Getting to Know Your Local Land Manager

By Chris LaForest

The other day I was riding one of my favorite trails when I bumped into friend from a few towns away. He proffered accolades about the mountain bike trails in the area. "Our local land manager does nothing to support trails," he told me.

This comment got me to thinking. Over the past few years I have repeatedly heard people trash their local land manager because of their perceived lack of enthusiasm for mountain bike trails. But I have personally met dozens of land managers who share a passion for trails and trail planning. Why, then, are some land managers "for" trails, and some "against" them?

These land managers' response to mountain biking often depends on the planning philosophy of the manager and the land agency he works for. I'm generalizing here, of course, but there are a number of different "types" of land managers that mountain bikers may have to work with:

The "Master Planner"

The Master Planner type has a comprehensive view of land management. He has developed an overall management plan, a list of permitted and prohibited uses for existing trails and those yet to be built (i.e., a comprehensive plan), and developed it all with the input of numerous science based professionals. Although some may view him as highly bureaucratic and technically minded, he is also a talented administrator: he has been able to generate adequate public and political support to pull off a big, hairy audacious plan.

The only way a mountain biker can have any influence on this guy is to become involved early in the planning stages. Always keep your eyes open for those notices that a management plan is being prepared and that the public is being invited to participate. Show up for the meeting and volunteer for one of the many technical committees that are required to put a comprehensive plan in place. If the plan has already been prepared, get yourself a copy of the plan, read it and understand it, and then determine how and when you can formally get involved.

The "Deer in the Headlights" Land Manager

Some top theorists in the planning field have referred to this approach as "the science of muddling through." Under this scenario, your local land manager has been appointed to administer the forestry/trails program, yet has no plans in place for what to do. Typically, few or no resources have been set aside for trail development, and there is no clear idea as to how those resources are being allocated. Because no plan is in place, some trail user groups may apparently be given easy access to lands through some undefined bargaining or negotiation process, while others have been left out in the cold. Administrative actions appear to be "remedial," in reaction to some imminent threat.

You may wish to befriend this land manager and negotiate personally for access to trails. Caution! Victory may be short lived. To develop a truly constructive relationship with this land manager, you and others in the trail community must work with him to develop, sell, and then implement a formal trail management strategy that is inclusive of all groups. Offer to set up a "friends" committee, with the land manager perhaps as chair or key resource person. Look at ways to help him do his job, rather than criticize how his existing program is administered.

"Professor Trail"

"Professor Trail" fundamentally believes that good trails cannot be built and maintained without an open and creative process that involves the greater community. Because of this, the land manager often focuses less on the end product - a new trail - than on the process of dialogue and learning. This type of land manager is adept in community facilitation, and the sharing of knowledge, skills, and resources with community groups and trail volunteers.

Professor Trail does not view mountain bikers as a threat, and tends to be friendly toward them. He may not build you a trail, but he will teach you and your local club how to build one. Be prepared to be put to work by our good professor.

The "Insider"

What could be more perfect than a land manager who also happens to be a mountain biker? The Insider can help local cyclists garner political and public support for trails on public lands.

The Insider is already your friend. You may, however, wish to offer your friend some cautionary advice. Providing trail access to one group, while excluding other trail users, may in the end backfire. Even though you have found an advocate on the inside, a true long-term and sustainable trail plan must take into consideration the needs of other trail users.

Which Type is Your Land Manager?

Determining the philosophy of your own local land manager - and how best to work with him - requires a little research. Next time you bump into your local land manager, ask him a few questions:

  • What is his perspective on recreation management?
  • What does he sees his role as being within the agency?
  • How does he feel mountain bikers fit into the larger scheme of things?

This level of understanding is critical if mountain bikers are to become involved in a meaningful way in land management decisions.

Chris LaForest, a professional land use planner, is extensively involved in trail planning, construction, maintenance, and the marketing and promotion of trails as part of his job with the County of Bruce, Ontario, Canada.