Sandy and Geoff Freethey were not pleased when an unpaved Jeep road next to their property was turned into a single-track bike trail many years ago. The narrow, rock-lined path did not appear “natural” to Sandy, nor did it allow for walking side-by-side, as the couple and numerous other hikers had enjoyed.
The Freetheys’ property borders Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land where the couple had walked daily on the wider path.
A neighbor who was involved with Grand County Trail Mix – a volunteer advisory committee that promotes nonmotorized trails in the county – suggested that the Freetheys come to one of the monthly meetings to express their grievance. So they did.
The couple immediately began volunteering for Trail Mix, both working 50 hours a week proposing new trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding; researching potential environmental impacts; creating signs and maps; and directing and helping volunteers in trail construction. Geoff rides his mountain bike two or three times a week on the single-track trails, keeping an eye out for any trail maintenance that needs to be done.
“There are times during the year when monsoons cause washouts that can be a hazard,” Geoff said. “They need people out there looking at the trails all the time.”
David Olsen, who founded Trail Mix in 1999, said he remembers when Sandy came in complaining about the trail by her house. He was serving as the committee’s chair.
“When I ended my (term), Sandy became chair; she did such a great job, she continued as chair for years,” Olsen said. “I appreciate them; the whole community appreciates their efforts. They gave it their all.”
After a decade, the couple is retiring from managing Trail Mix, but they plan to keep dedicating their free time to promoting area trails.
The Freetheys have long enjoyed recreating in southeastern Utah, as river runners and hikers – Geoff on mountain bikes, as well. After he retired as a groundwater hydrologist from the U.S. Geological Survey, and Sandy left her business doing odd jobs for people, the couple moved to Moab.
Getting involved with Trail Mix allowed both of them to use their skills to help create new trails and signage.
“I have organizational skills and I’m willing to go to meetings, work with people, different agencies,” Sandy said. “Geoff is good with computers, and woodworking.”
Sandy has written numerous proposals suggesting a particular trail – for its connectivity, popularity, or simply the scenery. Once a purpose for a specific trail has been determined, Geoff uses GPS to map the area.
“Then we go walking with an archaeologist and paleontologist from the BLM,” Sandy said. “We walk the line where the trail is proposed. We move the trail if necessary (to protect natural or cultural resources, or honor a longstanding oil and gas lease). It’s all part of the environmental assessment that needs to be done. That process is important” – and can take up to two years to complete.
Competing interests – livestock owners, mountain bikers and hikers – are reminded by Geoff’s signs that explain that BLM property is a multi-use area and the land belongs to everyone.
“We put in cattle guards on the single-track bike trails for ranchers with grazing allotments on the public lands,” Sandy said. “Metal or wood cattle guards are installed where fences must be cut to allow passage for hikers and bikers.”
Moab’s economy changed in the last 10 years as the town became famous for its slickrock and mountain bike trails, Sandy said.
Even years ago when there were only a couple of bike trails, Moab was known as the mountain bike capital of the world, Olsen said.
But then, in western Colorado, the town of Fruita began busily creating single-track trails, edging out Moab as the primo mountain biking destination.
“We wanted to put Moab back on the map,” Olsen said. “Fruita was getting trails approved. We were losing our reputation. We formed a committee to get us ‘number one’ again, and we are. We attract people from all over the world.”
Over the past decade, between 150 to 200 new miles of mountain bike trails were added to BLM property – “a tremendous amount for a ragtag bunch” of volunteers, Sandy said.
In recent years, Trail Mix has focused on building trails specifically for hiking, including several geared to beginner hikers, she said.
Additionally, “this year we’ve added (access) trails for climbers and canyoneers,” she said. “We’re trying to protect resources.”
Geoff creates “You Are Here” maps that are placed at every trail junction. He designs kiosks aimed at educating the public about an area.
“I always send (Grand County) Search and Rescue advance copies of the maps,” Geoff said. One of its members “always takes the new map and walks the new trail,” so they’ll be familiar with the area if called upon to assist.
“We have well-marked trails; people are not going to get lost,” Sandy said. “In the Klondike Bluffs area, there are 56 miles of mountain bike trails and innumerable junctions – every junction has a map.”
Moab Trails Alliance maps are also available for $2 at local bike shops. Proceeds from the map sales go to Trail Mix. Other funding for trail development and maintenance comes from grants and private donations.
Three part-time employees work 20 hours a week for Trail Mix, along with dozens of volunteers each year.
Thanks to Sandy and Geoff, the price tag for creating trails in Moab has been a fraction of what trail development adds up to in other places. Moab trails cost $2,000 per mile to build, compared to Fruita’s $28,000 per mile, according to Grand County.
Once a trail has been requested the Freetheys are given a list of 20 items to research to see if construction is feasible. If the location turns out to be in a bighorn lambing area, for example, the idea is scrapped.
Sandy and Geoff walk the trails before they’re ever built; Geoff rides the trails, as well.
The Freetheys help the BLM by proposing trails and determining a need, marking the area with cairns or flags, checking for environmental soundness, considering cultural significance, plus other tasks associated with trail development.
“They wrote descriptions of the trails,” – another invaluable piece to the trail developments, Moab BLM Field Office Recreation Planner Katie Stevens said.
In 2012, the BLM honored Sandy and Geoff with the National “Making a Difference” Volunteer Award, for their “invaluable volunteer service” in helping the Moab BLM office reach its 2008 Resource Management Plan goals, which included designing and building single-track bike trails, Stevens said.
Trail Mix is represented by multiple groups – Grand County, the City of Moab, the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, Utah State Parks, Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and private citizens.
“One of the big values of Trail Mix is that it does work across the agencies,” Stevens said.
Locally, Grand County recognized the Freetheys’ community contributions with plaques at a Dec. 7, 2016, county council meeting.
“Sandy and Geoff made a huge impact economically for our community,” Grand County Council Administrator Ruth Dillon said. “We wanted to honor them for years of volunteerism, and the way they volunteered.”
The trail committee gets calls from all over the country from people seeking advice on how to start their own trail group, Stevens said.
There’s a lot to consider in adding trails, she said. Is it something people want to ride or walk? Would parking be available?
Longbow Arch near Poison Spider Road, Sylvester Trail near Castle Rock, and Dellenbaugh Tunnel – named for a member of John Wesley Powell’s Colorado River expedition – are among the popular trails that the Freetheys had a hand in developing, Stevens said.
Though the Freetheys will no longer be running Trail Mix you may see the two of them out on the trails or at a meeting. And you’ll continue to see Geoff’s handiwork, as the couple intends to continue volunteering for the BLM.
“Our mission is to develop and maintain non-motorized trails in Grand County,” Sandy said. “Arches is always packed. If we can send people hiking on BLM land, we spread out the use.”
Longtime Trail Mix volunteers Sandy and Geoff Freethey step down from group
(The) whole community appreciates their efforts. They gave it their all.