Fred Wilkinson (center) talked to mountain bikers as the first Trail Ambassador. [Photo courtesy of Grand County Active Transportation and Trails]

Fred Wilkinson has been riding Moab mountain bike trails for 25 years. This spring, he applied his cycling expertise while serving as the first Trail Ambassador in a pilot program designed by the county’s new Active Transportation and Trails division in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Created this year as part of the Grand County Community and Economic Development Department, the Active Transportation and Trails division partners with land managers and municipalities to help design, build and maintain trails for hikers, bikers, runners, climbers, equestrian users and canyoneers. The division also offers outreach and education encouraging trail users to recreate responsibly.

The Trail Ambassador program was conceived as part of that outreach effort.

Every Saturday this past May, Wilkinson spent several hours at popular trailheads like the starting points for the Moab Brand Trails and the Mag 7 Trails.

A sandwich board sign set up in the parking area prompted people to bring any questions to the Trail Ambassador — that is, to Wilkinson, wearing a blue T-shirt with the words “Moab Trail Team” on the front and “Your tracks matter, please stay on the trail” on the back. There was plenty of interest. In one 4-hour session at the Moab Brand trailhead, Wilkinson talked with 87 people. He said his interactions were mostly positive.

“One of the biggest things I observed is how people become more open to education, and maybe retain it better, once common ground is there,” he explained. “I always start out by asking people about their trip or their ride, and usually people are really enthusiastic about the trails and how beautiful Moab is. After that, I explain a little bit about our unique partnership and the work we do to maintain the trails, which allows me to lead into some environmental considerations and important practices, like proper passing technique and riding on-trail to protect biological soil crust.”

Madeline Logowitz is the division manager for Active Transportation and Trails. She said the program is a way of formalizing the kind of conversation that often happens when trail users encounter trail crews working on a project. Casual questions create a natural opening to discuss trails and how to use them respectfully.

“Outreach is always a part of our job when we’re working on trails,” Logowitz said. “But this program makes it a focus and will help us improve how we communicate messages about stewardship to trail users.”

Jennifer Jones is the BLM assistant field manager for recreation in Moab. She said the BLM is pleased to be a partner in the Trail Ambassador program.

“The trail ambassadors provide an important service to public land visitors around Moab,” she said. “They help promote responsible recreation by educating public land users about the fragile desert environment and proper trail etiquette.”

The pilot season was funded by a $13,950 grant from the Recreational Trails Program, which will last through the end of 2020. The grant will also be used to cover a variety of other trail-related projects, including maintenance and education.

The collaborating organizations have no shortage of other projects.

This spring, they completed the Amasa Back Connector Trail with the help of 540 volunteer hours. The trail allows users to access the Amasa Back Trail system from the parking lot without having to ride or walk alongside traffic on Kane Creek Boulevard. BLM staff completed the necessary environmental assessments for the project, and volunteers provided much of the labor, under the direction of the Active Transportation and Trails staff.

All trail projects are aligned with the BLM-Moab Field Office’s Resource Management Plan. The BLM provides resource surveys, environmental analysis, trail design and engineering for many of the projects implemented by the Active Transportation and Trails division.

“Grand County has been an excellent partner on the BLM’s recreation management efforts,” Jones said of the collaboration between the county and the BLM.

The county division also posts information about biological soil crust and “Leave No Trace” principles at trailheads and provides updates on trail conditions in their seasonal “Mud Report.”

“Biking on muddy trails damages them,” Logowitz said, “and every spring we have to spend a portion of time repairing areas with hardened ruts or widening from people biking around puddles.”

During this particularly wet spring, muddy trails were a big concern for trail managers. A county division staff member regularly surveyed trail conditions and the updates were posted on social media (Look for “Moab Trail Mix” on Instagram and Facebook to find up-to-date trail reports on social media). Local bike shops and shuttle companies were tagged so they were notified of the new information and could share it with trail users.

The county and BLM’s outreach efforts reflect growing local concern over the impacts of outdoor recreation and tourism.

Other organizations have been responding: the Moab Area Travel Council has launched a “Sustainable Tourism” campaign, and the grassroots Moab Area Responsible Recreation and Tourism group has formed to brainstorm ways to create a culture-shift toward more responsible recreation. Volunteers with Moab Solutions clean trails at busy outdoor events, educating people as they go. Recently Arches National Park has been considering a reservation system to manage the growing number of park visitors. The Trail Ambassador program is one tool to help address visitor impacts.

“Our mission is to help land management agencies like the BLM enhance sustainable, non-motorized recreation opportunities in Grand County,” Logowitz said.“As a partner with the BLM, we want to help people experience and enjoy public lands while also helping to protect those lands, which are sensitive to human impact. As more people visit Moab, visitor education is becoming more crucial to help minimize impact along the trails.”

Right now the program is focused on mountain biking trails. The BLM and the division of Active Transportation and Trails maintain over 150 miles of bike trails in the county, and they are hugely popular, often filling up parking areas during the high season. If the ambassador program continues to be a success, it could be expanded to cover a longer timeframe and different kinds of trails.

“We hope that having someone on site to educate users will minimize trail damage, and at the same time, we can ask people about their experience and use that information to help the BLM improve the trail networks,” Logowitz said. “We’re excited to have been awarded grant funding for the pilot program and hope to make it a permanent program in the future.”

New county division partners with land management agencies in education and outreach efforts

“One of the biggest things I observed is how people become more open to education, and maybe retain it better, once common ground is there.”