As funding for our National Parks continues to decline, a recent poll found that 81 percent of voters report having visited a National Park at some point in their lives, and nearly nine in 10 say they are interested in visiting in the future.
The disconnection between how we, as a culture, value parks, and how we fund them is evident at the State level as well, especially in California with our 1.6 million acres of State Parks an and including 339 miles of coastline. Agencies such as the California State Parks Foundation have worked to help enhance state parks with advocacy, educational programs, capital projects, grants and fundraising. Meanwhile a panel called “Parks Forward” recently laid out a 2-year plan to turn-around our State Parks system which has suffered from years of “scandal, mismanagement and stagnation.”
In San Diego County, an organization that I participate in, San Diego Ultra Running Friends, is taking an entirely different approach. Instead of waiting for State projects funding to maintain and improve the trails that we use, the TrailFit Campaign has organized teams of runners to volunteer their time for trail maintenance. Trailfit has cleared over 100 miles of trail in the Cleveland National Forest, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and Anza Borrego Desert State Park since the program started in 2012.
The 2015 TrailFit season is a series of pre-scheduled trail work events in the San Diego Mountains designed to maintain and improve the trails used for ultra races and training runs, as well as for recreational activities for the general population. If you appreciate the San Diego Mountains and use our trails as we do, I hope that you will consider volunteering for the 2015 TrailFit Season.
Runners Take Trail Maintenance Into Their Own Hands
After cutbacks at parks departments, athletes are helping with upkeep for the routes they love.
By Jon Marcus
Published February 12, 2015
When a storm slammed into Kansas City, felling 23 trees along one 12-mile section of a trail in a local park, Ben Holmes and his team went into action cleaning up the mess.
Holmes doesn’t work for the state or county. His Trail Nerds are runners. And, like runners nationwide, they’ve started taking ownership of the places where they run.
“Our thing around here is, if you’re going to run on these trails, earn your dirt,” says Holmes, whose army of runner volunteers also weed-whacks poison ivy and nettles in the summers and paints park shelters and bathrooms.“ In almost every park that we run, we help maintain the trails,” he says. “If we didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”
A nationwide trend toward this kind of volunteerism is being driven by a boom in trail-running, mountain biking, and hiking that has put new pressure on parks already squeezed by budget cuts and natural disasters such as storms and fires.
Runners help maintain the more than 30 miles of trails in Memorial Park in Houston. The Birmingham Ultra Trail Society builds and oversees new routes through parks and trail systems in Alabama. The Chicago Area Runners Association helps care for the Chicago lakefront running path, where it installed the only source of drinking water that functions in the winter. In Colorado, members of the Pikes Peak Road Runners volunteer to work once a month on part of the Pikes Peak Greenway Trail, while the Incline Club has adopted the top miles of Barr Trail in the National Forest.
“If it’s not us, no one’s going to do it,” says Ken Bonus, a retired tax attorney who organizes the San Diego Ultra Running Friends’ annual TrailFit Campaign. Through the campaign, runners have put in a combined 1,500 hours annually since 2012 to clear more than 100 miles of trail in California’s Cleveland National Forest, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Parks have taken a particular financial beating since the economic downturn that began in 2008.
“The government agencies don’t have the resources to do this,” Bonus says. “Because of their budget constraints, it’s hard for them to even organize a volunteer campaign themselves.”
Already half a billion dollars a year short of what it says it needs to operate, the National Park Service has had its budget reduced by an additional eight percent, or $190 million a year when adjusted for inflation, delaying opening seasons, shortening hours, forcing hiring freezes, and postponing improvements. The California state park system, the nation’s largest, reports $1 billion in overdue maintenance. And while no one tracks exactly how much city and county parks have collectively been cut, the withdrawal of taxpayer support has forced them to depend on fees for 40 percent of their revenue, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.
“Often parks are the first to be cut because they’re seen as an amenity rather than an essential service,” says Rich Dolesh, National Recreation and Park Association’s vice president for conservation and parks. “You see city after city that is cash-strapped starting to de-emphasize their commitments to public parks and recreation.”
People who use the parks, including runners, are increasingly filling the void, in some cases in response to appeals from the parks.
“Parks and recreation and departments, state parks, forest preserves, conservation areas—all of those agencies are, where they can, trying to develop friends groups to help maintain those facilities without costing non-users,” says Bobbi Nance, a running coach and project manager for the Park District of Oak Park, Illinois.
Trail and ultrarunners are particularly active; some ultrarunning events now make volunteerism—often, trail work—a requirement of registration. High school cross country teams are also increasingly helping keep up the parks where they run.
“We have found that the cross country runners are some of the best workers. They have great endurance,” says Cindi Wight, superintendent of the Rutland, Vermont, Recreation & Parks Department, which also collects the email addresses of people who sign up for its annual 10K and reaches out to them to volunteer.
For many of these runners—especially the youngest ones—the experience opens their eyes. “It’s the beginning of understanding that trail systems don’t just happen,” Wight says. She says she’s seen people come to understand “there’s only so much we can do. We’re also mowing and trimming and lining fields and running programs. If the park system has to maintain the trails without any help, you’re going to have a pretty limited trail system, and if they want trails at the level they expect them, they need to get up there and work on them.”
The tiny parks department in Porter County, Indiana, depends on its running club to help keep the trails where they run clear and well marked. The club has branched out to clean up trails in nearby federal and state parks.
“Trail runners are a special group. They love their trails. And I think they like to protect them,” says recreation director Becky Sue Kreiger.
But Dan Sturgell, who runs the club, sees something else going on.
“It’s almost like another running boom now, with a different kind of runner—more about participating than competing,” and more interested in the camaraderie of volunteering, says Sturgell, a retired electrician who has been running for 32 years.
Scott Giddings, president of the Greater Omaha Area Trail Runners, or GOATz, sees “maybe more of a feeling of responsibility to take care of the trails that we use. As you start seeing more and more people who want to be out in nature and get off the concrete, a certain percentage of those people are going to be vocal and volunteer.”
Runners’ contributions varies widely. The strenuous chain-sawing of branches and clearing of trails in San Diego, many of which were nearly lost to wildfires, becomes an endurance contest in itself—the kind that attracts ultrarunners—Bonus, the organizer, says. In Washington, D.C., the Potomac Runners more modestly bring pop-up trash receptacles to their runs on National Park Service trails and haul the garbage out with them. They also make annual financial contributions to the National Park Foundation.
“We are guests of the National Park Service, and we take that very seriously,” says the Potomac group’s leader, Phil Davis.
Park directors expect this trend to only grow.
“My own kids have grown up working on the trails. And my son says, ‘Now when I see rocks along a trail, I realize that someone had to put them there,’” says Wight, in Rutland. “We’re instilling the idea with adult runners that that’s what you do.”