COTA is Trying to Make Trails Accessible, Not Easy in Bend, Oregon

COTA is working on a trail assessment to make 100 miles of current trail more accessible for adaptive riders.
Photos courtesy of Matt Fields

A few Saturdays ago, I attended an event held by Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA), my local trail organization. Despite the light rain that persisted throughout the outdoor event, quite a few folks showed up to hear how the assessment of some 100 miles of Central Oregon trails was going. 

The assessment that had been going on several days before the event was to see how accessible the trails were to adaptive mountain bike users. Quinn Brett and Joe Stone of Dovetail Trail Consulting partnered with COTA to assess what would be needed to make the trails ridable for all users. Their report was both promising and concerning—adapting local trails wouldn’t be too difficult, but getting past ignorance and discrimination might be.

How It Started

After everybody grabbed a sandwich and beer, we gathered around to hear an update on the trail analysis. Emmy Andrews, Executive Director of COTA, started by giving the attendees the backstory of the current project. 

Making the current trails accessible for adaptive mountain biking has been on COTA’s docket for several years, but getting the necessary knowledge, manpower, and funding had been a struggle. Through connections at a 2022 trail-building conference, Andrews had folks from IMBA reaching out about funds for trails, wondering if COTA had any proposals. A grant from IMBA would allow COTA to receive bids and hire trail consultants with a background in adaptive trails.

“Having some funding to enlist some folks that have lived experience in this area and getting people to take on this project would really help us move this forward,” Andrews explained.

She wrote the proposal, sent it to IMBA, and heard nothing for several months. Suspecting that IMBA had gone with a different proposal, Andrews told COTA’s grant team they likely didn’t get the funds. The very next day, Andrews got a call from IMBA saying their proposal was accepted.  

The funding allowed COTA to accept bids and eventually hire Brett and Stone of Dovetail, one of the outfits that submitted a proposal. Fast forward to May of 2023, Brett and Stone were riding and assessing Bend’s trails with folks from COTA.

Dovetail Trail Consulting

Stone and Brett first met at a conference in Washington D.C., where they were both separately speaking with politicians. “We happened to be at the same place, same time, doing the same thing—advocating for people with disabilities, specifically spinal cord injuries,” Stone told me.

Both had worked closely with the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other land managers advocating for higher levels of access for adaptive equipment users. While Brett and Stone each had their unique vision for greater trail access, the two found way more in common than not.

“What we were talking about seemed to resonate really well with the people who can implement these changes,” he said. “So, we’re on to something, let’s start working together and do more of this.”

As much as Dovetail is about good trails, they very much seek partnerships with quality organizations. “It’s finding the groups who are doing the work to create a universally designed trail system,” Stone said, “we get hired as the experts, with this lens for adaptive equipment.”

While Dovetail is somewhat newer to the trail consulting scene, Brett and Stone definitely are not. They have found themselves collaborating on work in Grand Teton National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and a handful of other areas. They each bring loads of knowledge and experience to places like Bend, Oregon, where small changes can be made to make trails more accessible. 

Assessing Central Oregon Trails

Fortunately, trails in and around Bend don’t seem too far away from being fully accessible to adaptive equipment riders. Bend’s mellow, fairly open terrain is mostly to thank for that. Certain spots that gave some trouble to Stone, Brett, and others might have as simple of solutions as rolling a log a bit further off the trail. 

“There wasn’t a whole lot they couldn’t tackle,” one COTA trail crew leader, who got to ride along with Dovetail for the assessment, told me. Very few changes seemed to be the theme of the night, as Andrews even mentioned that she could easily see the original plan of 100 miles being expanded to 150 or 200.

Where it can be a little trickier is when a trail feature needs a go-around built for adaptive users. Sometimes, it may be a rock feature that the adaptive equipment can’t make it through. Often, it’s two trees that are too close. Nonetheless, adding trail requires governmental hoop-jumping. 

“The Forest Service interprets the trail corridor very narrowly,” Andrews said. “Even if the go-around is very close and obvious, the Forest Service sees it as outside of what COTA is allowed to do. This means submitting more paperwork, and, inevitably, waiting.”

Assumptions Do Make An Ass…

However, perhaps the biggest hurdle in the process isn’t bureaucracy, but the mountain bike community itself. Often, the stigma that comes along with this type of trail work is that trails end up “dumbed down.” Other than being incredibly offensive to mountain bikers who use adaptive equipment, it simply isn’t true.

Adaptive equipment users want the same variety—green, blue, black—of trails that other mountain bikers do.

“People think we’re going to turn their trails into paved loops. We’re not interested in that,” Stone said.

They don’t want trails to be made easy. On the contrary, like anyone else, they want to progress their skills and ride hard things. And they’re damn good. Yet, they are often limited. Not necessarily because of their disability, but often because trails aren’t built with everybody in mind.

“When a new trail is built and it is built with barriers that don’t allow a person with a disability to go through, it’s because somebody just didn’t have the information. That is why [Brett] and I find it so important to work together.”

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