Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Q + A with Matt Nelson from the Arizona Trail Association (AZTA)

It's true that trail maintenance doesn't happen on it's own but most often we think of the boots on the ground and forget the logistical support required to get those boots to the right spot, with the required equipment and logistical support.  As part of my effort to raise awareness of trail associations I asked Matt J. Nelson from the AZTA to answer a few questions about himself and what he and the AZTA do.  I managed to catch him before he left for a 6 day backpacking trip in the Sierra.

How long have you been involved with the AZTA and what is your role?

Matt: I have been the Executive Director of the Arizona Trail Association (ATA) for the past two and a half years. As the only full-time employee of the nonprofit organization, I do a little bit of everything: managing volunteers (1,200+) and trail work events (@ 100 annually); fund raising to support trail operations; protecting the trail from large-scale mining operations; program developments; coordinating with all of the agencies whose land the Arizona Trail (AZT) traverses (USFS, BLM, NPS, Arizona State Parks, Babbitt Ranch, Pima and Pinal Counties); writing newsletters; attending events and meetings; education and outreach; overseeing our Seeds of Stewardship program within Arizona schools and leading some of the outings; and just about everything you can think of.

How did you get involved?

Matt: It all started one day when I was out on a mountain bike ride and I found a brown carsonite sign with the Arizona Trail symbol. That was the first I had ever heard of the cross-state trail. The more I explored, the more I fell in love with the trail. This was back in 1994, and the trail was FAR from being complete. So I got involved as a volunteer trail builder. Later, I organized groups of inner city youth to participate in trail building. Then, working as a natural and cultural resource specialist, I conducted archaeological surveys and did trail design before the final segments of trail were constructed. Working seasonally as a backpacking guide, I helped hundreds of people explore and appreciate the Arizona Trail through Grand Canyon National Park. Once the position of Executive Director became available, I was encouraged by many people to apply for the job.

How do you use the trail?

Matt: I spent equal time on my feet (hiking, trail running and backpacking) and mountain bike. I love riding mules and horses, too, so I try to experience the AZT from every form of non-motorized travel possible to help keep me in touch with the variety of user groups we have on the trail. My job keeps me really busy and I don't get many opportunities to play on the trail (despite what everybody thinks) but whenever we have meetings or events in different parts of the state, I aspire to sneak in some time on the AZT.

How would you describe the mission of the AZTA?

Matt: Our mission is to build, maintain, promote, protect and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land. That's the official mission. Beyond that, the ATA is committed to engaging individuals, families, groups, businesses and agencies in the enjoyment and stewardship of the trail. The more people that use it and fall in love with it, the more likely they are to support it and protect it into the future. The trail is an 800-mile-long organism that requires constant "care and feeding" and if you think it takes a village to raise a child, think about how many people it takes to maintain and sustain the trail.

Has the land use along the trail corridor changed since the trails inception?

Matt: Not really. Fortunately, the founding father was a true visionary who embraced all user groups from day one. Dale Shewalter was a hardcore hiker who loved riding horses and mountain bikes, too. So from the very beginning, the Arizona Trail has been a shared-use experience. And because of that, we don't have the kinds of conflicts that other long-distance trails are now experiencing because they exclude certain user groups.

Most of the land the Arizona Trail traverses is extremely remote, so there is little fear of development and encroachment on the trail corridor. That said, there are currently four major mining operations that could destroy portions of the AZT. Arizona is filled with natural resources, both on the surface that we all enjoy and appreciate, and underground, which we all use and need. So protecting the trail, negotiating with private companies and public land management agencies, and working to ensure the trail will be here for future generations is a constant struggle. Especially with a push toward more "green energy" nationwide, long-distance trails are being faced with obstacles likes transmission power lines, large-scale solar and wind energy projects, and open-pit mines.

Have you seen any changes in the gateway communities along the trail?

Matt: Absolutely! Many of the towns (gateway communities) the trail passes near are former mining towns that have gone through a boom and bust cycle and are trying to figure out how to survive. Recent reports from the National Park Service show that the single greatest source of economic stability for rural communities is through ecotourism. Instead of small towns building something from the ground up, we've essentially brought the trail to them. Now, then can incorporate the AZT into their master plan and learn from other communities that are finding success in appealing to outdoor recreationalists who enjoy a good meal and small town charm as much as a day out in the dirt.

Gateway communities are a great way for us to gauge how many people are using the trail, too. Since we don't have any permit or registration system, we rely on town to help inform us how many thru-hikers and day trippers are on the trail each season.

Through more outreach and education and providing gateway communities resources like maps and information, we're seeing them develop into trail towns. This means healthier communities, and more people who have a vested interest in maintaining, promoting and protecting the AZT into the future.

How would you describe the trail community?

Matt: Just like the state of Arizona, the AZT community is a wild and eclectic mix. On any given day on any segment of trail you might find a determined thru-hiker, a club of trail runners, folks riding mules or horses, a crew of mountain bikers, folks hiking with their kids, geocachers, bird watchers...you name it. The diversity always inspires me, and the fact that we have very few trail conflicts each year is testament to the nature of people out West.

The number of international visitors on the trail is incredible! Last year, international thru-hikers outnumbered Americans. And the number of guidebooks we sell to foreign countries is pretty amazing. So it's definitely worth mentioning that the trail community is global.

What are some current or ongoing trail building or maintenance projects?

Matt: Maintenance projects happen every week or weekend throughout the state, and the trail corridor is always in need of brushing and tread repair. Arizona's seasons are extreme, so when it rains it comes down like a fire hose. Because of that, we're constantly repairing the damage Mother Nature does to the trail. A few major wildfires over the past five years have left segments of the trail devastated, so we're building new trail through severely scorched terrain. Some of the more remote mountain ranges in the middle of state are too far out for volunteer crews, so we're using grant funds to get professional trail crews into the Superstition and Mazatzal Mountains to bring the trail up to National Scenic Trail standards.

For thirty years the goal of the ATA was to get the trail completed. That meant linking existing trails and building new trail. While the project was completed quickly, it wasn't always built well. There are many segments of trail that are poorly designed and in desperate need of "realignment," meaning abandoning the bad stuff and building fresh tread that is truly sustainable.

Are there any trail projects that stand out to you?

Improving the trail to accommodate all users is something worth mentioning. Much of the trail is great for hikers, but the corridor is too narrow for equestrians or the switchbacks are too tight for mountain bikers. Our focus now is a trail that is accessible to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. It will never be "easy" as the Arizona Trail is a serious endeavor over rugged terrain in the middle of nowhere, often times far from water sources. But we're trying to fulfill the mission and vision of the AZT to improve what we have so all non-motorized users are able to experience it.

The other trail project that stands out to me is our ongoing mapping and signage projects. We're working with GIS specialists to offer free interactive maps, GPS datacards, and other forms of non-paper map options for outdoor explorers. Instead of adding more signs to the trail or producing paper maps that will change often, we're using technology to provide up-to-date information to anyone with a GPS or smartphone.

Do you have any favorite volunteer stories?

Matt: Considering 1,200+ people contributed over 17,000 volunteer hours last year, it's hard to choose a single story. I am always inspired by people who give time and energy to the trail. It's not surprising or shocking, because like many people who spend time outdoors, I realize that the Arizona Trail is a transformative experience for so many people. Trail work is a rewarding and bonding experience, which is why we have so many committed volunteers who have made working on the Arizona Trail a regular part of their lives. Some of them spend more time working on the trail than playing on it. It's an honor to be able to swing a pick alongside them, knowing that the next person who comes down the trail will have a better experience...even though most will never know.

What's in store for the future of the AZT?

Matt: With more awareness and support, I think the AZT can become one of the premier trails in the nation. We've been flying under the radar for thirty years but now it's time to introduce the AZT to the rest of the world. Heck, most people in Arizona have never heard of it. So through some creative promotional efforts, I hope the Arizona Trail becomes known and appreciated.

The ATA has been operating on a shoestring budget for years, but in order to keep up with trail maintenance needs we really need to step up it. With federal funds dwindling all the time, that means relying on support from individuals who care about the AZT. Most people assume their taxes pay for trails, or that federal agencies take care of it, but more often than not, it's small nonprofit organizations like the ATA that rally volunteers, hold fundraisers, and work like crazy to make sure the trail is there for people to enjoy.

How can people help the trail?

Matt: Donate dollars, volunteer time at a trail work event, and encourage others to do the same. The majority of funds to support the ATA come from individuals and businesses who make tax-deductible contributions every year. It's the only reason the AZT was built in record time, and it's how we continue to provide an 800-mile adventure-of-a-lifetime to anyone who wants it. The AZT is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and no permits are needed (unless you are camping overnight in Saguaro or Grand Canyon National Parks).

We also have an awesome membership program with great incentives for people who join and renew their support each year. And if donating or joining is against your nature, then buy some Arizona Trail merchandise from our online store. Guidebook, T-shirts, socks, and much more are available. Every purchase helps support our mission.

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