From the Editor’s Desk: In Choosing to Incite Rather than Inspire, Outside Commentary Fails the “Leave No Trace” Test

Something special is happening in Missoula, Montana, and we’d all be well-served to read about it.

Sparked by conversations on several trail runs more than five years ago, the Montana Trail Crew (MTC) was born. In addition to organizing runs, the MTC’s primary mission is to promote trail stewardship within the Montana trail-running community, including trail building, trail maintenance and conservation work. It’s noble work that all of us who use and love trails and wild places should admire and attempt to emulate as best we can. Heck, it just might be a model that could be replicated in trail communities across the country.

Here’s a link to the MTC’s website where you can learn more about what they’re up to. I’d give you a link to the write-up about the organization in Outside Magazine, but unfortunately there’s not much to peruse. The columnist and his editors decided it wasn’t a story worth digging into, opting to bury it within a piece of clickbait instead.

Why appeal to your intellect when it’s so much easier to just prey upon your emotions?

A commentary in the magazine written under the guise of a mountain-biker wanting to see more trail-runners play an active role in the building and upkeep of trails instead sent the message that the sport of trail-running, its history and quirks are not respected and its participants really aren’t welcome. At least not in Colorado, a place where the writer suggests mountain bikers don’t piss or poop, most trail-runners don’t like beer, mountain bikers ride solo and always through puddles, and trail-runners only run in massive packs and dance around mud at all costs. It’s a state that the minimally-researched commentary pretends is representative of the broader trail community nationwide without presenting facts to back it up.

In publishing the piece, the writer was failed spectacularly by the Outside editors. So too were all trail-loving communities, from the trail-runners who were stereotyped and attacked, to the trail-runners at the MTC whose inspiring story was buried under a rage-filled screed, to the mountain-bikers who were unfairly caricatured as an angry bunch of elitists with a victim mentality, to the hikers who — like trail-runners — were also labeled as “lazy parasites.” It’s a shame, too, because the underlying issue of trail stewardship is a serious one that affects all of us who play on the trails and Outside offers a prominent platform from which to educate and motivate.

When it comes to taking care of the trails, we should all have some skin in the game. There’s nothing controversial about the statement that trail-runners need to take on a more active role in trail stewardship across the country. It’s also not controversial to say that in some places mountain-bikers engage in a lot more trail work than other trail users. Maybe that’s the case in Colorado. That was my observation in Kansas City, where the mountain-biking community played host to the majority of trail-building days (though a trail-runner and avid hiker built many of the original trails at one of KC’s largest parks, laying the foundation for the good work that continues today). Sometimes trail-runners like myself joined the bikers, and they always made us feel welcome. Additionally, the trail-running communities in Kansas City and nearby Lawrence do several trail work days, some in concert with the parks’ management, some in collaboration with the Kansas Trails Council, and some simply on a whim when fallen trees needed to be sawed, overgrowth lopped or damage repaired.

I’ve observed similar events since moving to New England where many trail-running clubs and individual trail-runners have adopted trails at the various parks and reservations throughout the region. In doing so, they take responsibility for maintenance along their selected section all year round. In Maine, for example, the Trail Monsters maintain sections of the trails at Bradbury Mountain State Park. In Massachusetts, the Trail Animals work directly with local governments, parks, and land managers where races take place to coordinate trail work and maintenance. In Western Massachusetts, proceeds from some races go directly to support trail maintenance at race venues, while the rest supports local charitable organizations. And just north of Boston, the Davis Square Runners have monthly trail clean-ups at the Middlesex Fells Reservation. No national governing body of the sport plays a hand in any of this; it’s grassroots organizing that largely goes unnoticed outside of the local community because nobody seeks credit for doing what needs to be done.

On the other hand, since moving to New England nearly four years ago I must admit I haven’t seen a single mountain-biker performing trail maintenance on any of the trails where I run. That might seem to be a stark contrast to the Outside columnist’s proclamation that mountain-bikers are “gung ho volunteers and trail runners are lazy parasites.” Then again, just because I haven’t personally seen them building and repairing trails doesn’t mean they merit being labeled – unless that label is Awesome. That’s because our mountain-bike community really is pretty awesome. Many of its members do a ton of trail work, much of it organized by the New England Mountain Bike Association. I don’t need to see them regrading eroded trail with my own two eyes to be able to respect and appreciate their efforts. Besides, chances are if you haven’t heard about the work they’re doing, it’s probably because they simply do it without demanding credit – just like their trail-runner friends.

In fact, that’s likely the case in most communities. Maybe not in Colorado, if you’re willing to trust Outside’s columnist, but that’s been my experience in the Midwest and the Northeast. We quietly do our work with our respective social groups, and we feel good about it until we see it desecrated by footprints, bike treads or hoof prints. Then maybe we look for someone to blame, using selective judgment even though there are both sinners and saints among all trail-user groups.

It’s that selective assignment of blame that brings me back to Outside Magazine. If the columnist’s goal had been to motivate more trail-runners to take part in trail work alongside their bike-riding brothers and sisters, that would have been a wonderful thing. Instead, by writing to incite rather than inspire, assigning almost all trail damage to trail-runners and absolving mountain-bikers of any consequence of their actions, any intended message was clearly lost on the target audience. In communities where there have been rifts between bikers and runners, the piece may dredge up bad feelings or drive new wedges. Reinforcing negative stereotypes rarely contributes to the common good.

Mary Monroe Brown, executive director of Trails 2000 in Durango, Colo., values the common good. “We should be taking the high road and working together,” she told Outside of the diverse trail-user population that performs trail maintenance through her organization.

The common good can be found in Kansas City, too, where the Trail Masons (now merged with Urban Trail Co.) have brought trail users of all modalites together to build new trails, repair old ones, enjoy some cold beverages and celebrate their shared love of the dirt. It can be found in Massachusetts and Vermont, where Rock Hard Racing and the Vermont 50 have organized mountain-bike and trail-run races on the same course on the same day, bringing participants in both sports together in fellowship. It can be found all across the Commonwealth and throughout New England, where trail-users of all speeds and modalities take part in trail work together not under the umbrella of a particular sport, but instead with the local associations and land trusts charged with maintaining specific trail systems (see a brief list at the end for ways to get involved).

In the spirit of trail ethics where we are all called upon to Leave No Trace, principle No. 7 is to be considerate of other visitors – to be kind to your fellow trail-users. On that scale, Outside Magazine’s editors failed their readers and the greater trail-using community as a whole. Perhaps even worse, they failed their columnist.

“I’m no star volunteer,” the writer conceded in his commentary, “but in the half dozen or so times I’ve gotten out and swung a McLeod or a Pulaski, I haven’t met a single trail runner.”

That’s a shame. He had a golden opportunity to do just that while at the same time telling an impactful story, if only his editors had pushed him.

There were trail-runners, McLeods and Pulaskis, and a damn good story waiting for him in Missoula.

 

Looking to get involved?

These are a few local organizations who organize trail work:

Appalachian Mountain Club

Essex County Trail Association

Friends of the Fells

Friends of the Blue Hills

Dartmouth National Resource Trust

Friends of the Wapack

The Trustees

Waltham Land Trust

Friends of Whitehall

Friends of Upton State Forest

Hopkinton Area Land Trust

Hopkinton Trails Club

New England Mountain Bike Association

 

 

 

 

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