All trails need maintenance every year, even if it is only a check on the trail conditions. Proper trail location and design will certainly minimize the amount and rate of trail degradation, but effective maintenance is essential to repair the impacts of that degradation process. Maintenance is so important to the Great Trail Continuum; it can perpetuate a great trail, and the lack of it can destroy a great trail.
The Maintenance Process
Having a defined process helps the managers and maintenance personnel ensure that maintenance not only occurs but is timely and effective. Managers can increase accountability and quality by assigning the following steps to specific personnel.
Develop a maintenance plan. There are two parts to this. There needs to be a long-term programmatic plan that outlines maintenance objectives and how they will be accomplished. It also establishes personnel, equipment, and material needs so that the required funding level can be identified and management can begin securing sources for that funding. There also needs to be an annual maintenance plan that outlines specific maintenance items, who will accomplish them, and how they will be accomplished. This plan can be used as a tracking tool since items can be checked off as they are performed.
Develop maintenance specifications. Many agencies have generic maintenance specifications, but if those are not available or if they do not meet the agencies’ specific needs, then applicable specifications need to be written. The specifications are essential for accountability, quality control, and consistency in the maintenance performed. No matter who performs the work, everyone should have the same vision.
Perform condition surveys.
Regular condition surveys will identify maintenance needs so they can be addressed before a structure deteriorates to the point that it is non-functional and a risk to the public and the agency.
Routine condition surveys or assessments form the backbone of the annual maintenance plan by identifying maintenance needs.
Items from the condition survey (or surveys) need to be prioritized and organized in a logical progression that will make efficient use of the personnel and equipment. Sometimes, the needs exceed the capabilities due to a lack of funding, equipment or material availability, or a suitable weather window. The items that don’t make it on the annual plan become backlog maintenance items. These items should become maintenance priorities in the next annual plan. The danger of a backlog is that once a program gets behind, it is very difficult to catch up without an increase in infrastructure and funding. The goal of the long-range maintenance plan is to foresee heavy maintenance or replacement needs and get those into the program so there are no surprises or deficiencies in infrastructure when they arise.
Tip, Trick or Trap?
Trap: Avoid having a backlog of maintenance. Once maintenance gets behind schedule, it’s very hard to get back on track, so the backlog tends to grow rather than shrink.
The next step is to schedule the work, sequence it, identify who will perform it, and decide roughly when it will be accomplished.
Performance of the work can be by volunteers, force account, contract, or a combination of all. No matter who does the work, there is a need for oversight and quality control. The maintenance objectives cannot be achieved without quality work.
Record and report.
If it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. Recording the performance of maintenance helps managers and the maintenance personnel track accomplishments of the annual plan and ensure that other work stays on schedule. Progress reports are required for most grants, so accurate record-keeping facilitates the timely preparation of those reports.
Sometimes, due to unusual weather conditions or other unforeseen priorities (fire emergencies, equipment breakdowns, etc.), work that is scheduled doesn’t get performed or completely performed. It is important to record any deficiencies so that these work items don’t get lost and forgotten. These items also get added to the backlog maintenance list and should be a priority in the next annual maintenance plan.
Required Skills for Maintenance Personnel
The skills maintenance personnel need are often underestimated and undervalued. Just like planning, location and design, and implementation, the required skill set is complex and diverse. Quality and efficiency are dependent on having personnel with journeyman-level skills and experience. Proficient maintenance workers should:
Understand the use. This includes the riders, their machines, their desired experiences, and the elements of challenge.
Understand the physical and natural forces. Many of the tasks and skills assigned to maintenance personnel require knowledge of engineering terms; horizontal and vertical alignments and how the alignments affect sustainability; the physical forces exerted by vehicles; and the natural forces of compaction, displacement, and erosion. Maintenance workers need to have at least a basic understanding of soils and know about tread watersheds, water sources, and the importance of water management.
A sight like this is commonplace, but it represents a water management issue. It’s important for maintenance personnel to recognize that it is an issue, determine the cause, and identify the solution.
Understand the equipment.
The same site after the solution was implemented: an improvement for the riders, the resources, and a sign of professional management.
Maintenance personnel need to know the types of maintenance equipment available and the capabilities of each. They must be proficient in each machine type they use.
Understand the TMO.
It is important for management and maintenance personnel to understand the TMO for the trail so they don’t unintentionally change the difficulty level or experience of a trail.
Personnel must understand the TMO. Created in planning and fine-tuned in design, the TMO gives important guidance on the intended riding experience and challenge level. It provides consistency in the vision throughout the continuum. There should be a specific TMO for each trail since each trail is different, and it’s important not to over- or under-maintain a trail since that can change the experience and functionality of the trail. Since volunteers perform much of the maintenance work, maintenance personnel need to understand the TMO so they can transfer that vision to the volunteers. That is not an easy task and is often overlooked.
Understand the 4Es.
Effective application of the 4Es is a fundamental principle in successful OHV management and maintenance. It is a process for recognizing an effect, determining the cause, applying the appropriate remedy, and evaluating its success.
Without an understanding of the physical and natural forces, maintenance personnel will not be able to detect symptoms before they become problems. Without a trained eye, they could overlook the rill that can turn into a rut and then into a ravine. This can lead to surprises, reactive maintenance, or heavier maintenance that may result in more work being added to the backlog list.
Identify the cause.
Using the 4Es, the next step is to determine the cause: Here is a rill. Why is it forming? Where is the water coming from?
Identify the solution.
Maintenance personnel need to understand the possible corrective actions and prescribe and implement the proper corrective action. What tools are required? What type of equipment? Who can best perform the work; volunteers, force account, or is the remedy beyond the capabilities on hand and a contract is required?
Implement the solution.
Finally, maintenance personnel need to be able to either perform or oversee the proper execution of the work. Timely implementation is the key to effective maintenance. Don’t put it off. Stay on the pro-active side and avoid the re-active side that could add to the backlog.
Tip, Trick or Trap?
Tip: After construction, reconstruction, or heavy maintenance, keep the trail closed for a couple of weather events.
Once a program has been in place for a few years, the frequency of required maintenance on each trail will become evident. A change in that frequency could be an indicator of something else going on.
Unusually wet or dry conditions that can inhibit effective maintenance work.
Catastrophic events can be draining to maintenance resources. They will happen, so it is wise to set aside resources for them, if possible.
This could include wildfires, floods, and windstorms. These events can put a significant drain on maintenance and funding resources.
Level and types of uses.
A trail can lose its sustainability if the level of use or type of use changed. It can make a difference if there are 10 vehicles per day or 100. If the vehicle type changes, the forces exerted on the trail tread can change, which can result in the need for more frequent maintenance.
Season of use.
As a trail or trail system starts receiving more use, some riders will choose to ride midweek rather than the weekend or during the off-season when there are fewer riders. This can enhance the quality of the rider experience, but it can also create more tread impacts if the off-season is the excessively wet or dry season.
Inattention to red flags.
A deficiency in maintenance skills can produce a lack of cognizance of bigger issues and an understanding of what is really going on. Repeated or more frequent repair of the same problem on the same trail is an indicator of a bigger issue that more than likely involves:
- Large tread watershed
- Poor soils
- Poor location
- Poor design
Here are some tips and tricks to help maintain the design and the quality of the experience.
Keep the trail treads narrow.
Trees are a valuable resource for many reasons. Rather than cut the tree, this one was notched to provide handlebar clearance. It keeps the clearing narrow and also increases the rider experience. Know your tree species. Some cannot tolerate a notch or a notch that is too deep.
Trails tend to widen out over time through use and maintenance, but it’s important to keep the tread width as close as possible to the target design width in the TMO.
- Reduces tread watershed. Remember, managing water is a primary element in having a sustainable trail.
- Enhances rider experience. One of the fundamental principles for success is providing for the riders’ needs. It is essential that the maintenance team keeps the quality of that experience.
- Reduces speed. Speed causes issues. Reducing speed reduces potential impacts and resulting maintenance. It enhances the seat time and rider experience.
- Improves trail harmony. A trail needs to feel like a trail and look like a trail, not a highway through the forest. Having the trail harmonize with the landscape contributes to the riders’ overall perception of a great trail.
This road was starting to grow in and look like a trail, but cutting all of the saplings on the cutbank “to improve sight distance” changed that character in a matter of minutes.
Volunteers are a great asset, but only if they know what they are doing. Volunteers need to be trained in proper maintenance techniques and in the importance of complying with the TMO. At a work party, hand out copies of the TMO and typical drawings or sketches of the work to be done.
This is a very common sight: riders cutting out deadfall, but is it cut out properly, wide enough, and is the slash disposed out of the way? Regular inspection by maintenance personnel will answer these questions. A maintenance tip hotline will give riders a medium to report this activity or report other trees that were too big to cut.
Unnecessary risk. This log should be cut back at least another 4-5 feet. It would improve the aesthetics of the trail corridor as well.
Keep clearing narrow.
The trail alignment here is pretty straight and there was no real need for any pruning, but wholesale pruning on both sides of the tree trunks created a very open trail corridor. The result? Increased speed and diminished experience.
Tight clearing has the same benefits as the narrow tread above and helps create a recreation experience, not a transportation experience.
Manage sight distance.
Sight distance is a double-edged sword. Safety is often increased by pruning on the inside of curves so that riders can foresee oncoming traffic. This is good, but the downside is that when riders can see more, they tend to increase their speed, which negates the intent of the pruning. There are definitely places where pruning is desirable for safety, but consider the potential consequences before doing so. Selective pruning, the cutting of a few branches to create a sight hole through the vegetation, is better than wholesale pruning where everything is trimmed and the whole sight corridor is enlarged.
If they have to be cut, prune limbs flush with the trunk. A professional looking trail enhances the riders’ perceptions and can increase not only their experience but their compliance with rules and regulations.
This is perhaps the most important objective of maintenance. Trees fall down, treads saturate and fail, and structures break or fail. If something happens that creates an unsafe condition, fix it, mark it, or sign the trail as closed until the condition can be rectified. Logs that are suspended off the ground should be cut back well beyond the trail shoulder. Signs, especially warning and regulatory signs, need to be in place and legible. Prune encroaching limbs that obscure signs and impede adequate sight distance at road crossings, trail junctions, and other high traffic and high risk areas. Good customer service ties directly to how well rider and agency risk is managed.
Broken or illegible signs need to be replaced.
Replace missing signs and signs damaged by the sun, vandals, or critters. Use a level for correct position when installing posts or signs. Bullet holes beget more bullet holes. A great trail should appear professional. Crooked or damaged signs indicate the agency doesn’t care about the area.
Use clear tape.
Applying clear plastic tape over the decals on route markers and junction markers can triple the life of the signs. It deters damage from critters, vandals, weather, and UV deterioration.
Find the balance.
The TMO provides general guidance, but there is a balance between over- and under-maintaining a trail. If possible, find that balance and stay there. This can be difficult in wet climates and deciduous forests with heavy undergrowth. Maintenance can also be complicated when it is performed by crews from an outside entity that are only on site for a periodic basis.
Use the 4Es.
The 4Es are important and relevant to all trails.
Whether force account or volunteers perform the maintenance, everyone has personal bias. Those who don’t like riding rocks, remove the rocks; and those who don’t like riding over logs, cut out the logs. Try to avoid this bias by training personnel in proper techniques and by following the intent of the TMO.
Trail groomers are an effective and often necessary maintenance tool.
Trail groomers can be a very effective maintenance tool, especially on heavily used trails in poor soil types. Several light passes with a groomer are more effective than one heavy pass, plus it is much easier on the grooming and towing equipment.
Temporarily close the trail.
As in construction, it is beneficial to close the trail immediately after reconstruction or heavy maintenance. Letting the trail sit through several weather events allows natural compaction to occur and the maintenance efforts will last longer.
Manage road riders.
A few well-placed saplings can deter cutbank riders. Back it up with signing if you need to send a stronger message.
Some riders have a tendency to leave the roadbed and ride up on the cut banks. This activity scars the landscape and scars the public’s perception of OHV recreation. When cut bank riding occurs, signing alone generally is not effective, but signing and a few well-placed saplings on the cut bank will deter the use and send the message.
The top of this culvert has been damaged and will eventually break which compromises the integrity of the structure and increases agency risk.
Most geotextiles cannot withstand direct tire contact and some are not UV stabilized. Metal and plastic culverts can be damaged when exposed to direct tire impact. It is important to maintain the designed cover of soil or rock over these installations.
Keep structures functional.
This should be an obvious maintenance item, but in traveling around the country, the lack of structure maintenance is all too common and the impacts are evident: plugged culverts; cattle guards filled with dirt; lead-off ditches blocked with debris; breached rolling dips; broken gates, fences, and barriers; broken deck planks or rub rails on bridges and puncheon; and the list goes on. When structures are not functional, the objectives of maintenance are not being met and there is a breakdown in the program that managers need to fix.
Keep facilities clean, functional, and professional.
Due to a lack of training or awareness, maintenance personnel have bladed out the rolling dip at the top of this steep hill allowing water to run down and erode the slope.
The role that facilities play in communication, effective management, and quality customer service is important. Having maps in the map box or a clean toilet with toilet paper, deodorizer, and hand cleaner sends a positive message to the riders and says a lot about the agency’s commitment to quality.
Fortunately, the shape still identifies this as a stop sign, but the lack of color and retro-reflectivity makes the sign ineffective and increases risk. In addition, what message does this send to the public? Perhaps it’s okay to shoot and deface signs here. Is this the sign of a professional and quality program?
Have a light hand when operating equipment. Spinning a machine around can tear up the trail tread and damage any underlying geotextiles. Steel grousers can break concrete pavers and damage wood decking. This can be avoided by running the equipment on old conveyor belts or wood planks. This takes more time and effort, but it’s usually worth it to protect the investment and integrity of the structure. Use easy-outs or carefully find an obscure route around technical challenge features to preserve their integrity.
If the trail is on a road that hasn’t been converted, use material that blows down to increase the recreation experience. An uprooted stump can become a gateway. Blowdown trees can be cut out in an alternating pattern to create a serpentine alignment. Going up and around the end of a log can create a drain.
Using deadfall to enhance the trial.
Set up a maintenance tip hotline.
Leaving the tree down and routing the trail between the stump and the tree was a creative way for maintenance personnel to enhance the rider experience of this trail, while keeping to the TMOs.
The riders are on the trail more often than anyone else, so make it easy for them to report trees down or other maintenance issues. This could be via a dedicated phone line with an answering machine, email, webpage, or social media; whatever would work the best for the area and clientele. A hotline keeps the riders involved and the agency informed. It’s a win-win.
OHV recreation is a social experience and one objective is to have fun. It takes time for maintenance personnel to stop what they are doing, but if the riders want to talk, they should talk to them. In the process of promoting goodwill and customer service, it adds to the riders’ overall experience and maintenance personnel can learn a lot about the riders’ opinions of the trails, facilities, and program. If riders don’t want to talk, a smile and a wave of the hand is still communicating positively with the public.
Remove signs and barriers when no longer needed.
The trail that used to go up this draw is no longer discernable, but the barrier attracts the riders’ eyes and indicates that something used to be there and could tempt off-trail use. Management would be better served to photograph this site to document the success of the closure and then remove the barrier.
As part of implementation or closure, sometimes a high level of barriers and signing is needed to control and direct use. Maintenance personnel should monitor these installations. Once the use pattern has been successfully changed or vegetation has become re-established, having these signs and barriers can actually draw unwanted attention to the site as well as detract from the aesthetics. Removing these barriers and signs when they are no longer needed will reduce maintenance and replacement costs, ensure resource protection, and increase the rider experience.
Recognize when the fix is not the fix.
Red flags could be indicators of a trail that isn't where it should be. Taking repetitive actions can't turn a poor trail into a good trail. Over time, it can be more cost-effective to relocate the trail, even it it involves NEPA. This is a fix that is better for the riders, resources, management, and the maintenance budget.
Even with goggles, this stob is a face and eye stabber. Riders will tend to reach up and break it off, but sometimes that can make the issue worse rather than better. Limbs tend to rise and lower as the weather and seasons change. Manage your risk by keeping the height of the trail corridor well-pruned.
Monitoring occurred and off-trail use was discovered to be a fairly widespread issue. Putting up this bright orange closed tape as a barrier was cheap and fast, but it is UGLY. Worse than that, it’s a bandage that doesn’t address the real problem: lack of education, lack of patrolling, lack of enforcement, and lack of effective closure techniques. The aesthetics of the site was ruined, the rider experience was diminished, and the off-trail use is still an issue today.
The tape was put up, but never maintained or removed. Five years later, what remains is garbage and a testament to ineffective management.
Is this just a puddle or an indicator of something bigger? Upon inspection, the inlet of this culvert was obscured and completely plugged with debris. A lack of maintenance could cause this structure and the trail to fail.
A McLeod is a great maintenance tool. Sometimes, just taking the time to take a few swipes at a berm can keep drainage structures functional. It is important to have maintenance personnel trained to recognize seemingly minor issues before they become major problems and then be conscientious enough to stop their machine, get off, and do something about it.
The result of creativity and artistic vision: a great location, great trail, and great experience.