How the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship Notices All the Little Things
The mottled splotches of dark brown and grey that dot the back of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog let it transform into a lichen-covered rock, a shadow on a stream bed or a leaf on the forest floor. Not being noticed is a handy trait when you are the food-chain equivalent of an energy bar—and you’re endangered. Fortunately for this frog, it was noticed by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. Working with fish and wildlife biologists and the local Forest Service, the Stewardship has worked to elevate, armor and reroute trails in the Lakes Basin Recreation Area in order to protect the frogs and their fragile habitat.
Scores of trail groups across the county make twisty mountain bike trails that are fun to get out on. But for most trail-building groups, an endangered frog probably wouldn’t hit their radar. Wildlife habitat is not always within the purview of local trail builders. Neither is maintaining wilderness trails (no bikes), building outdoor classrooms, building pathways accessible to people with disabilities, leadership training or backcountry first-aid certification. The Stewardship is headlong into all of these—they’re even working to add affordable housing to the list. With a staggering 30 to 50 percent unemployment in Sierra and Plumas counties, due largely to waning mining and forestry industries, the Stewardship regards economic development as fundamental to its mission. It sees trails, events and tourism as crucial economic drivers that could revive the area. Affordable housing, a cornerstone of any community, would attract more people to relocate to these dwindling communities.
That’s not how it started. The tiny Stewardship began as a way to resuscitate Downieville trail maintenance flatlined by federal budget cuts. “At first it was all about the trails, how do we take care of the trails? I had a bike shop in town—we relied on recreational tourism,” recalls Greg Williams, the Stewardship’s executive director. “The trails are still the heart and soul of the Stewardship—but what’s made it work is people.” That includes people involved in the Stewardship and their bike-minded compatriots, but also those that aren’t cyclists—hikers, dirt bikers, equestrians and four-wheelers. Traditionally, these groups don’t play well together, but, “Get them all together on a common project that benefits their community,” says Williams, “and those barriers break down.” The Stewardship’s insistence on inclusion was born from equal parts altruism and pragmatism. They wanted to bring people into their tribe, but also—“Land managers aren’t going to turn over control to any one user group. We’re neutral, we work on everything with everybody. In hindsight, we were smart enough not to call ourselves the Downieville Mountain Bike Association.” A bottomless appetite for long days and grueling work takes the credit for the Stewardship’s growth and success. From max-capacity mountain bike events, to a wildly successful “five bucks a foot” raffle that nets the winner a new ride, to member fees and donations all bolstered by grants, the Stewardship is a relentless fundraiser that channels those funds directly back into the community. There are seven full-time staff and upward of 40 seasonally, and with an army of volunteers logging thousands of hours, they’ve built miles of new trail and maintained hundreds of miles of existing trail. Those volunteers might be pinner downhillers, avid birders or local students, but they’re all working together to build trails that help preserve and sustain the Sierra Buttes region and everyone in it—including the yellow-legged frog.
Check out Patagonia Action Works at patagonia.com/actionworks to learn more about trail protection projects close to home.
This story is featured in the September 2018 Patagonia Catalog.