Pandemic relief gets to work on local trails

Great Outdoors Colorado dollars, along with other grant funding, puts six-member crew from Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance into action this summer

A crew member from the Vail Valley Mountain Trail Alliance directs volunteers during a recent Adopt-A-Trail work session.
Photo courtesy VVMTA

During a year of pandemic concessions, people everywhere learned that the great outdoors was a wonderful place to social distance.

As a result, there was a notable increase in the number of folks recreating in Eagle County’s open spaces. That’s a mixed blessing.

“Our recreation use is increasing, which is a good thing. There are more people getting outside on our trails and using our public lands,” said Ernest Saeger, executive director of the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance. “But we want to make sure we are taking care of the resource. We want to make sure we take care of our trails and our public lands so they are used for generations to come.”

Luckily for Saeger — and for everyone who enjoys spending time on the network of local trails that traverse various jurisdictional boundaries in Eagle County — help has arrived. Since May, a team of six full-time trail-building crew members has been at work — compliments of a $166,000 Great Outdoors Colorado pandemic relief grant along with funding from the National Forest Foundation and the Holy Cross Ranger District through the Great American Outdoors Act. Eagle County formally accepted the GOCO grant this week, acting as a partner organization for the trails alliance.

Recreation boom

“Even before COVID, recreation use was increasing,” Saeger said. “COVID just exacerbated it.”

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According to Saeger, the tricky aspect of this increased use is it comes at the same time that local land managers, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, have seen their financial resources and staff levels decline.

This combination of increased use and decreased resources has put the onus back on local communities to make sure trails are maintained and expanded to meet the demand. That’s where the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance has stepped up.

Saeger noted the group has seen success tackling trail projects through volunteer efforts. More than 1,000 individuals have contributed more than 4,000 work hours for the organization. Even with the paid crew, this volunteer model continues for the trail alliance, but now it can be a more effective effort.

“Volunteers always have been, and always will be, the core of our organization. But they can only contribute so much. They can only spend so many hours working on the trail,” he said.

With a couple of trail crew members serving as leaders, Saeger said volunteer groups work more efficiently. When more complicated trail sections some up, the professional crew is better equipped to tackle them.

“This trails crew can complete more impactful and complex projects on a daily basis,” Saeger said, “and they are not defined by jurisdictional boundaries.”

A Vail Valley Mountain Trails Aliance crew member tackles some specialized work during a recent project.
VVMTA/Special to the Daily

Ready to help

There is a lot of trail mileage in Eagle County and, correspondingly, there is a number of trail owners. The Forest Service and BLM have their own maintenance needs, as do open space programs in the county and various municipalities. The Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance crew can work in any and all of those locales.

“On any given day, two crew members can be leading an Adopt-A-Trail volunteer team in Eagle on BLM land, and two others can be working on a trial reroute in Avon. Another crew can be stationed at the seasonal wildlife closure trailhead in Vail,” Saeger said. “That exact scenario happened this spring and it shows how they are impacting our entire county across all land management and trails.”

The crew will be funded through October. In addition to needed maintenance, there are a number of special projects the team will tackle this summer. The crew has completed work building the Adam’s Way trail on county open space — a project honoring Adam Palmer, a community pillar and a member of the Eagle Town Council who died in an avalanche earlier this year. There also will be some big reroute work on the Game Creek and Colorado trails.

But for regular trail users, all of the maintenance work is important, Saeger said. That includes both the projects themselves and the work that goes into them.

With a couple of paid trail crew members serving as leaders, Ernest Saeger with the Vail Valley Mountain Trails Alliance said volunteer groups work more efficiently. When more complicated trail sections some up, the professional crew is better equipped to tackle them.
Special to the Daily

“Our Adopt-A-Tail program has 79 volunteer teams this year,” he noted.

While trail crew members are out in the forest, they provide more eyes during a time when they are needed. Saeger noted that in May, during the course of a construction project, a trail crew discovered and extinguished a smoldering campfire.

More of a good thing

While this is the first year the Vail Valley Mountain Trail Alliance has put a paid crew to work, Saeger believes it will not be the last.

“We plan on having this trail building crew every year for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We are continuing to seek donations and support to continue this crew and our program.”

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