Apathy, Parks, and Trail Running: A Bad Combination

Trail runners, we have a crisis on our hands. Trail races have been canceled because the state parks in which they are held are not being adequately funded. Other races face similar threats. In a way, we should thank a bad economy and state financial crises for pointing out our own errors. The simply reality, we cannot merely be trail users, we must be trail partners, trail stewards, and trail founders. We must take action. We must take it today. We must take it tomorrow. We must continue to take action, because without vocal, engaged users, the trails will be claimed by developers or reclaimed by the forest.

Before further discussion, here’s a list of local, state, and federal (any country) issues that threaten trail access, whether generally or for races, in particular. We’ve also decided to post resources to help you take positive action. Please leave a comment with other endangered trails or trail races as well as helpful resources! Let iRunFar.com help get folks engaged!

Park Issues

  • Laurel Highlands Ultra – A condemned highway overpass will alter the course of a classic eastern US race. Sign the petition to replace the bridge! [broken link removed]
  • Mount Diablo 50 Mile – California state budget cuts led to this race’s cancellation  in 2010. Take action with the California State Parks Foundation. [broken link removed]
  • Idaho State Parks – While we’ve yet to learn of any impacts, Idaho has cut state park funding by 80%!? Follow the news by following Friends of Idaho State Parks on Facebook. [Added 3/16/10]

Trail Runner Resources

  • Become a More Useful Trail Runner [broken link removed] – Ultrarunner Craig Thornley suggests that you develop the skills to lead trail work outings.

Recent state fiscal crises have hurt parks across the United States. Presumably, parks in other countries have faced similar problems.

After a year of meeting budgets by deferring maintenance, California state parks have cut back public services in 2010. Even seemingly small budget cuts can curtail trail running. Take, for instance, Mount Diablo State Park. Here, the California Department of Parks and Recreation “merely” cut some camping and day use areas. Those changes were enough cancel this year’s Mount Diablo 50 mile and marathon trail races. With any luck, these races will be back next year with the backing of Pacific Coast Trail Runs, but a year’s lapse might mean the end of other, independently organized trail races. California park lovers must now choose to let their parks operate at diminished capacity, allow them to be funded by offshore drilling, or successfully petition for a ballot initiative to have a license plate fee fully fund the parks. (Read more about the California state park issue [broken link removed] and efforts to re-fund the parks.)

Trail runners, let the Mount Diablo 50 be a lesson to fight harder for park funding.

Mount Diablo from Shell Ridge

Mount Diablo from Shell Ridge. Photo from PCTR.

The trouble on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is much smaller in scale, but nonetheless meaningful to trail runners. Sure, the trail is a pleasant place to go for a weekend run, but it’s also home to the 30 year old Laurel Highlands Ultra. In December, transportation authorities condemned the bridge, which spans an otherwise impassable highway, for structural reasons. This left the trail split in two. The bridge will soon be demolished and the race will be rerouted with an additional 6 miles this year. After much pressure from local users groups, transportation officials have at least paid lip services to replacing the span… eventually. In the short term, sign the petition to “save the bridge” and write a letter to politicians to voice your support for a replacement span.

Facilities Maintenance
Let’s face it, it shouldn’t have come petitions and letter writing with the Laurel Highlands bridge… at least not after the fact. This 40 year old bridge has been in visibly bad shape for a decade. Why did no trail runner or race official or hiker or snowmobiler raise a call to action before the bridge needed to be condemned? Has society, including us trail runners, become too complacent? Do we think someone else will tell officials what needs to be fixed? Trail runners, we need to speak up when major resources we use start to fall into disrepair.

Laurel Highlands Trail

A portion of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. Photo courtesy of Steve Pero.

Trail Maintenance
On a more personal note, I spent two weeks with my parents in New Jersey over the holidays. During high school and college I ran countless miles on the trails that crisscross Washington Crossing State Park behind their house. During this trip, I was appalled at the state of disrepair into which those trails had fallen. As I spent hours during my runs clipping briars and moving logs in the cold rain, I couldn’t help but fume at those trail runners who routinely use the park (and they do), but do nothing to maintain it. Do they feel entitled to good trails? When they see a trail falling into disrepair do they organize a volunteer outing? Do they even notify a park official? Trail runners, if we don’t take care of the trails, who will?

Personal Action
The history of trails and parks is filled, if not dominated, by personal will, by personal passion. These places that were birthed from passion, must be maintained by passion. Your passion. Get out there. Get out there and do something. Open your eyes. Open your mouth. Open your checkbook. Open your hand, pick up a Pulaski, and get to work!

There are 32 comments

  1. Tom

    I have long thought that trail running needed an open space advocacy group- similar Ducks Unlimited for hunting enthusiasts- to address this very problem, which is only going to get worse. I'd happy tack on another $5 or $10 to my race entry fees if the funds could be used to support trail access and infrastructure (and obviously the funds would have to be pooled nationwide and prioritized to achieve scale).

    1. Bryon Powell

      Hear, hear, Tom! There are some trail running organizations out there, but none that seem to be working toward this purpose. Some might ask why form another organization when there are already so many other outdoor organizations working in the same general sphere. Well, because trail runners need a voice. It's not that we can't work with others. We should. We must. However, we trail runners also need to work toward goals that are particular to us.

  2. Meghan

    I send my proverbial green fist into the air with you here, Bryon. Thanks for this awesome post, and I couldn't second your opinion more!

    I recently wrote a "WTF, peeps! Get thine act motivated!" post on my blog that was heavily read but little commented. I don't know if I scared people, made them feel guilty, or what. I wonder if this post will pan out similarly. No matter, I know they are out there thinking about it, at the very least.

    Thanks for being an important community voice! :)

  3. Ultrarunning-Edge

    Very timely article Bryon!!!

    By and large, ultrarunners are a self-sufficient bunch. In principle, our activities should not be contributing to budgetary issues involving public land. We do lots of trail work—both trail development and maintainenance. Most of us are very careful not to litter or otherwise damage the trail or the experience for other trail users. Generally speaking we can take care of ourselves and do not require assistance from law enforcement. But maybe current budgetary issues should cause each of us to re-evaluate:

    Do we really pack all our trash off the trail (including the trash occasionally dropped by our fellow users)? Couldn't we also pack that trash all the way home so that some government employee doesn't need to empty the trash barrel at the trailhead?

    Do we really know enough backcountry medicine to take care of ourselves (and maybe others)? Why not join the local search and rescue group, or get certified in first aid, or take a wilderness medicine course if one is available?

    Do we really perform sufficient trail work to justify the impact our feet make? Have we ever actually asked a public land manager how much and what really needs to be done?

    Finally we need to do a better job communicating about our service activities to public land managers and other user groups. Maybe if we did this, we wouldn't get excluded from new Wilderness or other public lands after spending years developing and maintaining trails for us AND OTHERS to use.


    1. Bryon Powell


      While I wish what you said about trail runners doing lots of work, I don't think that's the case. Yes, there are some dedicated individuals, small groups, and organizations and I'm terribly thankful for them. We all should be. However, I think an overwhelming majority of trail runners, even core trail runners, do nothing or close to it.

      As an aside, I think that in most areas, most of the large scale trail runner volunteering is on specific race courses. (Western States, Wasatch, Massanutten) That's all well and good, but we also need to take responsibility for other trails. We need to take care of those in our own backyards.

      I think your ideas about trash vigilance are great. We need to make sure we secure all our own trash and at least get it to the trailhead. In addition, I think we need to pick up other trash along the way. No, it's not feasible to carry out a tire or the remnants of disrespectful camper, but we can follow the ideal of "Leave the trails cleaner than you found them." Thinking about who needs to carry the trash out of the park, forest, desert, or other garbage can is even better. I think one of the things I feel most strongly about is that we need to be "considerate." Not as the opposite of the narrowly defined "inconsiderate," but to actually consider the effect of our actions more carefully.

      While we may cover our own tracks, as it were, I think we need to do more. Yes, other users, ATVers, irresponsible mountain bikers, similar equestrians, and others may do far more damage to the trail in both relative and absolute terms. Why we might think they need to clean up there own mess… if they have to make it at all, perhaps we should think of it more as putting in equal time. Maybe we attend to trail runners needs in maintaining a trail and then take time to fix up an old park pavilion or volunteer to lead school children or do something else to apply our own skills to the park, so that park (or other agency) employees can do other work.

      I think it's great to communicate with local land managers. That means alerting them to problems (we might save them much time and work be alerting them quickly of a potential problem) and seeing what we can do to best help their efforts. Working together cooperatively will also likely mean that trail runners get real consideration if an "issue" comes up or there's debate on land use. We might not get what we want, but we're more likely to be truly heard.

  4. TrailClown

    Who needs trails anyway? Every race should involve running through prickers and briars, over logs, through streams, between boulders, on the edge of cliffs. All these groomed trails are just messing up the balance of nature, same as asphalt highways. No trail maintenance, no aid stations, no state parks…just run through the wilderness…Obviously all of this is sort of a joke, but I was just reading an article about new advocacy for creating zones of wilderness connecting the entire nation, so that the animals that need that space (mountain lions, wolves, bears, etc) could roam freely and hopefully restore the balance of nature. Well, it got me thinking…we are at least part-animal aren't we? Maybe let the bridges fall, let the Statue of Liberty fall over like in Planet of the Apes, and let nature reclaim and renew. Actually, I'm really lazy and don't like trail work, and this is my paltry excuse…

    1. Bryon Powell

      TC, I hear ya on the non-trail areas… kinda. I mean I'm all for continent-wide wilderness corridors (or at least as wild as can be corridors) and there are animals that do need trailless areas to thrive. However, don't confuse wide ranging animals with those that need trailless areas… even if there are some that need both. For instance, a mountain lion requires a relatively large chunk of territory as do most apex predators, but based on footprints I saw last weekend, they certainly don't mind trails. On the other hand, the Canadian Lynx absolutely needs trackless (not to mention untracted) wilderness to survive. Trails, when packed in winter, from foot or especially from snowmobiles allow coyotes and other less snow adapted predators to encroach upon the ghost cat's wintry refuge. Additional maladapted predators means less prey for the lynx and, eventually, fewer lynx.

      1. Meghan

        Me thinks that TrailClown and I were born of the same blood when it comes to inclination towards wild places!

        Humanity's historic approach towards "saving" wildness was to set it aside, make it a park, to largely separate humans (mostly our destructive tendencies) from it. We knew we were our own worst enemy for nature! This worked pretty darn good when there weren't so many people living on Earth, and when the effects of human civilization didn't travel globally through water and air systems.

        Today, we humans, on an administrative level, are beginning to leave the "nature as an island" theory behind. Even in wilderness areas, which have the highest level of federal protection from us humans, we have begun to consider ourselves (and our effects on said wildernesses) as part of the management equation. In my opinion, this is a wise philosophy and I'm proud of our foresight.

        TrailClown, we just watched "The Day After Tomorrow" last night, a horribly-plotted but wildly-entertaining movie about the fictional, extreme effects of climate change. When the Statue of Liberty fell because New York was flooded and frozen, I couldn't help but shake the little green fist inside me, even though I know getting rid of humanity is not a tangible solution.

        1. Bryon Powell

          Internationally, the "nature as an island" theory may be further along the path to history than it is here in the US. International conservation organizations realize that without local, public buy-in, conservation in and of itself is useless as it will be usurped by peoples needs, wants, and desires. The key to "protection" is to make an ideal (here, land) more valuable in the form we prefer than in it is less favored forms.

  5. Michael Helton

    The Tahoe Endurance Run 50k/50M/100M traditionally follows a course from one trailhead to another. However, this year the RD was told they could not use the trailhead as a staging area because this was a "for profit" race?


    It does not matter if the event is a 501c3, or if it makes money or not. It does not matter if money was offered to use the facility since it is public land and must be available to all.

    However, maybe that is the problem. Maybe there SHOULD be higher priority given to the people who regularly use the trails, volunteer to maintain and build them, and who are willing to pay more than taxes for their use.

    1. Meghan

      A piece of land that is owned by the government does not legally entitle said piece of land to be "available to all." While this may be a certain cultural myth/belief, that was never the intent of federal land area designation and regulation.

      For those who are unfamiliar with federal land area designations, there are many. Each kind of designation is created with a specific intent. For example, federally-designated wilderness areas have the most stringent regulations on human use. Another example, Bureau of Land Management areas have a very strong human-use component to their designation.

      The purpose of said federal land area designations is and always has been to create a country-wide scale land protection, preservation, and use management plan (Or series of plans, however you'd like to look at it.), not to simply make land available to all.

      If you want to know about the purpose of a specific federally-designated area of land, investigate the enabling legislation or the mission statement of that specific land piece.

      1. Bryon Powell

        There are entire classes in law school dedicated to interpreting US land agency mission statements and enabling legislation. It may be sad to say, but it's fascinating stuff.

  6. Michael Helton

    I also had an interesting talk with the public land manager for my region recently. I had left a message asking for information on a new trail I heard was in development.

    When he called me back he sounded irritated and frustrated. The conversation went something like this:

    Park dude: I do not have much time for piss-ants like you, but I am doing my job and returning your call. What do you want?

    Me: Thank you for calling me back dear sir. When might the new XX trail be opening?

    Park dude: *SIGH* Well, pondscum, I do not know exactly when it will be approved, but it would be built much faster if we had more resources. How about you get off your lazy ass and volunteer to build it instead of just annoying me?

    Me: Actually, I already signed-up with the Tahoe Rim Trail to volunteer and even put my name in to help manage the project.

    Mr Public Lands Manager: *SILENCE* Really? *More silence* Most people just call me demanding and threatening but they do not understand how thinly we are stretched. It is rare for people to actually want to help. Thank you. Here, call person A for this and person B for that. Here is my cell phone number, so if you need anything, just give me a call directly. Thank you again.

    Moral of the story: We, the users of the trails, need to step up and do our part. It does not matter if it is fair, or right, or a drain on our precious free time; we need to volunteer.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Right on, Michael. If we had a 100 or a 1,000 of us do this, that is step up and talk with the local land use officials, and start the ball rolling can you imagine what would happen? It's likely that those 100 or 1,000 would recruit friends, clubmates, and others to get to work. Can you imagine if trail users actually… wait for it… reduced the burden on local land managers? Hmm… just maybe that would mean more and better trails. If those more and better trails mean more users and perhaps more local visitors then local businesses buy in and you have success stories like Park City, its Mountain Trails Foundation, and 100s of miles of sweet, sweet singletrack! … but I digress.

  7. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thanks so much for getting the word out on this. As a longtime supporter of Mount Diablo, I'm doubly disheartened by the state of our state parks (and the state of Calif. in general for that matter). I'm going to link this to fb to spread the word — you're so right that we need to be trail advocates as well as trail runners.

  8. jenn

    Thanks for this post! It's unbelievable how thinly-stretched so many of our parks, forests, and refuges are right now, and every little bit helps! I know wildlife refuges that have neither managers nor biologists, because of funding issues; they're scraping through by the amazing dedication of the staff, and when lucky, a few volunteers. If we want these places to stay open and in good condition (both infrastructure, like trails, and habitat-wise), volunteering is key. Most of the places I know of love volunteers for anything from trail maintenance to wildlife monitoring to data entry. Some of these parks etc are near to home and convenient to help on short notice; others are further away, and would require some planning — though many of these also have bunkhouses, so you can both volunteer and have a fabulous vacation in a beautiful spot!

    1. Bryon Powell

      Jenn, It's great that you are thinking both far and wide in terms of where to help out on the land. I'll admit that I day dream of taking a week long "vacation" to help on some Sierra Club project or to help build out the Continental Divide Trail.

  9. Bryon Powell

    For those in California, I thought I'd share some news on the ballot initiative to fund state parks through a license plate tax. Specifically, my local chapter newsletter for the Sierra Club notes that this plan has been sponsored by the Sierra Club, the California State Parks Foundation, and Audubon California. Another point worth noting is that the California state parks now have an estimated repair backlog of $1 billion! This is no small problem.

  10. Jeremy E. Elwell

    Many Many good points made here! I would direct my response to race directors. The first comment mentioned they would be willing to pay extra entry fee. I would rather see that a portion of my entry fee, or that added portion is designated for trail maintenance and state parks letting us use there land. I also commend Western States. In order to even qualify for the "lottery" you must have volunteered at a race(8 hours I believe). Now I know that refers to more aid station volunteer, but as runners and users of these tails we should be spending our time, not our money to maintain these trails. I feel that we would care for them much better job than any non runner we pay to do the job for us!!

    my 2 cents


  11. Tom

    Here in the Pittsburgh area we have a 35 mile trail run called the Rachel Carson Challenge. For last year's event, anyone who volunteered for trail maintenance leading up to the race got a 10 minute head start on game day before the rest of the pack (600-ish participants). Nice little perk – free to organizers and meaningful to participants.

  12. Mark

    In Missouri, volunteers manage all of our trails already. We get no help from the Parks department. We form non-profit trail management organizations, get Memorandums of understanding with the park officials then create and maintain all of our trail system. Our trails are extensive, well maintained and everyone has a stake in keeping them in good shape. It is a year round process with trail building in the winter and weed cutting in the summer. We all have a stake in the process. The City of Lawrence which is in the Kansas City Area trail system was recognized recently as one of the top 10 trail running cities in Trail Runner Magazine. So, we must be doing something righht.


    Lees Summit, MO

  13. Mark

    Here is an example of one of our organizations. https://www.facebook.com/groups/TrailMasons/about/ This is a prime example of runners, equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers all coming together to maintain and improve a 15 mile loop through the woods around a local lake. The Kansas City Trail Nerds host many of their events at this location. Another good model is our local Mountain Bike Club http://earthriders.com/. They excel at trail building and recruit runners to assist in building and maintaining trails. Work usually occurs in the winter cutting new trail, summer is week cutting and trimming. Many of the local trails have a volunteer assigned to that section for year round maintenance. It makes everyone pitch in and move that tree or pick up that trash while they are out on the trail. We are also very aware that damage during wet weather has to be repaired by volunteers and are careful when muddy. I hope that this can help and motivate others to maintain their trails for the benefit of all.


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