Dedicated to Dirt: Conservation projects like trail building can help mountain bikers and old-school enviros find common ground. Photo: Courtesy IMBA.

The most succesful future conservationists may be more familiar with Danny MacAskill than John Muir. “I believe that there’s a crisis in the conservation movement today, and that it’s going to be mountain bikers and climbers who will save it,” says Brady Robinson. The director of the Access Fund, a climbing advocacy non-profit based in Boulder, Colorado.

“Look at traditional conservation groups, like the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society,” says Robinson. “They do great work protecting natural landscapes, but they face a common challenge: Their members are aging and young people are not signing on in sufficient numbers.”

Older conservationists should take heed, because if the conservation movement is going to survive, Robinson argues, it must learn to embrace new audiences and new forms of recreation. A 2009 study funded by the Nature Conservancy concluded, “One of the greatest threats to conservation may be declining public support due to fewer people engaged in outdoor recreation.” Can bikes change that?

Bikes Booming

Bicycling certainly attracts that youthful audience —according the Outdoor Industry Association, it’s one of the top five most popular outdoor activities for young people. But some conservation-minded groups are still warming up to the idea that mountain biking can be compatible with conservation values. Studies have shown that the impacts of mountain biking on the natural world are similar to those of hiking, but many foot travelers are skeptical of the idea that knobby tires and hiking boots should both be welcomed in outdoor spaces.

“To be blunt, it’s not always easy to tell if mountain bikers are focused on experiencing the natural world or if they are more caught up in finding a physical challenge,” says Sloan Shoemaker, director of the Colorado-based Wilderness Workshop. Yet, as a mountain biker himself, Shoemaker admits that biking in the woods can provide a relaxing experience in a natural setting.

Of course, it’s hard to know what someone else is experiencing when they are hiking, biking or running on a trail. When it comes to protecting and preserving natural areas, the crucial issue is whether recreational users and conservationists can find the common ground to work together.

“At the end of the day, we need each other,” says Shoemaker. “In the current, highly polarized political world there’s very little chance to advance land protection bills that will preserve natural places without a broad base of support.  We need to find strategies that will protect the land and still allow recreational uses—without a balanced approach we are not going to succeed.”

Getting Dirty

Bringing recreation and conservation interests closer together sounds good, but how to get past the biases that these communities may have for each other? One activity that seems to do the trick is bringing people together to work on volunteer-based projects.

Jenn Archuleta is the Trails Project Director for the Boulder Mountainbike Alliance, and she also serves on the board of the Wildlands Restoration Volunteers. “I don’t build trails purely with the intent of providing an awesome riding experience. I also want to protect natural resources. The great thing about trail projects is that they do both—a well-designed trail is fun to ride and integrated into the landscape in a way that respects resources.”

Archuleta’s background includes work with conservation groups like the Fourteeners Initiative and Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado. She agrees that there are elements of mistrust about partnering with mountain bikers. “I think part of it is that the bikes themselves are hard to get past, especially for the older generation that prefers hiking. There’s this high-tech piece of equipment on the trail and it’s just hard to see past that at first,” she says.

Tim Sullivan, the Colorado State Director of the Nature Conservancy, agrees that trail projects can help build trust and understanding. He points to a recent volunteer effort at Boulder County’s Heil Ranch that attracted more than 100 people from Boulder businesses in the outdoor industry. “When you stand next to someone and work together to move a rock or re-route a segment of trail, it creates a sense of community,” says Sullivan. “Conservation is a value. It’s compatible with all kinds of recreational activities, so long as they are carried out in a way that respects the natural world.”

Show Me the Money

Perhaps the biggest reason why it’s in everybody’s interest to integrate recreation and conservation is that both help drive Colorado’s economy. Outdoor activities generated $13.2 billion of in-state consumer spending last year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Well-preserved natural areas and plentiful opportunities for recreation provide the foundation for one of the most popular destinations for outdoor enthusiasts from around the globe.

Sullivan points out that his organization, The Nature Conservancy, changed its tagline a few years ago. “We moved away from a mission statement that seemed to indicate a minimum of human interaction. Now it says we will ‘conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.’ That includes giving people the chance to experience those places through recreation, so they can build an affinity for nature and the desire to protect it.” 

Share the Trail

We can all get along when multi-use trail projects unite Colorado communities. 

Can hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, off-road pogo stickers and who-knows-what-else enthusiasts all get along on Colorado trails? In general, the answer seems to be affirmative. According to Tom Hoby, the Director of Parks and Open Space for Jefferson County, conflicts between different types of trail users are statistically quite small.

“For the most part, people are friendly and display good trail etiquette,” says Hoby. “The majority of the new trails we build are meant for hikers, bikers and runners to share. But there’s also a need to provide adequate hiking-only experiences, and it may be time to consider adding bike-specific trails as well.” Here’s a look at some multi-use trail projects that are helping bring Colorado communities together:

Near Golden, at Jefferson County’s North Table Mountain, a new 14-mile trail system provides both shared-use and single-use (hiking only) access. “Our initial survey of local residents indicated that they wanted a balanced approach—not purely a nature preserve with minimal access, but they didn’t want a total bias toward recreation either,” says Hoby. “The public process wasn’t perfect—I wish we had done a better job with our initial campaign to inform the public about our vision for the trails. But now that it’s open we are receiving a lot of positive feedback from both the neighbors and visitors.”

Just outside Crested Butte, The Trust for Public Land purchased a large section of land on the edge of town that had been owned by the local Kochevar family since 1905. The conservation transaction was the largest in the town’s history. The success not only preserves Crested Butte’s natural backdrop—scenic Smith Hill—it unlocks the possibility of a new network of trails between existing protected areas along the Slate River and around nearby lakes. Currently, the Lupine Trail accommodates mountain biking, hiking, running and cross-country skiing.

The Nature Conservancy’s $29.5 million-dollar investment in the Colorado River Corridor spans multiple states. In the South Platte, the Triple Creek Greenway Corridor Project will see $3.4 million in Great Outdoors Colorado lottery funding devoted to developing conservation and recreational opportunities. “We spent a lot of time out in communities across Colorado and we heard the same themes repeatedly over the last couple of years,” says GOCO Board Chair Peggy Moñtano. People want recreational opportunities close to home, they value Colorado’s rivers and they want more trails.”

Freelannce writer Mark Eller is the communications director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).