Trail Runner’s Using Technology to Improve Data Collection for Trail Maintenance

Editors Note: Like many trail runners you may be wondering how to give back to the trails you enjoy. We’ve created a directory of over 180 groups that organize trail maintenance, trail building and conduct trail advocacy. At the American Trail Running Association we encourage everyone to get out and enjoy the mountains, parks and trails. We also want to encourage trail runners to give back to these lands by getting involved and helping keep our trails accessible and healthy for future generations.

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting with the president of a Colorado-based trail maintenance organization, 61 year old Peter Vrolijk, from Friends of Mount Evans and Lost Creek Wilderness (FOMELC). With the goal of aiding the local forest service in providing more accurate and up to date information about the trail systems in the Mount Evans and Lost Creek Wilderness areas, FOMELC has developed a data collection app that can be used by trail runners to acquire data for the US Forest Service. In the interview below, Evergreen resident Vrolijk gives us an inside look into what this project is all about and how trail runners can get involved.

TAYTE: How did you become involved with FOMELC?

PETER: I started as a volunteer with FOMELC last year after finding their booth at a local home & garden show and stopping to get information about trails in the local wilderness areas suitable for running (e.g., what streams provide availability to filter water late into the summer?). In 2018, I conducted a number of trail surveys and patrols, participated in trail maintenance projects, including clearing downed trees and clearing water bars, and participated in invasive species (weed) identification, surveying, and treatment.

Last month, I became chair of the FOMELC board, and in addition to the field activities I pursued last year, I now have the additional shared responsibilities of fund-raising, grant writing, interfacing with the US Forest Service (who steward both Mount Evans and Lost Creek wilderness areas), and fulfilling required administrative duties (completing and filing paperwork).

Example of broken bridge. Peter Vrolijk and I used their data collection app to report this bridge on the Hell’s Hole trail in the Mount Evans Wilderness Area is in need of repair.

TAYTE: What kind of work does FOMELC do?

PETER: FOMELC is a 100% volunteer organization dedicated to the stewardship of the 194,400 acres and more than 170 miles of trails in the Mount Evans and Lost Creek Wilderness areas. Our activities include: (a) trail surveys and patrols that document the state of wilderness, problems to be addressed, and interactions with trail users; (b) trail maintenance activities, including clearing downed trees from trails, improving trails undergoing erosion and high usage, and repairing and installing bridges where needed; (c) invasive species identification, mapping, and treatment; in particular, orange hawkweed, Canada thistle, Musk thistle, and Common Mullein; (d) education and outreach, including interactions with trail users to inform on Leave No Trace principles, hosting Boys & Girls Club wilderness events, and hosting Trailhead Ambassador programs to provide trail information and inform about Leave No Trace principles.

We currently have 87 volunteer members, and our monthly newsletter is sent to almost 700 people. We partner with other volunteer organizations working in these wilderness areas, including Volunteers of Colorado and Back Country Horsemen.

Peter Vrolijk

TAYTE: How can trail runners contribute to FOMELC?

PETER: Trail runners can contribute to FOMELC goals by: (1) participating in trail runs combined with trail surveys. Runners can either support my trail runs/surveys by joining me (most of my runs/surveys were done last year with other runners who aren’t volunteers) or conducting her or his own run/survey (some training required). (2) Participating in trail maintenance projects (some already do). A calendar of planned events will be posted on our website which will be upgraded and active in a couple of weeks. (3) Donate to FOMELC.

TAYTE: Could you describe FOMELC’s “trail surveys” and data collection process. What are the added responsibilities for a trail runner when conducting a trail survey?

PETER: I include trail surveys which utilize a smart-phone app developed by FOMELC’s US Forest Service liaison, Ralph Bradt. The results allow me to record significant observations as I go along the trail. This phone app uses the GPS function of the phone to record location, and the app provides specific questions to answer with pull-down lists. With the app I can record the location, size, and condition of a downed tree in less than a minute while an illegal campsite or invasive weed infestation may require a few minutes to properly record. I estimate that a combined run/survey takes me 30-50% longer than just a run over the same trail, depending on conditions to be recorded.

Results are then downloaded from my phone to the internet as soon as I return home, and I can see the results of my efforts immediately on a summary map available on the internet. As a result of my combining runs/surveys last year, FOMELC for the first time completed surveys on 100% of the trails in the two wilderness areas. However, I will admit, that the first couple of runs I did while surveying caused me a bit of frustration because I had to interrupt my run, stop, and input data. I overcame this frustration by becoming more experienced and efficient with the app, and by coming to terms that this was just a different kind of run than the one that I was used to, one that would provide me with a different kind of satisfaction and reward.

[End Interview]

Going Beyond the Mount Evans and Lost Creek Wilderness: Why Similar Data Collection Apps Should Be Developed in Wilderness Areas Across the Country.

Wilderness, with a capital “W” refers to federally protected land with specific regulations to limit human impact and preserve the land’s natural state. The federal agencies responsible for protecting Wilderness do not always have the available resources and funding to fully maintain such lands, which gives additional relevance to nonprofits such as FOMELC who work closely with their local forest service to maintain Wilderness trails. FOMELC’s data collection app has been a huge success for protecting Wilderness trails. As Vrolijk stated in our interview, the introduction of the app last year allowed 2018 to be the first year ever where the US Forest Service had complete trail coverage data over the trails in their area.

The app is also an easy way to grow public involvement and interest in trail maintenance. Trail runners in particular are perhaps the best group in the public sector to use such a data collection app. Many trail runners are actively involved in trail maintenance or volunteer work, they are able to collect large amounts of trail data during their runs, and they have many reasons to benefit from such an app. Some benefits are listed below.

Encourages Trail Runners to Explore New Trails.
One goal of the app is to increase data coverage of trails for the local forest service. Trail runners may find additional incentive to run on trails not yet covered, thereby increasing trail coverage while also enjoying new trails.

Provides Insight into Poor Trail Conditions.
Trail runners could use the app to avoid poor trail conditions. The app could inform runners about downed trees, rock slides, or other natural obstacles affecting passage on trails, or worn, vandalized, or missing signage.Trail runners could avoid these inconveniences by choosing to run other trails.

Protects More Trails.
Having more trails maintained by the US Forest Service means more choices for trail runners and potentially, fewer trail closures due to wear and tear. With trail runners working alongside agency representatives, well-maintained trails will be the result.

FOMELC’s data collection app is a simple tool that can greatly assist the US Forest Service in their inventory of trail conditions, and maintenance of trails in Wilderness areas across the country. Trail runners are in a unique position to both benefit from the app, while also being the best group in the public sector to help their local forest service achieve full trail data coverage.

For those looking to learn more about FOMELC, contact Vrolijk at [email protected] or creator of the data collection app and FOMELC liaison to the US Forest Service, Ralph Bradt, at [email protected]. Both Vrolijk and Bradt have expressed their enthusiasm to support those wishing to develop similar data collections apps in their own Wilderness areas. Don’t hesitate to reach out!