the user fees demonstration program authorized by Congress last year. This raises questions for both the Big Wood and Wood River programs. Should trail users pay a fee to the government for trail use AND contribute to voluntary programs? The user fee program is a nationwide experiment to answer exactly those kinds of questions.
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Updated March 16, 2007