Trails don’t manage themselves. They don’t shed water by themselves, they can’t shake off debris after a storm, and they can’t tell people not to ride if it’s raining.
The main way a trail system is managed is through impassioned volunteers. In Pisgah National Forest and in DuPont State Recreational Forest, land managers rely on a number of user groups who work together to maintain trail standards during a time when the trail maintenance budget is slim.
The two cycling groups that maintain our biking trails are Pisgah Area Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) and Upstate-SORBA. The Pisgah chapter members are largely Brevard and Asheville residents, while the Upstate chapter members live just down the mountain in the Greenville, S.C. area.
Many of the area trails are multi-use and require not only routine maintenance, but land managers also rely on volunteer organizations to educate and be proactive about being responsible in the forest. Sometimes education is as simple as letting people know that they aren’t the only ones in the woods, but education can also come in the form of skills clinics for new riders, trail maintenance seminars and trail etiquette.
Both groups seek out grant opportunities, fundraise through events and races, educate and motivate.
Last year, the forest service recorded 60,000 hours of volunteer trail work to the tune of $1.3 million in the Pisgah Ranger district. Pisgah Area SORBA (PAS) recorded 1,215 hours of trail work in Pisgah and Bent Creek alone in 2015.
As impressive as that is, the wear on trails is continuous.
Greg Leister, president of PAS, said that his biggest obstacle is getting the word out about trail work.
“It’s the volunteer groups that are trying to make a difference out here,” said Leister. “Our biggest challenge is getting the word out. Local folks know what’s up, but people who come in to ride or might be newcomers to western North Carolina may not know where to look.”
Leister said that a couple of key figures in the mountain bike community really deserve enormous respect for the amount of effort they put in to giving back.
“Mark Stierwalt is our point man with the forest service and he deals with the rangers all the time,” said Leister. “He is working getting the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grants going, and he’s been humble in what he’s been doing. Mark is bringing us to a whole different level as far as what we can do. We have been awarded with over $300,000 in RTP grants. Some of that has already been used, now he is out doing trail assessments for round two of the RTP grants. He’ll be working with the forest service in terms of what needs the most maintenance. We’re bringing money to the forest service at a time when their budget is slim. He doesn’t get the attention that he deserves for all his hard work.
“David Knupp has been our all-star crew leader for five or six years, he’s at all the trail days, he’s there cutting out trees all the time. He does 90 percent of our trail crew leader heavy lifting. He’s another one whose passion leads him. These guys have been doing an enormous amount of work.”
PAS has announced a new trail work series this year in an attempt to unify riders and plan ahead. “When we did the Big Dig on Lower Black, local shops sponsored trail days,” said Leister. “We’ve connected with all the members of the western North Carolina bicycle association dealers and Industry Nine. We are having one workday each month on the calendar and the shops will be responsible for getting the word out. They will be able to choose which project we would like to work on.”
In 2014, PAS and the mountain bike community teamed up to reinvent Lower Black Mountain trail, which some riders had started to call the “longest dual slalom run in the south.” The turns were banked, the water ran straight down the trail in many places and high speeds were enough of an issue to spark more than one argument over how much control riders were in. With the help and guidance of local trail contractors Woody Keen and Shrimper Khare, the famed Lower Black slalom run matured and became sustainable, while still being a ton of fun.
Members from both SORBA chapters got dirty and brought some much-needed love to a classic Pisgah descent. Other trails that have been deemed unsustainable in Pisgah have received the same make over as Lower Black. Both Lower Trace Ridge and Spencer Branch in the North Mills River tract of Pisgah have been decommissioned and modern reroutes have taken shape.
Almost unanimously in the mountain bike scene, contouring trails are more fun to ride than straight down skidders. Both reroutes have provided a better use of elevation, which means more downhill, and the streams are in better shape because of it. Both groups do a significant amount of trail work and need public support.
Without these groups, trail access in western North Carolina and the Upstate of South Carolina would dwindle. Visit pisgahareasorba.org and upstatesorba.org to learn more about joining others in giving back to the trails.