The Current State of Pisgah – Nature Trails NC Spotlight

If you love Pisgah as much as we do, there is no doubt you have heard rumors and talk about the current work going on in Pisgah National Forest. We’re here to set the story straight on the current state of Pisgah. People are fired up!  Recent work is due to some dedicated volunteers putting in many hours obtaining funding from the federal government, called an RTP (Recreational Trails Program) grant. Matt and Tara Malone, owners of Nature Trails NC LLC  along with their team David, Brandon, Trevor, and Bryan have been contracted for this challenging work.

As you may know, we are heavily involved with the volunteer organization called Pisgah Area SORBA that obtained this grant (long before we got involved.) This 2014 RTP grant is finally getting used and the time lag in applying and getting reimbursed for past grants is an amazing example of how quick the Federal Government works.  I’m not complaining, but it is quite a complicated process and a lot of paperwork. Incidentally, there are a few more RTP Grants that PAS will be working on in the very near future. There is a lot happening in the forest right now.

I would 100% advise folks to get involved in some way with your local trail organization if you want to have a voice in what is happening to your trails. Not a big IMBA fan? That might be another can of worms to open for a future post, but not here. If your local club is an IMBA affiliated club, like ours is, then you need to get over it and get involved.  Chances are, there is something constructive you can do to help.  Don’t have a ton of time? Well, best you find the time or some of your beloved trails will be gone or changed in a manner that you do not like.

Everyone has their opinion and is entitled to it. Long-time locals and new transplants, as well as tourists, deserve to give feedback on the work being done. These are everyone’s trails to enjoy. Just as we all enjoy trails in BC, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and many other amazing riding destinations. We all need to take care of our own back yard. That way, we will all have many great trails to ride all over for years to come. We are all tourists and need to remember that.

Who Got the Contract?

Nature Trails NC, LLC is the contractor hired to tackle the massive erosion on some beloved sections of long-standing and very popular trails in Pisgah. Upper Black, Avery, and Buckwheat are getting some much needed TLC. I know what you’re thinking, WOW what brave folks! The Nature Trails team is doing an amazing job of making sure everyone, including PAS and the Forest Service, is happy with their work.  After all, they want to work again in Pisgah. They also have quite a thick skin and need it at times, as the internet can be brutal.

Overall, the work has been well received and plenty of riders have already gotten up and ridden the “new” Upper Black section. As with all trail maintenance, there have been some negative comments. Interestingly enough, none of these have come from the Forest Service or any other user group in the forest except our fellow mountain bikers. All I can say is get out there and ride it for yourself and let Pisgah Area SORBA know what you like and do not like. Get involved and make a difference.  Do not offer a complaint without a solution and for goodness sake, BE NICE. The folks organizing the work are all volunteers!

What is Happening Up There?

The work began mid-July at the top of Upper Black, where it intersects with Club, Buckwheat, and Avery. Machines were brought up Club Gap and will get back out the same way when the work is done. The first work was done on Upper Black primarily to help huge amounts rainfall get off the trail and make the tread more sustainable.  In this rain forest that is Pisgah, the main battle with all of our trails is the amount of rain we receive each year. Last year we got over 100 inches of rain, and it was not unusual to see 5-7 inches in one afternoon!

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Map of the area that Matt Malone and Nature Trails NC LLC are working on the current (2014) RTP. Map: Trailforks.

The first couple of miles of Avery will be getting some major work. The bottom of the trail needs some help as well as it is always wet and right beside the creek, this, however, is not part of this RTP. Drainage work on Buckwheat is also getting done and the “character” that the trail has will be maintained as much as possible.

We recently sat down over coffee with Matt Malone from Nature Trails NC, LLC to discuss some of the work. We wanted to let everyone know what we know about him and his company. He encourages everyone to come on out, ride and share their opinions. Not sure of why some things are sculpted the way they are? All you have to do is ask him. He and his team have  a well thought out plan for these trails and also love to ride Pisgah themselves.  Wanting their work to stand the test of time they totally get the discussions happening now. People love their trails! And mountain bikers have their opinions!

Read on and let us know what yours are. Remember to be nice!

Crankjoy (CJ): How did you get started in Trail Building?

Matt Malone (MM): Growing up, I spent every waking moment on a bike as soon as the training wheels came off. Riding around the neighborhood soon transitioned into racing BMX and eventually spending all my free time building and riding dirt jumps with friends from middle school through high school. In college, I studied entrepreneurial management and eventually opened up a BMX and Skate shop in my early twenties. The shop only lasted for a couple years, but it firmly planted the passion self-employment.

After transitioning out of the BMX lifestyle, I found myself looking for new bicycle experiences. I soon purchased my first mountain bike and was quickly hooked. As I learned more about the local trails, I eventually started volunteering with a local non-profit club to build and maintain them. When I saw decisions being made about trails that I was critical of, someone challenged me to ‘get more involved’ rather than simply offering critique. I took that challenge to heart and ended up spending several years in a variety of non-profit positions culminating as President of a 1,500-member mountain bike club.

During that time and since, I’ve helped build and maintain hundreds of miles of single-track, created programs to facilitate the development of skills areas at trails, written and administered grants, built trails for national enduro races, and created trail systems ranging from ADA accessible to double black diamond. As of today, I’ve been involved in trail building for over 12-years with the last 3 year being in North Carolina.

(CJ): Who are your mentors?

(MM):I don’t have any formal mentor relationships, but over the years I have had the opportunity to ride and build trails with riders from different disciplines, geographies and passions, and I try to learn something from each of them.  From a leadership perspective, my friend Rich Szecsy is one of the most intelligent people I know and has always been a good sounding board. Rich is a fellow mountain biker and we met when I started getting more involved in trail advocacy. He is one of the busiest guys I know between his professional life, wife and two boys, volunteering as a trail steward, and running his own non-profit, Re-Cycles, to provide underprivileged kids with bikes. Rich will be the first to point out that talk is talk and action is action. He likes to differentiate people by whether or not they have a degree in GSD… Get Shit Done!

In the trail building industry, I would say I have four ‘role models’… Tony Boone has been in the industry over 30 years and is arguably one of the most influential builders in the world. Tony has always been willing to talk shop with me or offer invaluable advice. Tony also envisions a future where trail building is a recognized industry with a builder in every city and resources to provide their employees full benefits. I think the industry has a ways to go, but I work hard to provide our 5-person crew with liveable wages and as many benefits as possible.

While I don’t know him personally, I highly respect Aaron Rogers from Rock Solid Trail Contracting for pushing the limits of trail building with creativity and professionalism. Aaron’s team of builders produce some of the most epic and polished work anywhere and I think he is pushing trail building into the public eye and further legitimizing the industry as craftsmen.

Todd Branham, of Long Cane Trails and Blue Ridge Adventures, brings a very unique and honest perspective to trail building and isn’t afraid to go against the grain. Todd understands that erosion, especially in a rain forest such as Pisgah, is part of the trail design process and builds trails with an eye 5+ years in the future. Finally, Alex Scott, of Jagged Axe Trail Design, is a good friend and excellent trail builder. Alex is young, but hasn’t shied away from pushing his business growth and investing in the future.


(CJ): What is your favorite type of riding? Top 5 locations?

(MM):  I tend to prefer more technical downhill trails. I raced cross country for several years, but, with my BMX background and not being a strong climber, I find the most enjoyment on the gravity side. When enduro racing came around I raced it for a few years and tried to compete on the elite level with limited success. But, these days I just enjoy party pacing up the mountain with friends and maximizing my smiles per mile on the way down. My top 5 riding locations to date would be Pisgah National Forest (Brevard, NC), Moab (UT), Ouachita National Forest (Big Cedar, OK), Franklin Mountains (El Paso, TX), and Medellin, Colombia where I traveled to ride last October.

(CJ): What is your favorite trail (that you did not build) of all time and why?

(MM):  If I had to put one trail on repeat, it would have to be The Whole Enchilada in Moab. Not because any one section of it is the best I have ever ridden, but because you get to experience so many different environments, from alpine to desert, and can choose between easy or advanced lines all within one trail. It’s the type of trail you can ride two days in a row and get a totally different experience. You can also take a group of friends with different abilities and everyone will find the fun.

(CJ):  What trail work are you most proud of?

(MM):  My passion for trail building stems from a desire to get people into nature so there are really two projects that have been equally rewarding. First, there are some old hiking trails on the Oklahoma side of the Ouachita National Forest along the Talimena Scenic Byway. This area of mountains are referred to as ‘The Loneliest Forest’ because it is the least visited National Forest in the country.

Back around 2014-2015, a friend and I received approval to start doing trail work in the area and eventually host several mountain bike events. These trails are some of the most rugged, backcountry riding you can imagine, right in the middle of the country where most people don’t even realize mountains exist. Through the process of scouting routes and rehabbing the trails there, eventually, the O-Rock Epic Enduro race started and grew to become the first stop of the IMBA National Enduro Series and an Enduro World Series qualifier event with over 200 attendees. Helping to take an at-risk, underutilized area of national forest and turning it into a mountain bike destination for world-class racers brings a great sense of accomplishment.

In 2017, we partnered with the Triangle Off-Road Cyclists to build the Briar Chapel Skills Park in Chapel Hill, NC on a shoestring budget from an REI grant. The concept was really simple and we had to stretch the dollars as far as possible and utilize lots of volunteer labor. Despite the limited resources, the finished product has been a very popular park with a single beginner, intermediate, and advanced skills line.

The first week after we finished, a group of kids from the Briar Chapel neighborhood were riding on their department store bikes with huge smiles and challenging each other to try new things. A few months later, I got to witness the same kids riding the skills park with upgraded bikes hitting the jumps and drops. To me, seeing those kids ride and progress on something I was a part of is extremely rewarding.

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(CJ):  Why did you go after this RTP in Pisgah?

(MM):  Since relocating to North Carolina in 2016, Pisgah has become one of my favorite trail systems in the country. My wife and I both ride, have traveled the country to experience trails all over, and fell in love with Brevard enough to buy a house here. To me, mountain biking and trail work go hand in hand wherever I live, so I naturally reached out to get involved with Pisgah Area SORBA to ask what needs they have and how I could help. In addition to being a licensed contractor and owner of a trail building company, I’m also a certified Trail Crew Leader (TCL) and sawyer so that I can give back in a volunteer capacity as well. Earlier this year, I was invited to provide a bid on the work associated with the 2014 Buckwheat RTP grant that was set to expire in a few months. We were awarded the contract shortly thereafter. We’re proud to have been selected and take the responsibility of rehabbing legacy trails in the national forest very seriously.

(CJ):  What do you want to say to Pisgah riders who are concerned that the work you are doing so far is not “in the character of Pisgah?”

(MM):  I would say that feedback, both positive and negative, is welcome because it means that people are passionate about these trails. Passion about trails can provide an opportunity to be channeled into trail work in the future. We have received a lot of positive feedback, in real-time. from riders on the trail and through comments on various online forums, but there are certainly some who disagree with the work being done. With that said, our priorities first and foremost are rehabilitating the tread to create positive drainage, make it sustainable, and meet the objectives assigned to us by the Pisgah Ranger District, Pisgah Area SORBA, and The Pisgah Conservancy. We’ve met with representatives from all organizations before and since starting work to keep active communication regarding progress and changes.

The portions of ‘Upper-Upper’ Black Mountain, Avery Creek, and Buckwheat Knob associated with this work are either entirely or have major portions of trail that are on the fall line and have eroded into ruts 3 to 4 feet deep in some areas. The scope of the rehab work being done requires all drainage and erosion mitigation to be accomplished without re-aligning the tread and that creates unique challenges to get water out of the rut without inadvertently creating a ponding area. Part of the way this is accomplished is by identifying the most feasible drain locations, grading the side of the rut down and using excess dirt to create rolling grade dips.

One of the controversial topics regarding the rehab work we’re doing is creating bermed turns. Riders are already creating their own berms on trails all over Pisgah in every location where turns are aligned with the natural back slope. We’re simply clearing the organic material and compacting them in advance. Berming turns against the natural hillside is a very effective means of making tread sustainable for mountain biking because it minimizes the need for excessive braking and tire skidding in hard corners.

It just so happens that very few trails in the Pisgah Ranger District have been substantially rehabilitated in the last decade so anything that isn’t an erosion channel seems out of character. With that said, bermed corners will actually be minimal. It just so happens that some of the locations where they were best suited was at the beginning of this project. For example, there are two sections on Upper Upper Black where drainage was not feasible off the side of the tread so we transitioned the rut from a straight line to a side to side bobsled effect which creates natural berms in the hillside. This allows the rider and the water to coexist in the same area for up to 100ft duration until the next rolling grade dip with minimal brake dragging. In one other location, there was a high-speed straight-line downhill into a 90-degree corner that was covered in loose dirt from riders skidding to a stop trying to make the turn. We added a slight inslope to that location as well that will flatten over time while still keeping riders in control.

Now, beyond designing for drainage and sustainability, one of the lower priorities of this project is to create a fun, progressive trail that encourages more mountain bikers to ride further up the mountain and reduce the traffic on Lower Black. Lower Black has become an extremely overburdened resource because of its ease of accessibility, but even more so because of its design with snaking turns carved into the hillside and multiple line choices so riders of various speeds and abilities can have fun.

In other words, Lower Black has bike optimized characteristics. Similarly, as we create drainage and contour, we’re keeping an eye on where the preferred locations are to enhance the rider experience for a similar feel while still allowing for hiking and two-way traffic. Every trail has its own flavor and not all riders will agree, but providing some variety allows the maximum amount of people to have the maximum amount of fun.

Here’s  how the current 1/4 mile section of upper black is rolling after Nature Trails Inc Rehab work.  Previouslly this section was mostlly 3-5 foot deep ruts.

As far as remaining work to be done, Avery Creek will see a substantial change in the top and bottom where the ruts are the worst, but will only receive light touches for drainage through the middle bench cut areas. Buckwheat is so steep that it is not usually ridden uphill so it will be rehabbed for drainage and downhill only bike traffic with as much craggy rock armoring as possible to maintain the existing difficulty and character.

Finally, despite changes in the original preferred lines, the biggest thing to remember is that Pisgah is a rain forest. The work currently in progress is being designed for years from now, not next week. Where some will see fresh dirt and smooth turns currently, it will become rocky, rooty, and awesome in short order. We’ve been strategically uncovering rock slabs, burying rock armoring, and leaving rock in the upturned soil to ensure the ruggedness returns in a sustainable way. Give it time.

We’re also happy to walk the trails with anyone that has concerns and address their comments. Come meet us up the mountain and let’s look at the challenges and changes together and maybe we can incorporate some of your ideas.

Thanks to Matt and Tara Malone and Nature Trails NC crew members as well as Pisgah Ranger District and Pisgah Area SORBA for being agents for change in the Forest. The only thing certain is change and we can either be part of the change we want to see or sit back and complain about it.  Mother Nature ultimately sculpts all of our trails and we are lucky that she is hard at work in Pisgah every day, making our trails amazing![/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


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