Is it OK to Make Trail Edits?

What do you do when you encounter an obstacle like this downed tree? Photo: Tallahassee Mountain Bike Association (TMBA).

Downed trees. Leaves, pinecones, and nuts. Encroaching branches or vines. These are just some of the obstacles I encounter while riding my local trails. But is it okay for riders like me to remove them or should it be left to the professionals?

To help clarify where the boundary lies between trail edits riders can make and ones only professional trail builders should make, I spoke with Nat Lopes with Hillride Progression Development Group, LLC, a mountain bike trail consultation group, which has had its hands in various bike parks across the country.

Lopes’ views come from his experiences as both a rider and a trail builder

Lopes rides as hard as he builds trails. Photo courtesy of Nat Lopes

Lopes is as passionate about riding as he is about trail building. Photo: Rachael Faye.

Lopes has 15 years of project management experience developing bike parks, trails, and destination riding areas and has taught sustainable bike park and trail design in all 50 states and throughout Canada for IMBA. The National Recreation and Parks Association recognized his work on Griffin Bike Park in Terre Haute, Indiana by awarding it the 2017 National Park Design of the Year.

As a trail builder, Lopes works directly with land management agencies including the National Park Services, U.S. Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management. He also deals with organizations, volunteers, sponsors, and foundations to plan, fund, and develop projects across the country.

For Lopes, natural forces dictate when trail edits should be made

On this section of trail, both erosion and deposition are present.

According to Lopes, three forces influence changes and maintenance of a trail. “Every trail is an integrated part of the landscape and is by definition under a constant state of change due to the forces of erosion, deposition, and encroachment,” he said.

Rainfall causes impact erosion to trails, creating millions of micro-craters that break up the soil. From there, “fallen and accumulated rain and melted snow begin to flow, creating turbulent erosion that transports loose dirt, rock, and detritus downhill.” Additionally, trail usage also creates erosion by putting constant pressure on the trail.

While erosion wears away trails, deposition fills them with debris. “The landscape contributes a never-ending stream of biomass. Trees discharge leaves, fruits, nuts, seeds and pollens seasonally. Additionally, wind, rain, and snowstorms deposit and accumulate downed trees and broken limbs on the trails.”

Meanwhile, vegetation threatens to engulf trails from all sides. “Trails are under a constant state of encroachment,” said Lopes. “Pioneering vegetation is attracted to the light and open space of the trail. Vines, grasses, and shrubs take over and cover ground as quickly as possible. Trees blast out new shoots each season in an effort to extend their reach.”

Responsibility for maintenance should be determined before a trail is built

Lopes doesn’t break ground on a new trail until the duties and responsibilities of all parties have been clearly established. Photo courtesy of Nat Lopes.

Lopes considers who will make future trail edits at the start of a project. “When I am involved with designing trails, trail systems, bike parks, and destination riding areas as a professional from the ground up, the project usually includes the development of an operations and maintenance (O&M) plan to ensure the facility is properly maintained after the initial construction phase has been completed.”

Lopes says a good O&M plan outlines the duties and responsibilities of all the parties involved in the project, including park staff, volunteers, and maintenance contractors. It also outlines the standards parties should follow for the maintenance and operation of the facility. 

For some projects Lopes works on, a volunteer committee managed by a parks department or a stand-alone 501.c3 non-profit volunteer group will maintain the trails or park. In those cases, Lopes helps the parties create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in addition to an O&M plan. The MOU helps guide the relationship between the parties.

“Between the O&M and the MOU everyone should know what they are responsible for and how things should be done.”

Government regulations and insurance considerations also affects maintenance

TMBA received permission from the U.S. Forest Service to trim back encroaching vegetation on a local trail using brush hogs. Photo: Shawn Hermann.

In Lopes’ experience, parks and recreation agencies in more populated areas generally have more restrictions on trail work. “In terms of power tools, volunteers can use weed whackers and mowers, but not chainsaws due to risk and liability. And sometimes volunteers can only use hand tools.”

The same goes for equipment and machinery. “Some agencies are ok with volunteers operating equipment, and, in some areas, volunteers are strictly prohibited for using any machines.”

The type of project and purpose of the trail also plays a role

Locally, TMBA volunteers are permitted to make edits to the trails with hand tools. Photo: Shawn Hermann.

Lopes mentioned that the design of a trail and its intended purpose dictates who can make edits to it. “For example, you would maintain a purpose-built old school raw XC trail totally differently than a new school super smooth, highly groomed flow trail. As a builder, the most important thing to me is that the project is maintained to the highest level possible and that everyone is working towards the same goal.”

Riders can make trail edits within certain limits

Removing trash is always an acceptable trail edit riders can make. Photo: TMBA.

Lopes states that “maintaining a trail is an act of resistance against natural forces.” Riders can make trail edits on their own to preserve the trail and keep it safe for other riders.

Trimming back encroaching vegetation, removing debris, and cleaning out clogged drains are all acceptable and encouraged. Just know your local rules concerning the use of hand or power tools on the trail.

Lopes also encourages riders to address safety concerns they encounter on the trail. “I would hope that anyone who found an immediate safety risk on a trail would do what they could to mitigate it. And, if they cannot mitigate it, then try to block it off and report the problem to a trail manager.” Examples of such risks include jagged, downed tree limbs, broken ladder bridges, gaps in trails, rock falls, and even booby traps.

The only time riders should not make trail edits to mitigate risk is when there is a major safety concern for the riders themselves. “In areas where the forests are not in good health and there are a lot of dead standing trees that can fall or shed branches, trail managers would probably prefer you stayed safe and left it to them.”

Rock armoring is a trail edit best left to those who are trained in trail building because it requires digging.

Outside trail preservation or risk management, riders should not make trail edits. Lopes emphasizes the “no digging” rule. “It is a huge liability to have random people build, add or change trails or features without permission or a plan. If you are adding anything significant to a trail like a log pile, rock drop, or jump, then you should ask permission from the trail manager.”

To help make necessary edits, riders should consider carrying these tools when riding

I carry a folding handsaw in my hip pack so I can take care of any encroaching branches or vines I encounter while riding.

Lopes encourages all riders to help maintain their local trails. “Every trail needs maintenance and love to keep it tip top and awesome. You can make it happen by figuring out how to volunteer with your trail manager or offer your services as seasonal help in areas where land managers need to partner with contractors to maintain the trails.”

To help with trail maintenance, Lopes suggests riders consider carrying certain tools with them on rides, or at least have them available for trail workdays. Specifically, he listed four hand tools that are great for making needed trail edits: a 10″ folding pruning saw, hand-held pruners, a folding pruner, and a pocket chainsaw.

Each tool has its strength. “A 10” folding saw fits easily in a hydration pack and cuts through pretty much anything you might want to tackle during a ride.”

Hand-held pruners can trim shoots, small branches, and vines. Folding pruners can tackle bigger branches. However, they are more cumbersome for riders to carry. Some pocket chainsaws can cut up to 40” in diameter, which makes them a great tool for taking out bigger trees and logs.

Trail edits are necessary to maintain the condition of trails

Trail builders spend a lot of time and effort designing and building great trails. They have the knowledge and experience to know what grading to use and where to route a trail based on the environment it is built in. Riders can, and are often expected to, make trail edits to help preserve a trail and mitigate risk, but they should never make them for personal reasons.

If you’re not sure you can make a specific trail edit, talk to your local bike club. They are an excellent resource and will provide you with ample guidance on the issue.