Taking its name from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the Kingdom Trail Association has been providing mountain bikers with the opportunity to explore some of the country's most beautiful and iconic landscapes for over 25 years. Founded in 1994, the KTA was built to help manage relationships among the private landowners that make up the overwhelming majority of land the trail network has been built upon, and provide cyclists from around the world with a world-class experience in the Northeastern United States while showcasing the area's natural beauty and stimulating the local economy. Decades later, it's clear that those original visionaries were on to something.
Numerous studies have been conducted over the years that indeed show the profound economic impact these trails have had on the town of East Burke, VT in the heart of the Kingdom Trails. In 2016, a statewide study conducted by Camoin Associates, an agency specializing economic and fiscal impact analyses, was paid for by the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council. The Kingdom Trail Association was one of four trail networks to participate in the study, and among the results it was determined that the Kingdom Trails hosted approximately 94,000 trail user in 2015, primarily from Spring through Autumn, and peaking during the summer months.
As recently as 2019, the Kingdom Trail Association published a community report, highlighting their 25 years of existence, and showing just how powerful an economic asset the trails have proven to be in that time, with estimated impact upwards of $10 million in 2018 alone. The region played host to nearly 140,000 visits that year, with 84% coming from out of state. The ever increasing surge in popularity of the trails was profound and categorically unmitigated.
On November 21st of 2019, three landowners informed the Kingdom Trail Association that they would no longer allow for cyclists to access the trails located within their respective property boundary lines. A 4th landowner, whose property ran adjacent to the aforementioned collective, joined their ranks a few weeks later on December 16th. The letters did not include any specific reasons for the restricted access. On January 17th it was announced that the enormously popular NEMBA Fest, an annual celebration and fundraiser for both the Kingdom Trail Association and New England Mountain Bike Association with upwards of 4,000 participants based out of Darling Hill, would be cancelled for 2020. On January 23rd, the KTA finally issued an open letter to the community
taking complete responsibility for having "been slow to respond to issues and concerns and we acknowledge our lack of voice and leadership", and promising "to be more responsive and transparent as we roll out plans and address challenges."
Speculation has run rampant in the time since this information became public knowledge, and while the Kingdom Trail Association has yet to update their trail map, it is clear that mountains bikers have indeed lost access to several classic trails and routes on Darling Hill, including the Troll Stroll, Tody's Tour
, and Tap n Die
, with the connectivity between the Darling Hill ridge line and the town itself now severed. In total, approximately 13 miles of trail have been lost to mountain bikes.
Abigail Long came on board as executive director for the Kingdom Trail Association in February of 2018, having previously held the same title at the Leadville Trail 100 Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Leadville Race series. She and her husband came to East Burke from Colorado, where she has acclimated to life in the Northeast Kingdom rather quickly. In September of 2019, the Burke Area Chamber of Commerce presented Abby with the "Citizen of the Year" award during the Fall Festival, recognizing her as an "exuberant and thoughtful advocate for the community." Abby and the rest of the Kingdom Trail Association now face what is regarded by many as perhaps the most pressing crisis in all 26 years of the KTA's existence, and have been hard at work developing a plan moving forward for both the Kingdom Trails as well as the community, making a concerted effort to emphasize their dedication to the landowners who make the enormously popular network of trails possible in the first place. Abby was gracious enough to take some time to address many of the concerns that have been expressed by cyclists around the world, and offer as much clarification on the matter as she could.
John Worth and Jim O'Reilly are among the original visionaries behind the Kingdom Trails, and are both business owners who rely heavily on the success of this trail network.
What has happened as far as communication between the Kingdom Trail Association and the four landowners who have pulled bikes off of their trails?Abby Long
: I have of course reached out many times, and at this time they're asking for some space and I want to be respectful of that, but we have not been able to sit down with them. There have been some folks in the community that are close to the landowners who are also advocates of Kingdom Trails, and have been able to sit down and learn a bit. We've been able to get a sense of the landowners' concerns from those conversations, which we are grateful for.
My goal right now is to let them be, and I want to show them and the entire community - and the rest of our landowners - that we're listening and we're taking action. I want to prove that we're striving to make amends and these drastic changes, these improvements that are much needed, quite frankly, and I agree with them. When I arrived at Kingdom Trails, things were coming to a head, and I believe these landowners' decisions didn't happen overnight for them either. This has been brewing for years.
You guys wrote an open letter to the community, and in it you acknowledge having been slow to respond to issues and concerns, as well as a lack of voice and leadership on behalf of the Kingdom Trail Association. Are you able to elaborate on that? Abby
: Absolutely. We have experienced, in terms of our visitor rates, exceptional growth over the years. That is really exciting as far as economic opportunities go, but it was ultimately unsustainable growth.
Businesses were thriving as was the Kingdom Trail Association, but with that comes some challenges. For example, Kingdom Trails doesn't own a single parking lot or even own a parking space. We don't own any of our facility buildings, and to me, that's not sustainable. I want to show the community that we're here, that we're making a commitment to them, and so I really think we need to almost pump the brakes, and take a good hard look at ourselves and really make some investments in the community in order to fix this.
We had over 100 miles of trails, and we still have over 80 miles of trails now. And once you're out on the trails, riding or running or hiking, I think you do have a sense that the numbers are dispersed, so our trails may be able to manage the capacity, but the town cannot, and that's where we need to focus our attention: the trail amenities. You know, we're world leaders in trail building and maintaining, but it has to coincide with proper infrastructure, and I think that's where we're going to be putting a lot of our efforts.
Mountain bikers recently lost access to approximately 13 miles of trail along Darling Hill, which include many of the area's most popular trails including "Tap N Die" and "Troll Stroll".
Am I right in my understanding that it's hard for you guys to incentivize private landowner involvement? There are no major financial incentives, correct?Abby
: You hit it on the head. This is something I struggle with a lot. Our landowners are all in a non-binding agreement with us, which I think is actually really special and helps makes Kingdom Trails and our community unique. Yes, we thank them publicly and we throw them an annual celebration to honor them, but the state of Vermont does not allow for compensation.
A reason why all trails in the state of Vermont are able to exist is through the Vermont statute for landowner liability protection, and I think this stems from traditional sports like hunting, but recreational trails also fall under this protection, so landowners are not liable for injuries that might occur on their property as a result of recreation. That is especially helpful for the Kingdom Trails.
We do have additional insurance that we cover our landowners with, but the state statute is really why trails are allowed to be on private property, but what would jeopardize this policy is that landowners are not allowed to receive compensation for the recreation or else they lose this protection. This is something that a lot of trail groups in the state, Kingdom Trails, VMBA chapters, Green Mountain Clubs, and VAST have to work around. Between us all are thousands of private landowners.
The landowners are obviously aware of the lack of any financial incentives when they agree to any private land easements, correct? Abby
: They are, but I definitely hear rumblings. I know it’s something that frustrates them. We have been around for over 25 years, and there are many landowners that have businesses around the area that benefit through the number of folks that visit. There are also landowners who don't own businesses and aren't benefiting in any way financially, but they are seeing pressure and stress being placed on their properties from recreational use.
What kind of feedback have you guys received from other landowners, aside from the four who have removed mountain biking from their trails? I'm sure there are plenty of other opinions from other landowners on this, and I'm sure you've heard some of that as well as the local businesses.Abby
: You know, we've definitely upped our communication with our landowners because of this issue. I'm trying to stay positive, and I say to myself, "This is a blessing in disguise," even though it doesn't feel like one right now, but I am trying to stay calm and tell myself, "This is our chance and we need to seize it," and show folks like I said earlier, that we're trying to make those improvements by communicating with our landowners more, listening to their concerns, and being able to address them much more quickly. But yes, the landowners that restricted access are not alone in their opinions. There are other landowners who definitely have concerns as well.
We had a study done in 2016 that shows we had an over $10 million direct economic impact. That wasn't the Kingdom Trail Association getting that money, it was the area making money on gas, and lodging, and food, and maple syrup. I think there's some concern in the air among businesses, and especially lodging with NEMBA Fest being canceled, and that concerns us as well. That's why we're still, as we make these changes, wanting to let people know that we're alive and well, and we still have those 80 plus miles of trails, which is more miles of trails than many other networks in the area. This doesn't include Burke Mountain, which is a whole other experience. We’re just reassuring folks that we're not going anywhere and that we're only going to get better.
What kinds of lessons have you guys learned from this experience, particularly in terms of unchecked growth, and how does that impact efforts to educate mountain bikers moving forward?Abby
: I think we've learned a lot of lessons. The first is the importance of two-way communication between our landowners and our community. We really need to listen. We need to take our direction from them, and engage them more. We wrote about creating a landowner committee and having consistent communication through public forums, the first of which is coming up on February 11th.
We can't just go full steam ahead on our own. We need to take all thoughts and considerations into account, and make sure we're progressing responsibly, and that's through collaboration and communication.
How do you guys take what you've learned and share that messaging with the scores of people coming here from out of town?Abby
: That's something that Kingdom Trails takes full responsibility for. While that open letter was beautiful and really well received, we should have come out with it three weeks prior. There was a lot of finger pointing going on in the time between the news breaking and our open letter, and that’s on us.
Another reason we need to pump the brakes and audit ourselves is so that we can more effectively convey that riding these trails is not a right, but instead a privilege, and it’s because of our private landowners. Riders are guests who are invited to experience our beautiful landscape and community, so we need to put that in front of the trail users' face immediately and that's through education efforts. We can also tell that story through social media and our website. We are developing a code of conduct that we hope trail users will initial and sign so there are some expectations and bullet points to hold them accountable.
Then there's our Trail Ambassador Program
. We've had about a dozen ambassadors working weekends and Monday holidays in previous years. We've always had that program, but their efforts lately have shifted to parking cars because that was a desperate priority lately. But we need to have not only that management in town, but also more of a presence out on the trails, at trailheads greeting people, educating them, letting them know where they can and cannot go, educating them on why they should be purchasing a membership to support trail maintenance and trail management, and just information in general. We are hoping to expand that program and make it more of a stewardship program, and get people out there advocating for and taking care of the trails, taking care of the people, and above all else, taking care of our landowners.
Are you aware of any other places that lean so heavily on private land? Does that kind of put the Kingdom Trail Association in uncharted territory in your estimation?Abby
: I think that much of New England is pretty similar. There's a lot of private land in this part of the country, and Kingdom Trails isn't alone. I listed all those other Vermont trail groups with whom we have joined forces in our efforts to advocate for private landowner protection. There's also something we joined called the Borderlands, which is a pretty new effort, and it's all of these mountain bike networks from northern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, actually even southern Quebec working to advocate for folks to come to the “Northern Borders” region because it is an extremely rural area and faces persistent economic and social challenges. I believe the majority of those networks are all due to the generosity of private land.
This is a very different dynamic for me having come from Colorado where I could leave my driveway and be on public land that was the size of Vermont. I have been looking at Washington State recently, because going back to that private landowner compensation that we can't quite navigate around yet, they have something called “current use”, which Vermont does too, encouraging tax breaks for agriculture and forestry on private land, yet Washington State includes recreation. It's a great example to look towards that maybe one day Vermont could aim for.
Can you describe the landowner committee and really some of the specifics in terms of how it's going to operate and how it will function?Abby
: That's something we're grappling with, and that's why we're looking to a public forum to actually get advice from the landowners on how they'd like it to look like. But it's definitely going to be an advisory committee that our board and our staff can look to for guidance. We're also going to have to balance it. We have landowners that have hundreds and hundreds of acres with miles and miles of trails, and we have landowners with two acres and an eighth of a mile, but that eighth of a mile may be crucial for a connection. So we have to be able to balance all those different types of voices. That's something we're hopeful to form with the aid of the landowners.
One of the things that comes up pretty frequently is the impact of something like a NEMBA Fest and other events can have on East Burke. You guys also host Winterbike annually.Abby
: Oh yeah, thank you. We are still super excited for Winterbike. We didn't cancel and we're so happy about that. We have relocated though. We'll be hosting in downtown East Burke on Mike's Tiki Bar property, which is a great location this year because in lieu of having restricted access to fat biking up on Darling Hill, we actually looked to our landowners in our White School section of our trail network, and they were thrilled and welcomed grooming on their property. So we're actually able to offer just as many miles as we have in years’ past of groomed fat bike trails. I'm super spoiled because the trails are right out of my backyard. They're new and it's exciting.
Our trail manager was nervous because it was new terrain and he hadn't explored that yet, and snow grooming is a much different beast compared to working on trails in the summer. He's just over the moon about how successful these new trails that we're able to offer are, and landowners are too, and I think the businesses have been grateful that there's some winter traffic in town. It's always good to shake things up so things don't get stale, and we're so grateful to Mike at the Tiki Bar for being willing to help. He's excited too. We host that event with MTBVT, and I think again, we're all pretty excited for the change.
As far as NEMBA Fest goes though, can you talk about some of what went into the decision to cancel? I've heard you talk about the strain that it not only puts on Darling Hill those properties, but it also must put a strain on the day to day lives of the people who call this place home.Abby
: Canceling that weekend was definitely a decision that came out after we learned about the restricted access. There were some advocates in town who were able to learn some of the concerns from the landowners, and NEMBA Fest was definitely detrimental to their everyday life, so that became a concern that we needed to address. Also knowing where we could host a festival that was flanked with restricted access to mountain biking, because if you're unable to have trails around the entire event, we'd be forcing bike traffic onto the road and that's something we've been looking to mitigate for the past couple years.
We did look at other locations. Burke Mountain is welcome to the idea of hosting it in the future. They're hosting the Enduro World Series this August, which is so exciting for them and for the community. They just were unsure of how the land would take to a festival in June. It might be too wet or just not prepared in time to host that many folks, so they really want to explore that for themselves this year. We'll look into that next year with them.
The pressure and the stress that NEMBA Fest puts on not just the private properties but the rural infrastructure of the Vermont village that we live in is immense, so there were a lot of things we had to take into consideration. It was a hard decision, but I believed it was the right one, especially considering the long-term sustainability of our trail network.
How were those conversations with the New England Mountain Bike Association? Would you say that NEMBA was pretty understanding?Abby
: They were extremely understanding and helpful too in this situation. This wasn't a decision that we just came to immediately. There were many conversations. Like I said we looked at many other options and considerations, and also with our other partner, the Wildflower Inn, who was the landowner that allowed us to host on the property. I think everyone understands that we did not want to risk or jeopardize the rest of the trail network or the future of the trail network for one weekend.
It was such a hard decision too because this is a main fundraiser of Kingdom Trails for the entire year that helps us maintain and build more trails, so a lot of thought went into this. We engaged our community and other landowners too. We asked for opinions. We started doing what we said we're going to do. We're going to take our lead from them, and that was the feedback that we received.
I get the sense that you guys were a bit handcuffed to NEMBA Fest and you weren't able to be as productive with developing and building new trails and things of that nature because of the spent time building up to this big weekend every year. I can only imagine what the cleanup efforts were like and how exhausted you guys must have been afterwards. Without NEMBA Fest what do you expect to see productivity-wise from the Kingdom Trails Association and the trail crew?Abby:
We have a staff in the summer months that grows to 30 people, and that includes trail crew welcome center staff, ambassadors, along with our regular full-time folks, all of whom devote all of their time a solid two weeks leading up to the event, and this doesn't even count Lilias, our marketing and events manager organizing and planning this for literally an entire year. She gets to work on the next NEMBA Fest as soon as it’s over.
We are very excited to be able to gain that time back, and put it towards some new efforts because since we are trying to refocus and bring our attention back to our community. We brought back annual volunteer days every summer, but we will look to engage our community more and have folks join us for monthly or weekly volunteer days. We hope it will give the community a new sense of ownership of the trails as they're a part of building or cleaning or maintaining the trails.
We also have an AmeriCorps youth education outreach coordinator who's been in the schools every day, and she gets kiddos out on the trails every single day. She's able to teach some environmental experiential education while out there, and so we will be putting some energy towards more of that, and hopefully allowing for it to go beyond youths,. Adding some adult programming would be healthy as well.
It's that blessing in disguise even though it doesn't always feel like it. It's kind of re-energizing to think of new initiatives we can bring to the forefront again.
Do you think that being in a close-knit community like East Burke actually helps with getting through something like this?Abby
: I think so. I think that the tight-knit, smaller community has been helpful in immediately addressing some of the concerns of the community and the landowners. That’s not to discount what we're hearing online, because we are actually reading and learning from the comments on social media.
Our trail users are extremely valuable as well. Without people coming and joining us and experiencing our trails, the region wouldn't be thriving. I think one of the first things to address that is through the open letters that we've been publishing, not just to our local community, but to trail users elsewhere as well. We have the public forum coming next week, and for folks who can't attend, they are still able to submit feedback through a website we made that's dedicated to that feasibility and capacity study, so we do hope to gain a lot of thoughts, suggestions, and opinions from that population as well.
What do you want people to know about how you guys are moving forward?Abby
: You know, I think by no means will it be easy to navigate this. It is a challenge and it is stressful because we know we must do right by the community, and there are a lot of folks in the region that depend upon the economic value that we bring. So we’re really trying to manage this situation with grace and civility.
We also need to remember to listen. This is an opportunity we need to seize. This is our chance to reset by not losing sight of why we exist and who we exist for. Our purpose is to uplift the community, and therefore we need to listen to them, engage with them, and take direction from them.
All the while we need to make sure that folks around the world know that we're still alive and well, and that we still welcome everybody to come enjoy our incredible terrain and beautiful landscape and amazing, unique Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont.
It's not like there's not room for additional growth and additional trails to come in.Abby
: No, definitely not. I mean, we have some things on the docket this summer, particularly some collaborative efforts we're doing with the neighboring towns and with other landowners that are really exciting.
I would think that while you have to acknowledge the challenging time currently, there's no reason to lose hope that you're not going to come out of this stronger.Abby
: Darling Hill is stunning. It is absolutely stunning and it is home to some of the original
trails, some really fun trails, and this restricted access is difficult to swallow for a lot of people. Folks are upset because they may have lost some of their favorite routes. I'm a creature of habit too, and I do the same loop oftentimes after work, and that route has now been disrupted. However, we're going to show people that we still offer an amazing experience for all levels. We're going to work hard over the next couple months before the summer season opens to create and show off some of these new routes and get everyone excited so that they still come up and support our amazing region.
For membership, landowner, and event information, please visit the Kingdom Trail Association website.
Follow the KTA on Facebook for further updates on this matter as well as daily trail condition reports.
On Tuesday, February 11 the Kingdom Trail Association will be hosting a public workshop to collect input on the community’s vision for the future of the trail system. The event will be held at the Burke Town School Gym between 5:00-7:30 pm and is open to the public. For more information on the Network Capacity Study, as well as public input opportunities, check out the project website.