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Jim Bob Barnett, Dillon Osleger, Sage Trail Alliance

Transforming Trails

One Community’s Effort to Rebuild Local Trails

On any given day in the mountains around idyllic Santa Barbara, California, mountain bikers pedal along winding singletrack. Trail runners chug up and down rocky switchbacks. Families stroll past waterfalls and expansive ocean vistas. When the sun’s out, so are the people, and the trails are a flurry of activity.

Loved as they are by the locals, it’s easy to take the trails along the central coast for granted—after all, they’re used by millions of people each year. But the ability to explore hundreds of miles of spectacular and varied trails isn’t an accident. It’s the result of hard work. A lot of hard work.

In the face of fires and torrential rains that have ravaged the central coast in recent years, a local effort to rebuild and restore local trails is growing. Whether community members are brushing back overgrown vegetation in the sweltering heat, moving colossal boulders, or working in forests dense with poison oak, they’ve shown that when it comes to the trails in their backyard, a little sweat is more than worth it.

From Trail Users to Trail Stewards

Dillon Osleger loves trails. As a geologist, trail builder, and longtime enduro mountain bike racer, the snaking paths around Santa Barbara have long been an important part of his daily life.

But Osleger’s relationship with local trails changed drastically in the wake of the Thomas Fire of 2017-2018. The inferno burned nearly 300,000 acres near his home, causing extensive trail damage and indefinitely closing many of the trails he'd grown used to riding.

In the devastation, though, Osleger saw an opportunity. People impacted by the natural disaster desperately needed a physical and mental escape from the destruction—and he realized that rebuilt trails could provide it.

“When you think about where the fire was, you're looking at 1.5 million people who no longer had any recreational outlet other than the beaches and the ocean,” Osleger says. “So a few local nonprofits started working on rebuilding the trails again, because who else was going to do it?”

Now, as executive director of Sage Trail Alliance, a nonprofit organization that cares for over 300 miles of trails in the area, Osleger and the hundreds of volunteers that work with Sage, are at the forefront of an effort to restore and build trails around Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties.

In addition to managing a small full-time trail building staff, Osleger organizes volunteer stewardship days for riders, hikers, runners and other trail users to come together and get their hands dirty for a cause that benefits everyone.

Although the average trail day consists of 30 or so volunteers, sometimes groups of 100 community members or more—all of varying skill levels and experiences with trail work—show up to help.

“It's the whole gamut, from grade school children all the way to retired contractors who are willing to come out and do some really gnarly work with us,” Osleger says.

Collectively, Sage does about 10,000 hours of volunteer service each year, and their work is making an impact: Miles of new trail are being added to the system. Historic trails that have fallen out of use are being brought back to life. Access to nature has been improved in neighborhoods considered to be economically disadvantaged, fostering recreation opportunities for all.

But it’s not only an expanding map of new and restored trails that gets Osleger excited. It’s the fact that when trail users spend time working in the places where they run, hike or ride, they strengthen their connection to backyard trails—and are more likely to advocate for their public lands.

“We’re trying to take care of the trails, but we're also trying to build and imbue ownership,” Osleger says. “If you want people to care about something, they need to have memories with it.”

A Labor of Love

From clearing invasive plants on close-to-town paths to restoring backcountry trails only accessible by bike or on foot, the trail work done by volunteers is anything but easy, particularly in the sweltering and dusty southern California summer.

“Trail work isn’t just a job,” says mountain biker, offroader and Dometic ambassador Jim Bob Barnett. It’s a public service, and a labor of love.

“Unless you've done one of these trail days—and you’ve broken up rocks, or raked trails in 98-degree heat, or worked in huge patches of poison oak—you don't really appreciate it, and you don't really know who does it,” Barnett says.

While working with Sage Trail Alliance on various trail projects, Barnett realized that better access to water and other cold drinks would boost the morale of sweaty trail crews. He worked with Dometic to facilitate the donation of powered coolers, water jugs and faucets to keep Santa Barbara trail crews fueled, hydrated and comfortable.

“Being able to go back to the car to get a cold bubbly water or a fresh sandwich really helps support the work they're doing—because that work isn’t easy, but they’re doing it for the love of the land,” Barnett says.

Osleger and Barnett both acknowledge that trail work can be a tough sell for people who would rather just go ride their bike, or go for a hike. But, they said, having plenty of refreshments on hand is a big incentive.

“Trail work is Type 2 fun a lot of the time,” Dillon says. “But when you’ve got a water faucet and cooler, and you can get cleaned up and drink something cold, that Type 2 fun ends at the car. If you can make it fun or enjoyable at the end, volunteers will keep coming back.”

A Never-Ending Task

Between catastrophic fires and this past winter’s record-breaking rains, Sage has its hands full with trails in need of rebuilding. In fact, many of the trails it helped to rebuild in the wake of the Thomas Fire were again destroyed in last winter’s rains.

“With work on public lands, it’s always going to be a Sisyphean task,” Osleger says. “A bunch of folks are going to put a ton of time into laying rock exactly where it needs to be, but wildfires or big storms will hit, and all that's coming back down the hill.”

But that makes their efforts more important, not less—and after the rains subsided, Osleger, Barnett and the volunteers got back to work.

For trails in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, the damage was on the order of $100 million, and many trails were closed indefinitely. The closure of the Jesusita Trail, which is close to town and popular among bikers, hikers, and runners, was particularly hard on the community.

“In a lot of areas the entire trail disappeared down the cliff into the creek. Whole hillsides were ripped out,” Osleger says. “We’re talking 100-foot-long ruts that were eight feet wide and eight feet deep.”

Undaunted, volunteers repaired slides, filled ruts, cleared brush, and cut new trail back into the cliffside with rotary hammers. Now, after hundreds of hours of work, the Jesusita Trail is well on its way to being fully ready for enjoyment once again.

“The community really came together and put the effort in on so many different levels. Without that, it just wouldn’t have been possible,” Osleger says.

As Barnett points out, the amount of work that Sage and other trail organizations are facing to rebuild damaged trails is still immense. But if there’s any reason to be hopeful, it’s that more and more community members are getting excited about coming out and giving back to their local trails.

“When you get people involved, they start to care a little bit more about these trails,” Osleger says. And, hopefully, when enough people care deeply about the health and future of their local trails, no challenge will be too large to overcome.

Learn more about the work Sage Trail Alliance is doing to restore, conserve, and advocate for trails on California’s central coast—and find out how you can help.

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