Mountain bike association pays the price to clear trails from Aspen to New Castle
A mountain biker group is taking big steps this summer to clear deadfall and brush from trails early in the season and keep routes clear as Mother Nature does her stuff.
The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association launched two programs this spring. One involved hiring a three-person, paid seasonal trail crew. The second initiative provides basic trail maintenance training to volunteers who will log hours when they can while riding this summer.
“Trail fairies have been part of our culture for a long time but they weren’t necessarily trained” to do the job right, said Mike Pritchard, executive director of RFMBA.
The fairies are well-intentioned trail riders who carry tools with them to saw small logs, remove branches and enhance water drainages. Their work typically isn’t part of a coordinated effort.
RFMBA is upping its game. It invested funds from membership fees and special grants to hire and train the seasonal trail crew and provide basic training for the volunteer trail agents, whose ranks have swelled to 60 riders so far. They are asked to log four to 10 hours of work over the riding season. The volunteers log their work via a smartphone app so that Pritchard can track what trails have been maintained and the general conditions.
The work of the paid trail crew is carefully coordinated with local entities — the U.S. Forest Service, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, town of Snowmass Village and Aspen Skiing Co.
“It helps us tremendously to have extra arms and eyes out there” clearing the trails and observing conditions, said Shelly Grail, recreation staff manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The Forest Service and RFMBA regularly are in contact to set priorities and coordinate work, she said.
Less than three hours after sunrise Thursday, the three young men on the RFMBA seasonal crew trudged up Anaerobic Nightmare and Government Trail lugging chainsaws, gas, loppers and other tools. The trails had just opened for the season so they were out to clear the deadfall before riders and hikers streamed into the area. They coordinated their work with a Snowmass Village team that cleared Tom Blake Trail and a short section of Government.
Dylan Gressett, Rafaelo Infante and Nick Penzel, three guys on summer break from college who are on the RFMBA paid crew this summer, have already cleared trails on Basalt Mountain, the Prince Creek Road network and Hay Park. As the season wears on, they’ve focused on Skyline Park and other upper valley routes.
All three men are avid riders who jumped at the opportunity to get paid to work outside.
“Some of my friends are jealous but others are like, ‘Ooohhh, you’re working outside,’” Gressett said.
There’s also a certain payback type of satisfaction from working on the trails.
“I just wanted to be outside and work on the trails that I ride all the time,” Penzel said.
The trail crew is recognizable in neon green shirts that say RFMBA. They are working some of the most well-traveled routes so they frequently encounter mountain bikers and hikers.
“They’re so stoked,” Infante said of the encounters. “They’re happy we’re working on things.”
There’s also the benefit of staying in shape. They lug enough tools that it’s practical to hike the trails rather than ride. They are sawing through large trees and clearing limbs of all sizes.
On Anaerobic Nightmare alone they had to saw eight downfall tree trunks and a precariously perched snag.
A lot of what they do is using a lopper to snip small branches and brush out of the trail corridor. In a recent member newsletter, Pritchard told riders to think of the trails crew next time they were on a route that would normally be overgrown and “shredding your arms and legs” but is now pruned back.
The three seasonal crewmembers went through an intensive three-day training program with the U.S. Forest Service to learn how to saw downed trees and snags safely. They took a wilderness first aid class and were trained as crew leaders by Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the nonprofit that specializes in trail construction, reroutes and the like.
Pritchard calls Gressett, Penzel and Infante RFMBA’s “rock stars.” With luck, they will return, he said.
“We would like to grow the crew next summer,” he said.
There’s no lack of work. Pritchard said there is 350 miles of singletrack trail that’s open to mountain bikers between Aspen and New Castle. That is separate from trails in designated wilderness areas, which are closed to motorized and mechanized uses.
In the not so distant past, the Forest Service provided the only crew to clear all the trails. They obviously couldn’t be everywhere at once, so some trails would have deadfall far into the summer. Grail said the Forest Service crew will work on wilderness areas and non-wilderness, but it helps knowing that RFMBA has got some of the popular cycling routes covered early in the season.
She said she hopes the day never comes when the Forest Service hands off all trail maintenance to outside organizations.
“Our seasonal crew really is the backbone of the agency,” she said.
Pritchard said RFMBA will still organize special trail work projects this summer. The volunteer trail agent program goes above and beyond those spot projects. It is designed to enlist people to help even if they have full-time jobs and family obligations that prevent them from helping on organized projects.
“The goal is to change the ethic of mountain bikers,” he said.
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Aspen Skiing Co. officials made a tag-team appeal to the Pitkin County Commissioners Wednesday urging approval for the proposed expansion of the Pandora’s terrain and other projects on Aspen Mountain. The commissioners continued the hearing until Aug. 28, when a vote is possible.