Whose Trail Is It Anyway?

Words Seb Kemp
Date May 13, 2015

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:

  1. The Trail builder(s) who built the trail
  2. The community of trail users
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. A trail is built on government land with all appropriate legal right to do so and with express permission of the land managers.

Correct answers:

  1. A
  2. B
  3. B

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.

  1. 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:
  2. Moan about how every other rider except yourself was responsible for ‘killing the original character of the trail’ and become a fate-filled cynic.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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?

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Comments

traildog
0
traildog  - Dec. 21, 2016, 10:48 p.m.

as one of those local trail association builders who spends a lot of time re- benching, re-routing, installing water bars, cleaning those water bars etc on a legacy network of illegallly, poorly built but publicly adopted trails, thank you for writing this.

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jamie-hamilton
0
Jamie Hamilton  - Dec. 21, 2016, 8:15 p.m.

A bit late to the party but well said. Having been involved with a bit of local trail building and by no means do I claim to be the most prolific, most expert or skilled by any means. Is it ok to just say you were involved with the trail building process and take gratitude in seeing all the smiley faces at the bottom of the run? No need to claim anything, just enjoy the ride and leave ownership to the kids who want to keep all the toys in the sandpit. I'll be that guy silently stoked to see happy faces out on the trails, Cheers!

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0
Amanda  - May 16, 2015, 9:53 a.m.

Well said. It's an interesting issue here in Utah, too, although some land managers and BLM/USFS are more strict than others. Southern Utah? Well, we've been dumping shit into rivers and stuff down there for years, so it's reasonably safe to say that nearly anything seems to go. However, in the greater SLC area, we have a few illegal trails, some that are being legalized now, and others that the wider community has just accepted as 'there'.

It's always been a fairly touchy subject here, but especially in more recent years as the DH/FR scene in SLC and urban areas has reignited into a pattern of growth; private, small-time petitions to the USFS and BLM to initiate the legal trail building process have fallen flat while larger, corporate growth attempts (ie, ski lodges at the top of Hidden Peak and chairlifts through National Forest) seem to get pushed through without hindrance.

Does anyone in BC/surrounding areas find legal trail building more difficult than logging/mining/corporate efforts? Or is the land leased in a similarly generous way to everyone?

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giddyupPG
0
giddyupPG  - May 13, 2015, 4:36 p.m.

Thank you, Seb! This is an amazing article. I try to make every effort to be respectful to those who build trails, but if a trail is built on public property and not managed through an agreement with the appropriate agency (Sites and Trails etc…), then anybody has a right to ride it (and technically, alter it, although this would seem to be a bad idea). Builders so often feel a sense of ownership and entitlement when building on public land, but really don't have a right to. As you so aptly put it, it is actually quite simple: get the appropriate permission (and/or build on private land), or risk losing your work and control of the infrastructure.

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SneakyB
0
Gord SB B  - May 13, 2015, 3:24 p.m.

We need a 1B, Private Land, Unsanctioned.

And we need another answer, D. The Land Owner, or their Agent.

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reg
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Reg  - May 13, 2015, 12:57 p.m.

pretty spot on. However, could you call out all the strava dickwads next time a little more? 🙂 You know, the ones that post every ride on every hidden trail.

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Lee-Lau
0
Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 7:58 a.m.

A note too on "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.". This is commonly referred as unsanctioned building. This isn't referred to in your article but comments on this topic will frequently deviate to something like blah blah .. don't build without permission… blah blah times have changed.

A note that the majority of trails in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton are unsanctioned. Almost every trail in the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan is unsanctioned. A little less than half of the trails on the Shore are unsanctioned. People who demonize unsanctioned trails or builders of those trails would throw out a large part of our trail systems

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cam@nsmb.com
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Cam McRae  - May 13, 2015, 2:31 p.m.

My conversation with Seb last night. Me: Do you want to distinguish between illegal and unsanctioned trails? Seb: No. We'll let Lee handle that.

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Lee-Lau
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Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 2:52 p.m.

Ha yes. That's a topic that really gets my goat. So much uneducated opinion about this - much of it from those who should know better

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derek
0
Derek  - May 13, 2015, 2:55 p.m.

Lee -- any "unsanctioned" trail on Crown land is an "illegal" trail under the FRPA, no?

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Lee-Lau
0
Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 3:22 p.m.

If and only that trail is on Crown land then yes there is a law on the books against it. It's s. 60 of the Land Act and those unschooled will cite it. But s. 60 only has been used in the past 20 years against, First Nations blockades. So academically it's illegal to build trail on Crown land but in the real world that law does not get used. Period. If its Parks then there's a specific law against building trail in Parks (but pipelines, powerlines, gondolas and mining test sites are OK of course)

That FRPA you mentioned is logging tenure centric. You're probably from the Interior or the Valley or somewhere that applies. It sometimes gets used against those who are trespassing on others tenure and also anecdotally I've heard of tickets written against people building stuff in active blocks. But it doesn't apply to lands that aren't MoF and that's a huge part of the province.

Muni land isn't Crown land. Municipalities are a creation of the province and the feds. They are given authority to administer their lands through bylaws. If the bylaws are silent then its fair game.

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Lee-Lau
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Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 3:37 p.m.

And more about municipal land, which is what the Shore is generally all about and what many trails in the province are also all about

Muni land isn't Crown land. Municipalities are a creation of the province and the feds. They are given authority to administer their lands through bylaws. If the bylaws are silent then the trail is "unsanctioned". DNV, Metro has no bylaws making it a criminal offence to build a trail or structure on public lands.

There's total confusion and misunderstanding about this of course not helped by the perpetuation of fictions. For examplle The NSMBA in their NSMBA 101 document ( see page 14- May 2015) reprints some language provided by the DNV saying that the DNV has a bylaw on their books with language about "prohibition against damaging a park in section 2 and the prohibition against erecting structures in a park without a permit in section 8."

That gloss the DNV puts on their bylaw doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Their bylaw (!.pdf)

s. 2 - No person shall cut, break, injure or in any way destroy, despoil, remove or damage any tree,
shrub, plant, turf or flower, or any building, structure, fence, sign, seat, bench or ornament of any
kind, or in any way foul or pollute any fountain, lake, stream, pool, pond, well or spring in or on any
park, or injure, deface or destroy any notices, rules or regulations posted in any park.

  • This is about sabotaging park facilities. It's a big stretch to say this prohibits trailbuilding

s. 8 No person shall take up a temporary abode overnight in or on any portion of any park, or obstruct
the free use and enjoyment of any park or erect, construct, or build or cause to be erected,
constructed or built in or on any park, any tent, building, shelter or other structure without a permit.

  • This is about stopping squatting in parks.

Anyway - TL:DR. MoF and BC Parks have laws with criminal penalties against trailbuilding so trails built on their land without permission are illegal.

DNV and Metro do not have bylaws criminalizing trail construction They have bylaws with civil penalties against civil construction so trails built there are unsanctioned. Outside Forest tenure and Parks land, trails built without permits are unsanctioned.

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Lee-Lau
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Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 3:47 p.m.

And finally all the citations are here

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Jerry-Rig
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Jerry Willows  - May 13, 2015, 4:03 p.m.

Lee, can you get fined for riding "unsanctioned" trails on Metro or DNV land?

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Lee-Lau
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Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 4:15 p.m.

Not in Metro. The fine is just for building unsanctioned trails

In DNV you can get fined $ 50 for being in a park when its closed or $ 30 for being in a park without a helmet. So yeah that could happen.

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Lee-Lau
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Lee Lau  - May 13, 2015, 7:49 a.m.

Seb. Didn't Charlie write something about this also? Just remember; as a trailbuilder set your expectations very very low and you won't be disappointed. That extends to the bike "community", the land managers, whoever stravas your trail etc etc. Call it realism if you will

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satn
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satn  - May 13, 2015, 5:48 a.m.

And if someone cracks their head on a 20 ft gap, who's liable? Hmmmm?? Still want to lay claim that you built the sick trail?

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jocktx
0
JockTX  - May 13, 2015, 6:31 a.m.

@Satn Why should anyone be liable? If that's your main concern then do us all a favour and stay at home, build your own kiddy trail or ride somewhere your skills are more appropriate. Whatever happened to people taking responsibility for their own actions? Mountain biking, in fact any outdoor sport, is inherently dangerous due to terrain, weather, reliance on mechanical equipment, wildlife and the skill (or otherwise) of those partaking in it. As a whitewater kayaker, as well as a biker, I take responsibility for my own actions and any subsequent injuries.

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gtnar
0
GtNar  - May 13, 2015, 7:27 a.m.

get real @jocktx:disqus when things go horribly wrong someone is always liable

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andrewbikeguide
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AndrewR  - May 13, 2015, 7:34 a.m.

Actually, like this reply, liability is only a matter of opinion. Just that sometimes the judge's opinion might not match yours. That said if the trail is built well and sign posted as advanced/ expert, then it comes back to the decision of the individual who thinks that they are capable of clearing that 20′ gap given the conditions at that time on that day.

No one forced that person to go and ride a trail that was beyond their ability. No one forced them to ride a feature, there are always 'ride arounds' even if those 'ride arounds' mean getting off and walking your bike.

If people riding are worried about liability being ascribed to someone else when something that they chose to do goes wrong then perhaps mountain biking is not the right sport for them.

That said, in North America (Canada included), I would never build any elevated features on a trail that wasn't on my own private land if I was not willing to commit the time to maintain them.

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satn
0
satn  - May 13, 2015, 7:34 a.m.

Whoa whoa whoa buddy. What I'm saying is if I was a land owner and some one built a trail on the land and I did not know about it and some one cracks their head on the secret trail and is from out of country and incurs a huge hospital bill. Then wouldn't the land owner be a bit worried about what will happen next? Stop being self centred and only think about the one side of the equation. Go back and do your big gapers and pray that there's someone to catch you if something goes wrong. Peace. Grab a Java

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satn
0
satn  - May 13, 2015, 7:40 a.m.

You have a family? You have people who reliy on you to put food on the table? You crash on trail and incur a 100k in hospital bills in a diff country and you are going to loose your home then what? Think man think! That's all we ask!

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tuskalooa
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tuskalooa  - May 13, 2015, 10:09 a.m.

I think liability (whether real or perceived) is a real issue. Anything can happen it doesn't have to be a 'gnarly' trail or a 'gnarly' crash. People injure themselves in all sorts of ways. Unsanctioned or sanctioned trails on private land poses problems for the landowner. Though I think if you injured yourself on private land and tried to claim it could be said that you should have not been there in the first place. I would be more wary of sanctioning a trail as a land owner and inviting a claim/suit in case of an injury sustained by a biker.

Heck, trying to build a community pump track brings up huge insurance and liability issues let alone building of trails.

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reg
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Reg  - May 13, 2015, 12:47 p.m.

In Canada, the landowner would not be liable for a trail built on their property without their knowledge

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mammal
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Mammal  - May 13, 2015, 9:29 a.m.

Satn, look into the amendments made to the Occupiers Liability Act. If the land is rural in nature, or reasonably marked as recreational trail, and you decide to recreate on it, then you have all the rights of a trespasser. This means that the land owner isn't liable unless they have tried to harm trail users.

I hope this clears things up a bit. I'm not sure who you think should be liable when you screw up a 20ft gap. Did someone force you to be so daring? Own your actions dude.

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Brocklanders
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yahs  - Dec. 22, 2016, 4:56 p.m.

Buzz Killington, I would like to see your etchings. Give it a rest

Reply

sean
0
Sean  - May 13, 2015, 3:03 a.m.

Well said.

Reply

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