No Free Lunch: Trail Running and the Public-Lands Debate

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Take a second to think about your last long trail run. Instead of focusing on the pace, the views or that nagging injury you’ve held at bay all spring, picture the land under your feet. For most of you, I’m betting that land was public land. If so, was it a city open space, state park, wilderness area or even a national park? Most trail runners utilize public lands in some form on a daily basis.

In 2016 and 2017, the future of our public lands has been hotly debated due to numerous bills introduced in federal and state legislation that have been perceived by many as a direct threat to the places we love to recreate. One bill in particular, HB621, introduced by US Representative Jason Chaffetz, called for the selling off of 3.3 million acres of federal lands. This raised the hackles of outdoor-recreation groups across the country and prompted public-lands rallies in various states of the American West.

One such rally was held in my home state of Montana. Over a thousand concerned citizens gathered in January to storm the state capitol to share their unease with the bill and underlying sentiment they perceived could be the tip of the iceberg in the jettisoning of public lands. They chanted, “Public lands in public hands!” bookending impassioned speeches by leaders in the fly-fishing industry, mountaineering legend Conrad Anker and even Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who has positioned himself as a fierce proponent of public-lands protection.

As an avid user of public lands in my trail-running endeavors I, too, attended that rally and was blown away by the diversity of folks who showed up to demonstrate their support. Young college students in bright-colored puffy coats stood next to old timers decked out in camouflage and hunter’s orange. I saw city-council members and local land-trust representatives, as well as advocates from hunting, fishing, kayaking and mountain-biking groups. It was an inspiring spectacle of democracy in action. However, as I wandered through the crowds that day, I noticed an absence of the outdoor group I identified with most. Where were all the trail runners?

The author explores the alpine ridge lines of Yellow Mountain in Glacier National Park, which have been protected public lands since 1910. Photo by Steve Gnam.

No Tension Leads to Inattention

We trail runners are a fortunate bunch. As a recreation group, we encounter few, if any, regulations when it comes to enjoying and accessing our public lands. The only public spaces we can’t run through are the hallways of our schools. State parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, BLM land and national parks are all fair game. Let’s be honest, the biggest threats to limiting our access to public lands are our overuse injuries.

Yes, we are light on the land, and leave only footprints in the wild places we love, but could this lack of conflict be lulling us into complacency? While we blissfully tackle miles of singletrack, are we ignorant to movements currently working hard to sell off the trails from under our feet?

I asked Governor Bullock about the issue, since he hears regularly from all groups interested in public-lands issues. The governor is also a trail runner who gets out five days a week and has even completed a 50K, earning ultrarunner status.

“The only trail runners that have ever spoken to me about the importance of our trail systems are typically the people I already know from the running community,” he said. “I hear from snowmobilers more than I hear from trail runners. In a positive way [trail runners] are standing on the shoulders of these other groups. The less positive way to perceive it, though, is that they are freeloading off of everybody that is actually working on a daily basis to protect our public lands and public spaces.”

Recreation Groups to Learn From

If trail runners are lax in contacting their policy makers, then which groups are ensuring their voices are heard in issues surrounding public lands?

Mountain bikers and rock climbers are two groups that, in recent decades, have mobilized for public-lands access and protection in a major way. In response to an increase in participation and access issues, rock climbers created the Access Fund, a national organization focused on education, conservation, stewardship and increasing public-land access. Mountain bikers, too, founded the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), which is dedicated to mountain-bike advocacy, education, public-lands access and trail building. These organizations have both succeeded in providing powerful platforms for previously unorganized groups of outdoor recreationalists.

Indisputably, though, the most well-organized groups of public-lands users are hunters and anglers. Their alliances make sense if you take a look at the history of hunting and fishing in the United States. For over a century these groups have encountered public-access issues and increased regulation. The result? There are now dozens of national groups who work to inform public policy, while other groups specialize in raising funds to conserve large tracts of wildlife habitat.

The “hook-and-bullet” crowd is indeed a behemoth in the public-lands conservation and protection arenas. Due to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, they even pay an 11-percent excise tax on arms, ammunition, archery and fishing equipment. Since its inception, this program has raised billions of dollars in funding, which is diverted from the US Treasury and doled out to the states by the Secretary of Interior to go toward wildlife management, research projects and even the acquisition of land to preserve wildlife habitat.

As users of public lands, and appreciators of aesthetic and pristine open spaces (i.e. good wildlife habitat), trail runners directly benefit from this program yet we do not pay into it. To discuss this lack of participation, I contacted Land Tawney, the Executive Director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national advocacy organization dedicated to the protection of public lands and public-lands access. Not one to beat around the bush, he bluntly stated, “Trail runners don’t pay to play.”

Growing Pains

According to a 2016 report published by the Outdoor Foundation, trail-running participation in the U.S. has nearly doubled from 4.2 to 8.1 million people since 2006.

Just like mountain biking and climbing did in the 1980s and 1990s, trail running is now reaching a tipping point. As history has shown, with growth inevitably comes conflict. As our community expands, we should acknowledge the effects we have on public lands and how other groups who utilize public lands view us.

We have already seen conflict arise. Trail runners in Grand Canyon National Park, for example, have received significant criticism in recent years. The hundreds of runners who attempt the rim-to-rim crossing on a busy weekend have been cited for lacking etiquette on the trail, spooking mule trains, littering and being inconsiderate to other users. In response, the park now requires permits for organized groups attempting the crossing.

Also, friction between trail runners and other public-lands users has stemmed from the meteoric rise of the FKT movement. The collateral damage of our desire to move quickly through these wild places is a building perception that trail runners prioritize speed with little regard to other users or the land itself.  Additionally, with an influx of money from outdoor brands supporting some of these record attempts, such as Scott Jurek’s Appalachian Trail FKT in 2015, public debates have emerged arguing the place of commercialism in wilderness.

Finally, with bills recently introduced into the US House that would sell off federal lands, and the Secretary of Interior’s recommendation to reduce the size of the recently established Bears Ears National Monument, the outdoor community is facing a threat that directly impacts not just hunters, anglers, climbers and mountain bikers, but trail runners as well. Governor Bullock likened the issue to running injuries. “I got plantar fasciitis,” he said. “I had spent my whole life taking for granted the fact that I can have my bit of sanity by going out and running. What happens on that day when all of a sudden you can’t?”

The author pauses to take in his surroundings while on a long run in Glacier National Park, Montana. Photo by Steve Gnam.

Trail-Running Communities
Get Involved

Despite the reputation we may have earned as nihilists, there are indeed examples of trail runners engaging in stewarding our public lands.

One major example is the mandatory completion of a day of trail work in order to compete in many 100-mile races. This has instilled an investment and ownership in our trails and has significantly impacted our trail systems for the better through thousands of hours of volunteer work.

Runners are also putting up money for land conservation. In Missoula, Montana, the running club Run Wild Missoula made local headlines when it announced the donation of $55,000 to a local land trust toward the conservation of a 4,000-acre parcel of land adjacent to town. The group will work with the community to develop a multiple-use trail network on the land.

Additionally, just this year, a national organization Run Wild was founded to bring the trail-running community together around public-lands issues and protection. When I asked Run Wild co-founder, Hallie Fax, what spurred the group to form, she said, “The trail-running community, to date, has not been super involved or united around these issues. Trail running, as a sport, is on the rise, and there’s real potential to bring together people who already have an inherent love and appreciation for public lands.”

When asked how our community can be more engaged in the public process Governor Bullock emphasized that the first step is simply showing up. Furthermore, he said that we need to do a better job of sharing our story.

“I fundamentally believe that public policy is made through anecdotes and personal relationships,” he said. “The way to get in an elected representative’s mind is to make that connection. If trail runners are not a part of telling their story and making that connection, then they are missing a big element.”

Hallie Fax suggested better educating ourselves. “We can all do more to learn about our own local areas,” she said. “All of the trails we run on are the product of environmental stewards before us who ensured these lands were preserved for recreational access.”

Land Tawney of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers shared that they found success in engaging their community through multiple channels. “Social media is huge. We also use podcasting, events and storytelling nights and publishing a print magazine to educate and mobilize our membership base.” By effectively using these tools, BHA has enjoyed membership growth of over 400 percent in the last year alone.

What Now?

We trail runners take pride in the strength of our community and the quality of the individuals that comprise it. As we celebrate and utilize our public lands, it is also worth taking pride in working together to protect the common ground under our feet. Together we can be a force.

So, will we organize and fully leverage our 8.1-million members to stand up for public-lands protection and access? Or will we wait until we are forced to react to a threat that limits our ability to explore the places we love like so many others before us?

We have successes to inspire us. Congressman Chaffetz, who introduced the controversial bill to sell off federal lands, pulled it after major backlash from the outdoor-recreation community, specifically hunters and anglers. He announced the bill’s withdrawal on his instagram feed with a picture of himself outdoors wearing camouflage and holding his dog with a big smile on his face, saying, “I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and I love our public lands.” He was speaking directly to the constituency that had most engaged with him on this issue.

I have a dream. That one day, due to our unified voice and engagement, a politician who is championing a public lands cause will post a photo of themselves in short shorts and dusty trail shoes claiming they are doing it because they love long runs on singletrack trails. It can happen.

Five Ways to Get Involved

1.Educate yourself

Find reliable news sources. Learn about the history and the current issues the public lands and trails in your area may face.

2. Vote

Make your voice heard.

3. Donate

Give, either finacially or with sweat equity, to the organizations in your area that maintain and protect the public lands and trails you love and utilize.

4. Write your representatives

Let them know the value public lands have for you.

5. Go run

The more you get out and develop a relationship with a place, the more you will be motivated to fight for its protection.

Organizing for action

International Mountain Biking Association
Established: 1988
Number of Members: 40,000
Accomplishments: Mission to maintain access for mountain biking on public lands.  IMBA leverages over 200 organization chapters for local trail-building programs and to create a unified voice for mountain-bike and public-lands advocacy.

Access Fund
Established: 1991
Number of Members: 15,705
Accomplishments:  Completed 112 conservation projects in 2016, improving trailheads, building trails and placing signage at climbing areas all over the country. Access Fund also uses educational events to instill a conservation ethic within the climbing community.

Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
Established: 2004
Number of Members: 13,000
Accomplishments: Highly effective in educating and mobilizing its membership to stand up in support for public-lands access and conservation. BHA and other hunter and angler organizations were instrumental in stopping H.B. 621.

Run Wild
Year Established: 2017
Number of Members: Not a membership-based organization.
Accomplishments: Run Wild has utilized social media as a tool to elevate a discussion within the trail-running community about public lands and the issues
they face.

The North Face ultrarunner Mike Foote is the co-founder of the popular Rut Mountain Runs. He is also a board member of Five Valleys Land Trust, an organization whose mission is to protect the open spaces near his hometown of Missoula, Montana.

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