In Northern Vermont, Trying to Smooth the Ride for Mountain Biking

Some 15,000 years ago, when the Laurentide ice sheet receded from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, it left behind an esker, an upside-down riverbed of well-drained sand. Unlike the root-choked granite that ripples across most of northern New England, the hills in this area close to the Canadian border are smooth under the wheels of a mountain bike.

In the late 1980s, when the sport of mountain biking was nascent, riders around the town of Burke noticed the contours of the landscape and started connecting bits of old logging roads by building trails across neighboring properties. “We didn’t even know what single-track was at the time, but we knew the riding was good,” said John Worth, the former owner of East Burke Sports, the local ski and bike shop.

Riders on the Kingdom Trails include Georgia Gould, an Olympic bronze medalist. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

The trail builders had several important things going for them, in addition to geology. Vermont, where recreation often happens on private land, has a particularly friendly limited liability statute that protects landowners when accidents happen. And the nature of the state’s sparsely populated Northeast Kingdom, which encompasses three counties in the state’s northeastern corner, trended toward neighborly. It’s tradition to let people hunt or hike across your land. When Mr. Worth started asking locals if he and his friends could build bike trails on their property, they all said yes.

In 1994, the trail network became the Kingdom Trails Association, a nonprofit that links more than 100 miles of carefully built biking routes across 104 landowners’ properties. As the network expanded, the smooth, beautiful riding brought in bikers from far beyond the Kingdom, who pay a daily, monthly or yearly membership fee to ride the trails. For the past 10 years, the Trails Association’s membership numbers have grown an average of 15 percent each year, up to more than 140,000 in 2020. “I had no idea it would be so successful,” Mr. Worth said.

So successful that mountain biking became the biggest economic driver in the Northeast Kingdom, which does not have the major downhill ski resorts that bring money into more southern parts of Vermont. The association estimates that it brings $10 million in revenue to the area each year, which is significant for a region where 15.9 percent of residents live in poverty, and the jobless rate — 4.7 percent in March — is nearly double that of the rest of the state. As traditional industries like logging and agriculture have faded in the Kingdom, recreational tourism has brought 28 new biking-related businesses to the area, including a good local coffee shop and a tiki bar at one of the trailheads.

Taking a break at Mike’s Tiki Bar in East Burke, which sits near the trailhead for one of the mountain biking paths.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

From a bike, it’s easy to see why. The trails on Darling Hill, the centerpiece of the network, ramble through old timber stands, and past 19th-century farmsteads. Stop to breathe and you’ll get long-ranging views of the Willoughby Gap, the glacier-carved lake to the north, along with sweeping green fields and wide red barns.

From the hill you can drop down into the bucolic hamlet of East Burke through stands of beech and birch. Grab a coffee at Café Lotti’s, where local artisans sell pottery and maple syrup. You might pass the resident moose, which local children have named Gertrude, or get passed by the Olympic bronze-winning biker Georgia Gould, who moved here with her family in 2018, and says the riding is even better than she thought it would be.

But not everyone in the Kingdom rides or wants a latte, especially in a place that has long prided itself on localism. And as ridership increased, so did congestion and conflict. According to Martha Feltus, who represents Burke in the Vermont House of Representatives, it’s caused local price inflation. New residents, including coronavirus transplants, moved in or bought vacation homes that they turned into short term rentals, significantly changing the housing market. “It’s happened really quickly, and you can tell there’s kind of a culture clash,” said Chris Manges, an avid mountain biker who grew up in East Burke, and now teaches school there.

A rider’s view down Darling Hill Road, with farmsteads and hills in the distance. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

Part of the clash is that the positive economic growth often goes to businesses in town, or to Airbnb owners, while the negative land use impacts hit volunteer landowners, or long-term locals who may not bike, and who might only see traffic or trouble. The vast majority of riders were well behaved, but some were swimming in resident’s stock ponds, or stopping for beer breaks on their porches. “If there’s a massive number of people riding here, even if only one percent of them are jerks, that can still be a lot of people,” said Des Hertz, another public-school teacher who also chairs One Burke, a community development group.

Abby Long became the executive director of the Kingdom Trails Association in 2018. She said that as soon as she arrived she could tell that trouble was brewing. “I knew the second I landed that it wasn’t sustainable,” she said. “The day we opened for the season I wanted to run out there and yell ‘Slow down!’” to the mountain bikers.

Then, in 2019, the tensions between local landowners and bikers came to a head. After a particularly bad interaction in which a visiting biker yelled at a landowner for riding a horse on her own property, three landowners pulled their property out of the trail network. Their choice, which was well within their rights, bifurcated the trails on Darling Hill, and set off a wave of worries that the trails would close down.

Abby Long has been the executive director of the Kingdom Trails Association since 2018 and is trying to better community relations.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

I trailed Ms. Long by bike on an overcast Tuesday afternoon, pedaling up carefully switchbacked climbing trails and then rolling through swooping downhills. She waved to a farmer clunking by on a tractor before we turned onto the meandering trails behind her East Burke home. She explained the balance that the trails association is trying to strike. How the closures were a wake-up call to change their system and support the local community if they wanted the network to be sustainable.

The association is a nonprofit that depends on handshake agreements with private landowners. Because of those limited liability laws, landowners legally can’t be financially compensated for their use. But Kingdom Trails is also a major player in the local economy. Businesses rely on it to bring in the visitors and it has become one of the biggest employers in town, employing nearly 40 people to build trails, run the visitor center and keep the trails safe. The challenges are unique because the associations is beholden to so many landowners, but as ridership has grown, the central issue that has cropped up is similar to what other towns where recreation has become the major economic face: As the pandemic has changed where people live and travel, and as interest in outdoor recreation has skyrocketed, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, how can they simultaneously attract new visitors while protecting the viability and livability of their community?

At the East Burke Market, visiting riders and locals intersect. “We’re sympathetic to both sides,” said one of the store’s owners. Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

The market at the crossroads

In the back room of the East Burke Market, right at the heart of the trail network, Kellie Greer and Burton Hinton say they can feel the tricky balance, as they try to adapt to the changes, too. They both grew up in the Kingdom, and Ms. Greer worked at the market for 24 years before the two bought it in 2019. “Burton was a farmer. He ended up selling his cows and that gave us the equity to purchase the store,” Ms. Greer said.

Since they bought it, they’ve brought in craft beer and wasabi rice crackers to cater to the visiting riders’ tastes. But they are also a touch point for year-round locals who buy their groceries there, and come in daily for breakfast sandwiches, so they hear about the traffic, and the errant bikers ripping up farmers fields. “There are definitely growing pains, we’re sympathetic to both sides,” Mr. Hinton said. The store owners have hired more employees because of the biking crowds, but they know their employees are having a harder time finding housing.

“The current crisis is housing for sure,” said Ms. Hertz of the One Burke group when asked about the biggest problems in the community. “At first it was disdain for bikers and trails, and landowners being upset riders weren’t being respectful, but now there are so many different factors.” She said that as biking has brought money and change to the area it has exacerbated existing political and economic divides, which need to be addressed to keep the community healthy. “It’s caused a lot of people’s pent-up emotions to come out, which I think is important, all those voices need to be heard,” she said.

Pumping the brakes

On our ride, I asked Ms. Long how they find consensus about diffusing the tension. “Oh we don’t,” she said and laughed. “We just try to listen, and explain what we’re doing.”

The coronavirus provided a surprising silver lining for the trails association. When the border with Canada closed, it temporarily slowed down the flow of riders — Canadians previously had been almost 40 percent of visitors — and gave the organization a chance to pump the brakes. The group started a landowner advisory committee to try to get out ahead of any other trail removals. Ms. Long began writing grants on behalf of the town, which received federal funding to improve its roads and add bike lanes. She started a monthly public meeting, so locals could air ideas and grievances.

To lessen the financial burden, the trails association kept memberships for Kingdom residents to $100 a year for a family, no matter how many members there are (daily riders pay $30 per person for adults). Ms. Long is now trying to find ways to compensate the landowners, through indirect things like carbon credits, and lobbying to change state tax law for “current use,” a designation that give landowners tax breaks for certain kinds of industry, and which currently applies to logging but not recreation. That would be a benefit to the landowners who let the association use their land, and Ms. Long said, could be replicable and beneficial in many places where land use is changing.

The Hub Trailside, where drinks are served out of the back of a hilltop bike shop.Credit…Greta Rybus for The New York Times

One of Ms. Long’s first moves as executive director, even before the landowners pulled out, was to apply for a United States Department of Agriculture-funded capacity study, to try to identify the worst pain points. The study found that the trails were at 80 percent capacity, but that the surrounding infrastructure, like parking lots, bathrooms and connecting roads were at 120 percent capacity. The association built new parking lots, and trail linkages to keep riders off the roads. They started a shuttle service from the town of East Burke to the most popular trails. Through a trails committee, which Mr. Manges is part of, they reached out to landowners in a wider radius, and started to build trails in surrounding towns like East Haven, which now has its own local craft brewery, Dirt Church.

The association also tried to put the onus of responsibility onto the visiting riders, a hard thing to do in a vacation town, where people may stay for only a weekend. Ms. Long said that after the trail closures, Kingdom Trails immediately shifted all its marketing efforts into education. It adopted a maxim from a nearby trail network, “Ride with Gratitude,” to encourage good behavior, and remind visitors that it’s a rare privilege to ride on pristine private land — one they shouldn’t screw up. Now, in addition to trail marker signs, there are also signs to ride single file, and respect landowners.

Now, the border with Canada is open again and the whole town feels like it’s waiting to see what the summer bike season will bring. On a trail called Sidewinder, Mr. Manges and Tiaan van der Linde, another local teacher and biker, talk about issues like the increased traffic they’ll have to contend with and how the trails association might have more positive impact on the community. They want more affordable housing; ways to train local kids for jobs that will keep them around; trails that wind out to towns like West Burke, spreading the wealth.

They know that you don’t just get beautiful trails with no one on them or an influx of tourist dollars without crowds. And, like riding a bike, you have to make a million micro-movements to keep yourself on track for the long term. “We’re trying to plan for what we want instead of reacting to what’s happening to us, but you can’t predict the future,” Mr. van der Linde said.

He points his bike back toward the trailhead and we swoop around the Burkelyn trail, green fields rolling out under us into the distance as we gather speed, riding with gratitude.

Heather Hansman is the author of the recent book “Powder Days” and a contributing editor at Outside magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @hhansman.

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