Whose Trail Is It Anyway?
Let’s play a game. This game will determine who has any claim to a trail. Read through each scenario and decide which answer most likely matches to it.
First the answers:
- The Trail builder(s) who built the trail
- The community of trail users
- The dudes that shred it every day and go the fastest or the guys that have been riding it for the longest time.
Now for the scenarios:
- A trail is built on private land (i.e. owned by an individual or group of individuals) with the permission of the land owner but the conditions are that only those riders who are invited ever ride there.
- A trail is built on government land (owned, controlled and managed by the state or local government) without permission or legal right to do so.
- A trail is built on government land with all appropriate legal right to do so and with express permission of the land managers.
This is pretty straight forward, right? Well, scenario 1) and 3) are straightforward, but let’s look a little closer at scenario 2) because there’s some grey area in this one (at least for some people).
OK, so you live somewhere full of awesome trails and you access to a huge amount of terrain. Let’s, for argument’s sake, say that this area is full of forested mountains that are crisscrossed with logging roads that make for easy access. There’s so much land to build trails upon that you’ll never fill it up with rideable lines, i.e. British Columbia.
Now, you’ve ridden a lot of the trails for several years and you think that you, either a) could do better b) want to have your name attached to a trail of your own making, or c) there’s never enough trails so why not build another? So you (and possibly your homies) go in search of the ‘perfect’ zone to build your own trail/legacy/mess. You slave away for months or maybe years (depending on how committed you are to the project or how uncommitted you are to your paying job) and then you ‘open’ your trail and start telling friends about it so they can go experience your masterpiece/worship the giant singletrack statue of yourself/ruin a ride by riding a hideous mess of janky turns, wasted elevation, jumps that don’t work and soon-to-be trenched-out eroded mess.
Whatever the result, you’ve put your mark on the forest and perhaps on the trail maps of the area. Score!
However, a few years go by, maybe you’ve moved onto newer projects or you lost the spark of excitement that had you running to the hills with tools in hand. The trail gets ridden by more people than the friends who you originally showed the trailhead to. Either the secret is out (because MTBers are the very worst people at keeping a secret. More on that another time…) or you were so full of ego that you told people about it precisely so they could find it and then shower you in compliments, high fives and free beer, and now the trail is officially out there even though it was never an official build.
- In that time nature and the work of tires has altered the trail a little. Places that used to be duffy, soft, forgiving romps are now awkward, blown out, rooty, rocky, cesspits. As the trail builder you could:
- Moan about how every other rider except yourself was responsible for ‘killing the original character of the trail’ and become a fate-filled cynic.
- Shrug your shoulders and walk away because ‘it’s not my problem, I made it for everyone else to ride so it’s everyone else’s problem to fix’.
- Shrug your shoulders and get on with fixing the problem because a trail isn’t for the fifteen minutes of fame, but for life.
Before you answer this, correlate it with the trail builder’s motivation for building a trail:
1) Did you build it for yourself? In which case you would have built it so far off the beaten path that no one would find it. You told no one else about the trail and made anyone you did tell swear a blood oath that they’d never reveal its location for the rest of their living days. And you would never ever cut an entrance or exit to it?
2) You cut the entrance wide open, told a bunch of mates who work at bike shops about it, posted several Instagrams of yourself building or riding it with the hashtag #secrettrail but then told everyone who asks about it the precise directions and how it’s ‘so sick man. You’ll love it. Go ride it and tell me what you think about it.’ Or perhaps you told the local cycling or mountain bike trails association that you built a trail for them that they never asked for (this is not awesome because it’s like buying a cute dog to help you pick up chicks at the beach but then giving it away to the local animal rescue center once you hook yourself a lady).
Mountain bikers are peculiar bunch; trail builders even more so (this is a loose term and covers the gamut from builders whose profession it is, to people that drag a rake down a hill one afternoon and call it done). Mountain bikers who build trails without any prior formal or legal right to do so on land that they have a right to be on, but not alter (this is the case with Crown Land in BC) still claim ownership of a trail, ‘Oh, you mean Zaskar, that’s my trail.’ But they don’t own it. If you did all the steps outlined in 1) then you still have no formal, official or legal right of ownership, but you’ve done enough work to put it outside of the grubby hands of the wider community of trail users so it’s yours to do whatever you want with, be that leave it to become a gnarly mess of blown out turns because ‘that’s hardcore!’ or throw in sketchy 50ft ladder bridges with zero transition to land on because you like riding that kind of thing. Man, tie a rope around your neck and suspend yourself from a high branch while whacking off before dropping in if you want. It’s your little secret. Do what you want out there, alone.
However, if you did 2) (built then even slightly bragged about your trail) then you don’t have any ownership over it. What you have done is create a resource for the community, whether that’s what you want or not. You can’t build trails within or around an existing trail network and expect them to be yours and forever stay the way you want it. Either it’s going to get hammered to pieces by a mass of riders and the original character of the trail will morph over time (sometimes for better but sometimes for worse) or the ownership slides to the community because they are the ones who use it and are impacted by its presence.
You can’t cry about this. You did this and when you built it you should have known that no trail ever stays exactly the same. But if you build trails using smart construction techniques then you can have an impact on the way a trail will change. More so, once it’s changed then do you step up to the plate and show your ‘ownership’ by fixing and maintaining the trail or do you walk away and let it go? Well, if you opt for the latter and someone else comes into sort of the mess (be that an official local cycling association whose mandate is to act as stewards of the trail network or an individual who decides that he or she is willing to put in the sweat equity necessary to fix the issues on their own time) then you cannot moan about what is done. Sure, the fixers should be mindful to maintain the original character of the trail while they create their solutions, but because the trail has become public capital because it’s being ridden on a daily basis whether, that’s what you intended or not, then you just have to either suck it up or get your tools out and do the work yourself.
No one likes change it seems. But things do change. Trails change, riding styles change, the network of trails change (resulting in more access to previously hidden secrets), and the ‘ownership’ of trails does change hands through very fluid, silent and natural brokering.
In short, if you want ownership of your trail then either make sure your name is on the deed of the land you build on or go very, very, very far away and keep it a true secret. Otherwise the ownership, and with it the responsibilities of ownership – maintenance, care, wisdom, and awareness – is up to every damn one of the people that ride that trail.
Any trail. (note – this article was originally published in May 2015)
Do you take ownership of the trails you ride?