Words by Stephanie Ignell, member of the Kona Supremes.
Trail building is one of the most important, yet underappreciated aspects of our sport. While some truly respect the hard work and passion that goes into building a trail, there is a lot more bikers can do to understand and appreciate the vision and effort that goes into creating our favorite trails. This effort involves more than just taking a shovel or hoe and hammering it in to the ground. Trail builders also have to look at the type of soil, drainage capability, and land use regulations. Without considering these factors, a builder could potentially spend several months or years putting in a trail that will only last the first initial few months/year and then either erode away from overuse and/or environmental impacts (e.g., washed out), or get torn down because of land use violations.
I interviewed Kona’s very own Matthew Shelton, or more commonly known as Matty, to discuss the issue of sustainable trail building and his history as a trail builder, including his work on Kona’s new trail project – Devil’s Cross. Matty’s experience contains many highlights, some of which are good and some that provided valuable learning opportunities. Here are three that stand out:
Top lesson – Always get agreements in writing.
Top Work Highlight – Retallack build mission with Freehub Mag and the Treelines crew. Two peak to lodge trails in as many years.
Top Highlight all-around – Community building.
Matty has been building trails for a total of 14 years and counting. His passion to build trails came from a desire to “create a ride experience that was more in line with current trail design and bicycle capability.” If we look back to 14 years ago, many trail builders taught themselves the craft as trail clinics and sponsored volunteer days were few and far between.
Matty described the need for innovation:
“Trail design, at the time, was focused on past ideas of what riders wanted to experience and lacked the opportunity we needed. These trails didn’t meet our needs as riders, so we tended to work on our own projects, away from the experienced builders. Once we moved on from our projects, we found builders that were after the same type of trail experience; it led to a more focused and educated approach to building. You want the work to last, function as designed, and remain safe. We sought out the builders on the hill that could collaborate and offer experience as well as attending IMBA build clinics and trail summits that offered training in design, build techniques, and advocacy outreach. You need all three.”
This interview provides insight into what sustainable trail building entails, the legal restrictions and implications involved with trail building, and an example of sustainable building in action with Kona’s new trail, Devil’s Cross.
What does sustainable trail system mean?
The functional definition is a trail that requires minimal maintenance and creates minor impact on the surrounding ecosystem. The more encompassing definition takes into account political support, land access, and community size.
What environmental aspects do you have to take into account (e.g., soil composition, water runoff, etc.)?
You have to account for all of these things well before you put tools to the ground. Looking through USGS maps for soil types, topography, and drainage zones are the top three on every builder’s list.
How does this impact your trail design?
For the most part, environmental aspects are very positive to the overall trail design. Taking notice of the potential issues before they manifest cuts down on build time and more importantly the maintenance aspect, which basically defines the notion of a sustainable trail. These areas of focus also give credibility to projects in the eyes of land managers who will likely be involved in the building process.
Why does accounting for environmental impacts matter when building a trail (e.g., longevity)?
Minimal environmental impact is, very simply put, the most efficient way to build a trail. It always leads to a better final product in the way the trail is routed, built, and ultimately maintained.
How does land use laws and regulations impact trail builders and users, both from a trail building aspect and gaining access to lands available?
Land use laws, especially liability laws in the US, are extremely restrictive to recreation opportunity. These laws affect mountain bikers and builders more heavily than other user groups, as they have to be rewritten to afford even the potential opportunity for a multi-use or bicycle trail system to be permitted. The notion that a properly built bicycle trial is no more impactful than a hiker trail is still a foreign concept to many landowners and environmental advocates. Bringing these concepts to a larger audience and educating lawmakers, landowners, and other user groups will increase access and building opportunities. It is worth noting this effort is moving forward in Washington State with the help of Evergreen, WMBC, and other advocacy groups at a faster than normal pace.
Are there any other environmental/sustainability factors that impact trail building?
There is one that we cannot control. Bicycle trails are almost exclusively sharing space with trees in the Northwest. These trees are a resource to be harvested by public and private entities and provide needed funding for schools and roads here in Washington. While these timber farms are held to a certain level of sustainability, it is hard to deny the devastation of a clear-cut. It is even harder to deny the level of hypocrisy of the claims by landowners that ‘bicycle trials’ need to be closed due to erosion or impact on surrounding areas when they share the same space with clear cuts and logging roads.
Why is trail building so important to the sustainability of our sport?
The importance of trail building is threefold.Without trail work, there is no riding opportunity, no progression, and that will lead to fewer and fewer opportunities to expose new riders to the sport. Trail building bridges the gap between user groups. Everyone builds trail. Equestrians user groups, hikers, trail runners, cyclists, even motorized user groups; they all need trails and building them together creates trust, acceptance, and more trail experiences. Well executed trail systems are quickly being recognized as huge revenue generators for local economies. This revenue is sustainable and does not require the vast expenditure of resources to generate profits compared to harvesting timber, mineral extraction, and all the infrastructure required for those activities. Trails are good business!
How did the idea to create/remake Devil’s Cross (DC) come into play?
This was purely a ‘look at the map’ scenario. The slope that DC covers has no other trails in the area and, once completed, will connect the top of the mountain to the existing north side trails on Galbraith mountain. This trail was more about the concept of connecting the trail system together than specific trail features or even one trail. The WMBC T.A.P. program was our opportunity to get involved, so we adopted DC.
What is the history behind the trail before Kona took it over?
My understanding is that it was once an uphill moto trail. It was really good to burn up since it is all sandstone and, unlike Super Cross, it didn’t become a rutted out water slide. Once moto users were not allowed on Galbraith, some adventurous folks took it over as a bike trail and cleared it every couple years (maybe 10 years).
What was the driving factor behind the trail (i.e., the visions for what you wanted)?
We wanted a top to bottom trail experience that had connectivity to the rest of the hill. One this project connected the system, other trails could filter into Devil Cross and back to the central hub.
How did you account for environmental aspects when designing and building the trail?
The same concept the old moto riders used, we tried to follow the ridge line and stick to rock the best we could. Always avoiding riding through or across drainage and sensitive slopes. Trail construction was mindful to the slope and dirt composition. The dirt holds up good to tires in this zone, but any water funneling or pooling can be devastating over time with so much sandy/loamy dirt composition.
What part of Devil’s Cross are you proud of the most (can be a couple)?
Staying true to our vision and not forcing or going through with a design that did not fit the landscape. Denying the devil on your shoulder is tough!
Are there any future plans/revisions in the works for the trail?
All trails see revisions. We do hope to include a few features on the trail that fit natural terrain, reshape a few corners, and replant areas that were impacted by logging and trail work. Fresh ferns on trails feels good.
At the end of the interview, Matty made a statement that I think all mountain bikers should understand:
“One big point to realize. None of this land is yours or mine, it is the landowners. Building trail correct and in coordination with landowners is the only way to move our sport forward.”
Respecting landowners and keeping an open discussion with them is one of the most significant ways to create a sustainable future for mountain biking. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s also about our community and advocating for multi-use trails in recreational areas. Understanding environmental factors, taking into account the local ecosystem, considering the type of trails bikers want to ride, engaging our community, and cooperating with landowners and Regulators all contribute to the sustainability of our trails and sport.
A huge thank you to Matty Shelton for sharing your knowledge and expertise. You do amazing work and the Kona Supremes greatly appreciate all that you do for our community and our sport!