Happy Trail$ - Professional trails meet environmental rules


A ribbon of mountain-bike trail cuts across a field of thistle and sage along Colorado's Front Range. It's hot-over 90 degrees-and riders spin by, intent on a workout, a conversation, or the amazing scenery. What they don't notice is the precise angle of the switchbacks-tight enough to be interesting, open enough to be rideable-or the trail's subtle contours that follow the landscape, rather than chew through it.

Most excavators don't have the experience to do it that way," said Danna, a professional trailbuilder and owner of Arrowhead Trails of Nederland, Colorado. Most excavators would just plow a straight line and be done with it."

Mountain biking long ago expanded beyond the enthusiast crowd and into an everyman status. Newcomers and intermediate riders don't necessarily want to spend an afternoon fighting their way down singletrack, but they also don't want to meander along paved neighborhood streets or an excavator's dirt runway

These recreational enthusiasts have pushed city and county planners to include "multi-use" trails in their master plans and residential housing projects. Even homeowners with a few acres to spare are cutting mountain-bike trails into their landscaping plans. They are also creating a new breed of trailbuilder like Arrowhead, builders who are environmentally conscious, understand mountain biking, and can sell themselves to private landowners.

Professional trailbuilding is nothing new. A national organization has been around for about 20 years, and federal make-work projects in the 1930 provided jobs for thousands, building trails in national parks around the country. But building trails with mountain bikes in mind is new.

Arrowhead has been in business since 1994.

His master's degree in outdoor education and eight years with Boulder Parks and Recreation gave him the mix of talents and contacts he needed to get Arrowhead Trails off the ground. About 30 percent of his work is for individuals and developers, with the rest coming from municipal and county government projects. Other trail designers have abandoned the public dole altogether to concentrate on private work.

But even with a new source of work, the number of professional trailbuilders around the country is barely enough to support a good keg party. There are about 40 members of the Professional Trail Builders Association, the one nationally unified force, and they bid for work all over the country. Even fewer say they specialize in building trails specifically for mountain bikes. The bulk of work

comes from three sources: private individuals with money and land, developers looking for ways to improve the value of their housing projects, and governmentsponsored work in city, county and federal parks.

With only about $25 million set aside for trailbuilding and maintenance on federal land, and relatively few city and county projects, new builders are not exactly flooding into the business. Then there is the problem of experience. It's not a profession many aim toward. Rather, it's the kind of thing that is stumbled upon a persistent problem with no immediate solution. Richard May of Mammoth Lakes, California, is president of the Professional Trail Builders Association. At 47, he has an unused bachelor's degree in biology and has been building trails for 16 years. He came to his avocation by way of stints as a truck driver, firefighter and wilderness park ranger.

Though he has built a few trails specifically for mountain bikes, he is one of the builders who relies on government contracts. He splits most of his work between maintaining trails built in national parks 40 years ago and building new trails.

In addition to bidding against other trailbuilders around the country, he competes against local excavators looking for something to do between regular jobs. The wall of paperwork and regulations surrounding any federally funded project make the larger ones tough to get particularly if some local contractor comes through with a low-ball bid.

"There might be a local that gets bonded and builds it," he said. "They often don't know what they're getting into, or they are willing to work low wages and get it done."

With federal work, anything paying more than $100,000 goes to the lowest bidder. Jobs paying less, May said, aren't bound by the lowest-bidder rule. Experience and other factors can be considered, which is often the weight that tips the scale in May's favor.

May, like most in the business, isn't getting rich. Flexible hours, traveling to some of the most beautiful parks in the country and working outdoors are the carrots that keep him coming back. "We have a lot of fun on our wilderness jobs," May said. "We hire a packer with mules to carry in our gear. I've been on jobs 20 miles in and not come out for seven weeks. That's a nice lifestyle."

It can also be difficult work. On jobs in wilderness areas, machinery is banned. Even chain saws are a no-no, reducing a trail-building crew to turn-of-the-century methods: pick, ax and shovel. This method is obviously expensive, about $25,000 or more per mile.

In other areas, modern trailbuilding is mostly done by machine. A contraption that looks like the birth product of a tank and a Bobcat cuts a precise four-foot wide swath through almost anything, eliminating the more difficult rough-in aspect of a project. He swears by the little earth movers, saying they have made his business possible. "One of the philosophies we built our company on is trails shouldn't cost $25,000 per mile and kill you in the process,  Machine-built trails are easier to build and easier to maintain."

Companies building multi-use paths with mountain bikes in mind live by this proclamation. It has brought the price for a foot of trail down from about $5 to $1 for a rough 'dozer-cut product. Finish work is still done by hand but is far easier and adds only about 50 cents to $1.50 to the per-foot price.

Like every other industry that found a cheaper, faster way to turn out a quality product, trailbuilding pros say demand from the private sector is growing. Troy Duffin has been building mountain-bike trails in the Park City, Utah, area for five years. He found himself in the trailbuilding business after taking a job as a trails advocate for a non-profit organization.

"I went to landowners [and developers] telling them they needed a trail," Duffin said. "No one seemed to know how to do it in a low-impact way. A light came on: 'I better learn how to do this?"

He avoids the quagmire of government projects and specializes in sell-ing to private individuals and developers. "Basically, we have developers in this area convinced that trails are a sellable thing," he said. "We managed to convince them that these trails are a great amenity. To them it's a drop in the bucket compared to the [cost of] other infrastructure. They feel it helps them sell high-dollar houses."

In the present building boom, with housing projects spreading like kudzu, and no-growth advocates clamoring for open space, Duffin is the mediator that gets both sides what they want. In his dual role as trails advocate and owner of Alpine Trails, he is often asked by developers to speak in favor of projects at city council and planning commission meetings. "If they have something good to offer I'll go and speak about the trails aspect of the development," he said. "I don't speak about the development, I speak about the trails."

Needless to say, this trail evangelizing gets him a lot of work and builds rapport on both sides. His salesmanship is paying off.

Unlike his contemporaries who say their salaries range from $25,000 to $50,000 per year, Duffin is pulling down a low six-figure income and says he could triple that if he devoted all his time to trailbuilding.

He credited his success, in part, to his concentration on private contracts, rather than government jobs.

Most federal, county and city projects require a lengthy bidding process, he said, while Duffin can bid and land a private job in as little as 24 hours. Government work also often dictates pay scales for laborers; in California, for example,

contract workers must be paid at least $25 per hour on trails projects. Depending on the skill level, Duffin can offer a much lower wage and occasionally use volunteer labor. He has even been known to use prison labor. At about $4.50 per hour, he said they work harder and do more than workers at three times the wage, and consider the work a special privilege that gets them out from behind prison walls for the day. "They work their butts off," he said. "At the end of 12 hours, - they're working as hard as the first hour."

Most trailbuilders have a hard time pinpointing the reason for their success. Mechanization makes this business possible. Richard May says a deteriorating inventory of wilderness trails keeps him in the back country. And Duffin says a demand from riders with money is putting his work on the map.

"There used to be a saying in Moab: 'Mountain bikers come to town with one pair of shorts, one twenty-dollar bill, and don't change either" Duffin said. "Now [the riders] are you and me, with families and money to spend."

©VeloBusiness OCTOBER 1998