Feature Article - May/June 2003
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Trail Guide

Building multiuse trails and bridges

By Kyle Ryan

Common obstacles

For the average citizen who thinks, "Hey, it'd be cool to have a trail here. I wonder what it takes to get one," one thing usually stands in his/her way: government bureaucracy. It can be a long, tedious journey to get a trail built.

Beyond that, though, there are a few obstacles trail enthusiasts routinely encounter: landowners/NIMBYs (not in my backyard), environmentalists and user conflicts.

NIMBYs often cite liability, privacy, crime and litter concerns. Webber says liability usually boils down to their opposition to having trail users near their house. But in the lawsuit-happy America, liability is an issue. Thankfully, most states have recreational use statutes that protect landowners from lawsuits so long as there isn't gross negligence.

In the past, Ciabotti says privacy concerns have been eased with creative landscaping, fencing and even changing the alignment of a trail. Crime is usually a nonissue as the trails are often patrolled by volunteer groups. Litter can be minimized by placing receptacles on the trail, and as Ciabotti says, "Most of these folks tend to pick up after themselves."

Shady Canyon Bike Trail in Irvine, Calif.

"Most of [NIMBY objections] can be dealt with during and design and planning phases," he says. "Typically, after they're through, built and functioning, [NIMBYs] are our most ardent supporters."

Environmentalists may take more convincing. Lebow couldn't even get a meeting with New York-area environmental groups to discuss it.

"They don't even want to start a dialogue about it," Lebow says. But Webber says their arguments can be easily addressed.

"You can overcome the environmental impact of trails by planning," Webber says. "One thing we say is that trails can actually lessen the impact of humans on open space by confining it to a specific area: the trail. If there is no trail, you might have off-trail use."

Such off-trail activity can be many times more damaging than regulated activity because nothing is protected.

Finally, user conflict can be alleviated with proper trail design. If designers plan the trail realistically, they can anticipate where there could be problems and address them before they start.

Still, overcoming opposition to trail-building can be a long process. When the developers of Prairie Crossing wanted to build a trail near some houses that had already been built, Sands encountered resistance from NIMBYs. How did he succeed?

"Lots of talking," he says, laughing. "People came around."

Especially once they realized trails typically increase the value of adjacent houses.

Trail Guides

For more information, check out these resources:

U.S. Forest Service's Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook and Hand Tools for Trail Work, order by calling 406-329-3900

International Mountain Biking Association, www.imba.com (you can download or purchase IMBA's 72-page trailbuilding manual, Building Better Trails)

www.trails.com (a guide to 30,000 trails and trips)

Rails To Trails Conservancy, www.railtrails.org

Even if you tame the NIMBYs, municipalities and all the red tape involved can be overwhelming. Building community support is key, and it helps to have a local political champion as well. Lebow, who admits he's surprised by how well his trail crusade is going, found that massive preparation helps get the wheels of government moving.

"The thing that has gotten the most doors open is that I have an answer," he says. "If you don't have the answers, they're not going to take the time and money to figure it out for you."

Who will design it? IMBA, for free. Who will build it? An army of waiting volunteers. Who will maintain it? Volunteers. He has one organization that will donate all the plants to rehabilitate the area's vegetation. Sponsors will provide food to volunteers during trail building. Cost to New York City: nothing. Work for New York City: minimal.

Lebow has already done numerous non-trail-related projects in the parks to set a good example. His group has removed abandoned cars, kegs and other detritus from what the parks department has called a "pristine environment."

"You gotta make them like you," he says.

Apparently they do like him. In mid-March, Lebow's trail plan received approval from the community board that controls the parks, a gesture the parks department is likely to follow. He also has the backing of IMBA, an adventure race that's taking place in the city this year and New York's 2012 Olympic Committee.

Right now, though, he waits, mainly for environmental groups to oppose his plan. Patience is not only a virtue in trail-building, it's a necessity.

"I want more park land too, but I want to be able to use it," he says. "Having a bunch of trees to look at as you drive by in your car doesn't really do any good."