It takes an army
Behind the scenes with Trails 2000's trail fairies

It takes an army

Volunteers load another barrel for the Sky Steps project this summer. The project, a sort of town-to-college express way, was just one of many Trails 2000 spearheaded./Photo by Jennaye Derge

Joy Martin - 09/16/2017

Like veins carrying blood to and from the heart, trails around Durango pump life into our dirt-crazed souls. Beyond supplying individual joy for each of us, these ruddy ribbons help to connect the community even when we don’t agree on fluoridated water or e-bike usage. But trails don’t build and maintain themselves. It takes an army. It takes Trails 2000.

Supported by 3,200 local dues-paying trails enthusiasts, Trails 2000 has been outfitting Durango with world-renowned singletrack for nearly three decades. Trails 2000 isn’t just for DEVO and Olympic mountain bikers though. Binocular-bedecked birders in old boots, kiddos in new kicks, lost llamas and white-muzzled golden retrievers all have sway on Trails 2000’s constant innovation.

“What’s special about Trails 2000 is basically what’s special about the community here,” Trails 2000’s Head Crew Leader Emma Millar says. “It’s just people being stoked about trails. We have this really strong share-the-trail ethic, and that leads to positive support for trails. Without that community support, we can’t do anything. It would just be us out there with a Pulaski.”


View Map - Todds Fondo Long Course 2017

Like Joan of Arc outfitted in closed-toe shoes and Carhartt’s, armed with shovel and chainsaw, Millar oversees the management and organization of trail-work. The Idaho native has been volunteering with local trail advocacy programs for the last 12 years and is beyond stoked to now make money doing what she loves most: building and maintaining trails for a bunch of dirt addicts.

“I basically take these higher-level, theoretical, strategic plans ... and implement those on the ground,” she explains. “I get to use my brain and dig in the dirt.”

Years of Forest Service experience coupled with a degree in math and biology from Fort Lewis College aid Millar as she roams the woods and drainages in and around Durango plotting the next great twist or turn. She rode bikes for the Fort as a national champion downhill racer so has a keen eye for what’s going to be fun for bikers, while also maintaining a grasp on the bigger picture of all trail users, like hikers, dog walkers and horseback riders.

After graduating in 2011, Millar migrated to Vermont to work with a private trail design company. But the black hole of Durango retains a strong hold on the departed, so when she saw the Head Crew Leader position posted, she applied. Out of 53 applicants from all over the country, Millar stood out as the woman for the job.

“I’m such a sucker for Durango, so I had to come back,” she says.

All crew leaders are required to attend a two-day sustainable building and safety training with Volunteers of Outdoor Colorado (VOC). The 16-hour course focuses on how terrain, soil and geology impact trail building, as well as how to lead volunteer groups. Meanwhile, saw crews get safety certified by the Forest Service. Millar is currently the only girl on the sawyer team of 12.

This band of brothers and sisters braves rain, sleet, sun, heat, lions and blisters as they patrol over 300 miles of trails spanning public lands managed by the City of Durango, La Plata County, Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners. This time of year, it’s not uncommon for them to be out at all hours of the day and night hacking, whacking, slogging and heave-hoeing.

Crews are led by 14 paid leaders, including Millar, who provide instruction and safety cues so projects can be completed quickly, without incident. Unlike drill sergeants, crew leaders are typically trail happy guys and gals who are to swing an axe and make traveling on singletrack as rewarding as possible. But community work sessions (Wednesdays from 4-7 p.m. through mid-October) are often capped off with grilled burgers, so it’s not all timber and toil.

Each year, these trail crews give more than 4,000 volunteer hours to Trails 2000. For perspective, Colorado Trail volunteers across the state work 5,000 hours annually to maintain 464 miles of trail linking Durango to Denver (Trails 2000 covers the final 22-mile Champion Venture stretch, the longest section of the CT).


View Map - Todds Fondo Short Course 2017

One of the group’s chief seasonal missions is to clear trees that have fallen across the trail due to heavy snowfall, beetle kill, root rot or bear sneezes. During an average year, crews clear around 350 downed trees. Along the Champion Venture segment alone, crews typically clear 80 downed trees annually. This year, the saw crew removed 175 – a number that is only expected to rise. “Looking at the future, we anticipate beetle kill is really going to start affecting the trails,” says Millar.

Beyond maintenance, Trails 2000 also pioneers planning for new trails. Before crews can start slaying trees or breaking ground, Trails 2000 Executive Director Mary Monroe Brown has to get plans approved by various land managers.

“It’s important for people to know how new trails get added to the system,” says Brown. “We can’t just go out there and do something because it looks fun. We have to follow the National Environmental Policy Act process or trail guideline process set forth by the land owners.” Besides managing the strategic planning with the board, Brown also handles the marketing, outreach and fundraising for Trails 2000.

“I love the balance of all of that,” says Brown. “My favorite part of the job is when you can see that the work you’re doing is so appreciated by the community.”

What inspires her the most when it comes to plotting future trails is thinking what will engage the next generation. The TrailKids model is one answer to this ongoing battle in a tech-reliant world. The program is designed to stir curiosity, stewardship and an appreciation for Durango’s unique ecosystems through hands-on education and trail- work. This year, 500 middle school students participated in the program.

“I don’t think you can be a steward of the land if you’re not connected to it,” says Brown. “Kids are the motivator for all of this.”

Parents stressed about their kids experiencing too much screen time can breathe a little easier knowing that, last year, more money was actually spent on cycling and skate boarding ($97 billion) than video games ($61 billion). The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) released this factoid in its 2017 study: $887 billion is spent annually on outdoor recreation, making it one of the greatest economic forces in the country.

According to the OIA, outdoor recreation is an “under-appreciated and underfunded weapon against crime, poor academic performance and rising health-care costs” across the nation. And, if you are aware that nature is good for the mind and body, consider this: it’s just as good for the economy. But this asset doesn’t lean on Wall Street. Rather the entire industry relies on America’s basic infrastructure of public lands and waterways.

Public lands, for one, would not be accessible without the aorta of the outdoor recreation industry: trail systems. Trails take us to the summit, below the rim and into the wild. As host to some of our greatest memories and character-building moments, they represent both euphoria and the pain cave.

When the map is spread open and your finger starts tracing the next grand adventure, it’s sometimes easy to forget these trails belong to you. They’re on public lands, after all. With such a gift comes responsibility, so it’s your job to make sure these lands are protected and maintained for future generations. Trails 2000 is just one vehicle to help us do the dirty work.

Interested in becoming a crew leader? Email info@trails2000.org. To become a Trails 2000 member or to renew your membership go to: trails2000.org. Keep up to date on trail happenings and conditions by signing up for the Trail Talk E-Newsletter.