I read a great article recently on Woody Keen (here). What an inspiration. I continue to run into other Keen-like figures on the east coast, and I recall working with a few on the west coast as well. Some were purely mountain bikers, some purely hikers, some both. Regardless, as Keen said, “We’re still fighting… the battle over what a forest is for. Too often people see forests as creating products like timber instead of products like recreation. Recreation is a far better product.” Sometimes it is better, and sometimes the debate is also just what the forest will be cut into or rather for what user group/s and where.
Working in Sterling Forest there is an irony that follows me. As I walk out to check the crew or lend a hand I pass tall PVC pipes that mark golf course holes that will never be. Now an ex golf course manager is helping manage a trail that will guide recreationists in boots and on wheels past a few of the golf holes. This forest would have been mostly cut down for the golf course, but a few of the forest’s original trees would have remained and what is golf if not recreation? It’s debatable as to what outcome we can call “far better.” It’s possible the course and trail could have existed together. Regardless, I’m happy the trail is there and users will experience the forest in Sterling…perhaps in a club for bikers or hikers rather than people carrying clubs with them. Similarly, some forests are county clubs, or treated as such, where one user group or management agency decides the fate of those that can or cannot recreate at the club. Again, the “far better” outcome is debatable, and for some regrettable no matter how the forest is sliced.
That said, I have also thought long and hard about the time and effort this project has taken to build by hand. I also think about the aesthetic it produces. I think about the original links-style golf courses in Scotland that were not manicured except by sheep, who also helped cut the sand traps as they sought shelter from the wind behind small mounds. I think about the course conditions, and how hard it must have been to sink a putt. I think about what the terms “rustic” and “primitive” mean to me. I think about how the trail will age considering its layout, and how fresh it looks when the crew first “finishes.” I think about the courses I watched being built with huge earth movers in the 90’s, and about the trails I helped build with machines, and the maintenance (or manicuring) on courses and trails done by hand (and sometimes machines). These aren’t apple to apple comparisons or similarities, but it’s interesting to hear comments from the public that are related…those that love, those that wonder, those that jab a little in regards to the fished product whether on golf courses or trails….”it’s so smooth… it’s too wide…that’s narrow…why did you move that…I love this…why is that there…shouldn’t you cut that…this is too slow…how did you do that…it would have been easier to…why not…this is too hard…why is this…that’s fast…this is my favorite…great job…”
As the article on Keen pointed out, in spite of some of the complaints about machines versus hands, vs rake-n-go layout and building, “few people…giv[e] up their Saturday ride [or hike] to swing a Pulaski…You hear some folks complain about using machines for trail building, but those complaints usually come from folks who have never swung a trail tool and they don’t know how hard this work is. And often their favorite ‘singletrack’ is an overgrown, machine-built logging road.” I have to say one or two of my favorite “trails” in southern California were old logging or mining “roads.” A few of my favorites trails are certainly modern machine built trails. This isn’t to say hand built trails can’t be great in their own right and I don’t have a few favorites. Some are the result of a mix of hand and machine as well. Ask most golf course superintendents and they’ll give you an earful on whether they should rake the sand traps by machine or hand. Most trail builders probably have there own justifications and thoughts about what they produce via diesel or carbohydrates and ATP.
I now work for an organization that has traditionally done very little heavy hand work when it came to “building” trail, but like golf, things have changed. Best practices have evolved, expectations and standards have changed. Human action often turns our endeavors into art then science or vice versa. With it gear and human achievements change, and it’s a feedback loop that has also changed the art and science of trail building (and golf). Likewise, nature and the nature of the forest will always need to feed off the labor of hands. That is until they come up with a Roomba robot for trails, or we no longer wish to bathe in the forest as much as fly over and through it on hoover bikes and people-carrying drones.
Until then, Woody sums it up as any longtime digger would: “Find a club and go to a meeting, find out about workdays and go volunteer. Clubs need many skills sets these days, not just trail work and digging in the dirt. There is need for organizing social events, grant writing, social media pushes, website creation and updates, and much more. Go find your local club and let them know your skill set and how you can help.” Amen
There is Roomba enough for everyone to recreate in the forest. I’m keen on getting out there on my Saturday, and when I visit other places to recreate I’m glad someone else has done the same in their neck of the woods.