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Exactly five years ago as I write this, the Thomas Fire was tearing through Ventura county and making its way to my (then-new) hometown of Santa Barbara, California.
A December 5 ignition from a powerline near Santa Paula was fueled by dry vegetation and the Santa Ana winds, with powerfully scary results – the first night, the fire moved 12 miles in a few hours, catching the city of Ventura off-guard and destroying hundreds of homes and other buildings.
World-class firefighting efforts protected most of the structures in the fire’s path, but couldn’t mitigate its march across the Santa Ynez mountains, and on the morning of December 16, Santa Barbara – about 40 miles from where the fire started – awoke to the sight of flames and a miles-high smoke plume. I stood atop the Santa Barbara mesa, which afforded a clear view of the fire jumping and engulfing the mountains right behind town. I’m not proud to report that, while homes were under threat below me, one of my most persistent thoughts was: Not the trails!
Let me back up for a second. Santa Barbara, California is primarily known as a beach and vacation town. But for the vertically-inclined, an underrated feature of this central coast community are the mountains that rise sharply behind the city of 88,000 people. The result is a network of trails so accessible and incredible as to rival those in Boulder, Missoula or Ashland. Runners who jaunt up the front-country are universally rewarded with sweeping views of the ocean, Channel Islands and greater Santa Ynez range.
But unlike the traffic jams in Chautauqua park, (looking at you, Boulder!) the trails here seem very nearly empty, even on a Saturday morning. It could be a by-product of their sheer difficulty: Sharp rocks, tricky footing and heinous upward inclines create a trail environment akin to a ski area featuring exclusively double-black diamonds. Outside races like Nine Trails, which has drawn some top-flight pro runners, the Santa Barbara trail scene feels like a well-kept secret.
Which made it that much more frightening as I watched some of my favorite routes consumed by flames that morning. These features I’d taken for granted suddenly seemed so fragile and impermanent. If hardly anyone knows about them, I wondered, would they ever return? And who would make that happen?
“Before the Thomas Fire, Santa Barbara had 120 kilometers of trails,” says Dillon Osleger, Executive Director of the Santa Barbara-based Sage Trail Alliance, an organization dedicated to building, maintaining and advocating for trails. “After the fire, we had somewhere between 50 and 70 kilometers left.”
But then, good news: “Today, we’ve built it back up to 176 kilometers,” he says. “The goal is to expand it to 280 kilometers by 2027.”
Talk about making lemonade.
Osleger looks like a pro mountain athlete and talks like a scientist. Both assessments would be correct: Raised in Truckee, California, he grew up skiing and climbing, then picked up mountain biking well enough to race professionally. He even started running trails and ultras when he went to college in Bozeman, Montana.
At MSU, he studied natural sciences and quickly connected his athletic pursuits with the natural environs in which he recreated, diving into ecology work for the National Park Service and using some trail building experience to help start a trail stewardship program in Bozeman. He moved to Santa Barbara to seek his PhD at UCSB – a plan that didn’t quite pan out when he settled for a master’s degree and took a job at a nature conservancy.
“My job was designing trails to make them less ecologically impactful, blending hydrology and ecotones with human tendencies to get the best result,” he says. “I think of it as ‘trail architecture.’”
He’s telling me, in so many words, that a ribbon of singletrack woven perfectly through trees on the side of a mountain isn’t nearly as natural an occurrence as it might appear. The trails that blend the most seamlessly into the landscape often take the most work to create – designed, built and maintained in a way that complements their surroundings and can withstand the forces of erosion and time.
Like buildings, cultures, languages and entire species, trails can come and go. I was astounded to learn one of my go-to routes in town – something that felt as permanent as the mountain into which it was scratched – was less than a century old. (It’s a bit like realizing America, a society that feels as established as anything I know, is in its toddler years compared to a lot of civilization.)
But just as America sits in the same place as societies and cultures that have all but vanished, it’s entirely likely that your favorite trails cross over the space where other trails used to lie – something Osleger drove home by pointing out that most of the 100+ kilometers of trail Sage has built up since the Thomas Fire weren’t new.
“They’re historic trails that are being restored,” he says. “They might have been built by the CCC in the 1930s, or by the Chumash a century or two before that, or for mining – and the reason they were built will tell you about why they look the way they do.”
“You can find old trails and who built them by visiting museums and libraries, and a lot of the time there will still be remnants of the old trail,” he continues.
He described to me an offshoot to the Cold Spring Trail in Montecito that hadn’t been maintained since the 1990s – ”it’s got a homestead that was built in 1910, and a pear tree that still grows fruit on it” – and another off Cold Spring’s middle fork where in the 1800s the Chumash would escape over the mountain and hide in marsh tules from the Spanish settlers who had set up Santa Barbara Mission. I’d run right past both of these spots and never had the slightest clue.
“Historic trails are my current obsession,” he says. “It’s exciting to find them, but kind of depressing so see how things can go away.”
“If you take all the trails the US Forest Service has ever built – they have a backlog in Oracle and you can look it up – one-third of them are currently in a usable state,” he continues. “One of the greatest infrastructure projects in U.S. history is at one-third capacity because there’s no maintenance for it.”
My job was designing trails to make them less ecologically impactful, blending hydrology and ecotones with human tendencies to get the best result
When Osleger moved to Santa Barbara, he volunteered to do trail work with Sage. Within a few years he was their executive director. “It’s a scrappy nonprofit,” he explains. “I mostly write grants and solicit donors. I also build and maintain trail, but not as much as I’d like.”
“There’s lots of work,” he continues, before adding a dark joke: “Climate change and the acceleration of natural disasters means I have good job security.”
He’s got a point. By the time it was fully contained, the Thomas Fire had become the largest wildfire in modern California history. Astoundingly, it’s already slid to seventh on that list – and immediately following the fire, the damage was exacerbated by heavy rains and violent landslides that claimed 23 lives. The fire, and the slides, could only happen because the rain that typically stamps out fire season was delayed several months, leaving the vegetation extraordinarily dry and ready-to-burn. When they did, it wiped out the natural obstacles that would normally prevent the worst mudflows. It was an ecological perfect storm, but as California’s drought carries on, it might not be such a rare one.
All of this to say – if you value having access to quality trails, there’s never been a better or more urgent time to do trail work. So go on – toss off the “lazy parasite” designation (something Osleger assures me trail runners don’t deserve any more than mountain bikers, in his experience). Wherever you are, there’s likely a local trail stewardship organization with a website where you can donate or sign up for volunteer days. And it turns out working shoulder-to-shoulder with the cyclists and hikers who also love these trails is a great way to spend a Saturday.
“We spend a lot of time trying to market to people to do trail work,” Osleger says. “In this part of the country, people are busy and they tend to have money, so we get lots of donations, and we get lots of requests to work on sections of trail, which are great, and needed. But it’s easy to email and say ‘this trail needs to be brushed’. It’s better if I can say I have 10 volunteers and the right overhead and insurance to get them out there working.”
When you get your hands dirty and expend the effort of building or maintaining a trail, he explains, you tend to feel more ownership of it. “It makes you part of that place, and it becomes somewhere you’ll bring friends or family.”
Plus, Osleger warns, somewhere down the line most trails will end up on the chopping block. “The Forest Service will want to log the land, or sell it for extraction, or it could fade away because there’s a cost to preserving it,” he says. “So when it comes time to advocate for it – if I need you to write a letter to Congress in support of the Central Coast Heritage Protection Act – you’re going to be more invested and be a better advocate and write a more personalized letter if you’ve worked on it, if you’ve run there or if you’ve ridden on it.”
You should definitely still donate if you feel compelled. A $1 donation makes you an official member of Sage – and the number of members gives Osleger leverage when he reaches out to donors or lawmakers.
Still, he urges people to consider, “an hour of work is worth about $30. So a six hour volunteer day is like donating $180 to your local nonprofit.”
So what’s the biggest obstacle to getting people involved in trail building?
“It’s hard for a lot of people to connect where they play to how they play,” Osleger says. “In all likelihood, you buy your trail shoes and leave the store and don’t go back until you need another pair. Or you buy your mountain bike, leave the shop, and only go back in when you need tubes or something.”
“Community is the missing link between the industry and trails,” he continues. “Right now, we aren’t fostering it very well. Outdoor brands will do trail work, but usually as a one-off – and they’re extracting value from these trails when they feature them in their marketing.”
I’m no exemplar of a trail steward, but late last year I spent a Sunday in the Santa Barbara backcountry clearing rock from a popular section of singletrack with Sage. A few hours swinging a pick left me more sore than my first ultra – I didn’t even know I had some of these muscles that took days to recover – but Olseger was dead-on: Those few hours of work meant far more to me than the run I skipped to do it. If anyone wants to open a mine back there, they’ll have to go through me first. (Hopefully the friends I made that day will be there for backup.)
Though it was 100% contained by January 12, 2018, the Thomas Fire wasn’t officially declared extinguished until that June, when two months had passed without a hotspot being detected. But before then, the trees and chaparral were regenerating, seeming to cover the burn scars so quickly that within a year, you wouldn’t have known this was the site of a major natural disaster unless you were looking for the signs. Nature simply swallowed up the evidence of this man-made blunder with jarring speed and efficacy.
It all makes Sage’s work more impressive: By the end of 2018, almost all the main front-country trails in Santa Barbara were not only intact, but in as good of condition as ever. They sometimes now passed by sections of charred trees or areas that had been cleared into fields by the mudslides, but they followed the same lines as before the fire with brushed singletrack, sturdy retaining walls, and a design that perfectly complemented the landscape. They were as beautiful, challenging and rewarding as the first time I’d ever run them. But unlike the first time, I didn’t take any of it for granted.