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Thursday, June 5, 2014 12:01 am

Blazing trails the right way

Volunteers at the Lewis Memorial trail.


Ever since humans could stand upright and walk, they would create paths to destinations that attracted them out of necessity or curiosity. Except for paved roads, things have changed little in some places where walkers or some cyclists trample through fields and woods. Such trails, while interesting, are usually not sound and can leaves ugly scars on the land. That’s where the Central Illinois Trails Association (CILTA) comes in.

Formed just a little over a year ago, the group views its role as a mountain biking and hiking advocate. Its primary mission is to educate the public and create environmentally responsible trails that last and which can be maintained. To that end, CILTA recently brought a Trail Care Crew from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) to reconfigure a portion of the Lewis Memorial Acres trail on Springfield’s west side. The project offered volunteers, who ranged from kids to retirees, an opportunity to learn about the right way and wrong way to build multi-use trails.

“It’s more than just digging in the dirt,” says Lori Reed, IMBA Trail Care Crew member and trainer. Reed and co-trainer Jesse Livingston spent several hours training volunteers on trail development and maintenance. According to Reed, “It takes planning and collaboration.”

The planning part involves evaluating geographical characteristics of the area. Is it wooded or desert? Prairie or rocky? Collaboration of land owners or managers as well as volunteers is key to ensure proper use and conservation of sensitive areas.

There’s more to building a trail than moving rock and dirt. Trails built without planning or training are not likely to drain well. They may develop puddling during wet weather, or “cupping” in the trail that may develop into hazardous ruts. IMBA-led training provides the kind of hands-on experience that allows volunteers to see the proper way to locate and build a trail with minimal impact on the natural environment.

“When you build properly it minimizes the effect erosion can have on an area,” says Christa McLaren Morris, CILTA’s vice president. “Erosion is caused by water running over the terrain.”

IMBA trained the volunteers on best practices for minimizing tread erosion by allowing water to drain in a gentle manner, keeping soil where it belongs – on the trail. Too much grade can cause erosion. Too little can create puddling and lack of drainage. According to IMBA resource materials, the ideal trail grade is between 5 percent and 15 percent. Volunteers are encouraged to use natural materials for the trail – rocks to strengthen turns and slopes; replanting bushes and saplings to keep users on the trail.

CILTA President Loren Easter envisions a system of well-planned trails being developed in the area that can be accessed by mountain bikers and other users. “We want to look at opportunities for trails,” he says. According to IMBA, there are 1.5 times more mountain bikers in the country than golfers, or more than 50 million. Easter thinks that the number, and interest, along with proper trail development can benefit communities. “They (proper trails) can provide better health for residents,” he says, adding that they can also benefit the local economy. “Trails enhance tourism and can boost sales for local businesses.”

The city of Chicago, which has been increasing opportunities for casual and commuter biking, may soon turn to mountain biking as a tourism draw. The largest mountain biking facility in the country is in Valmont, California. According to Reed, there are talks in Chicago about creating an even larger facility in the Windy City.

Easter’s vision for Springfield and surrounding area is much more modest. “We’re exploring the possibility of reworking existing trails at Jim Edgar Panther Creek to make them more sustainable and maybe converting parts of it as multi-use trails.”

For now, CILTA appears poised to help find common ground between riders, hikers and environmentalists. To find more information on the group and events, visit www.cilta.org.

Naomi Greene is a freelance writer and cycling enthusiast.

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