It pays for small towns to invest in trail systems

Piper Sadler photographed by Salt Cycles

There is a well-documented correlation between a population’s health and wealth. Simply put, stronger economies consist of healthier people. Why?

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that wealthy populations enjoy the means to take better care of themselves. But there also exists evidence in support of the inverse—that healthier people are more productive and thus wealthier. And when attempting to solve the chicken-and-egg question of health versus wealth, a seemingly unlikely data point offers another puzzle piece: public trail systems. 

A 2020 report from Destination Hikers ranked America’s 50 states by combined miles of public hiking and mountain biking trails. Among the top 10 were California, Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts and Utah. Among the 10 states at the bottom of the list were West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The gulf separating the top and bottom 10 states is enormous, with the top 10 averaging over 8,000 miles of trails versus less than 400 miles on average for the bottom 10. On the extreme ends, California’s 39 million residents share 18,000 miles of trails, while Louisiana’s 4.6 million share just 181 miles. 

A Forbes study last updated in Jan. 2023 graded states by measures of health. Among the states at the top of the list? Utah, Colorado, Washington, Massachusetts and California. Rounding out the bottom? West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

US News maintains an authoritative ranking of states by economic strength, which very closely mirrors the above two. 

What’s driving this correlation? Given how relatively inexpensive trails are to access, create and maintain, economics fails to be the obvious answer. And while the link between the availability and proximity of public trails with the unambiguously improved health outcomes enjoyed by those around them is well established, plotting a straight line from recreation to health to wealth is oversimplifying things, according to Jordan Smith, director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at Utah State University

“The more that you drive any one of those three variables, the more you’re going to drive the other two,” Smith says. “A stronger economy attracts healthier people, who demand more outdoor recreation infrastructure, which makes for a healthier, more productive workforce, which grows the economy, which attracts healthier people. It all creates a positive feedback loop. We’re starting to see more and more local and regional governments approach outdoor recreation infrastructure as a very reliable button they can push to get benefits in both health and economy.”

The fact that trail development tends to be the area where outdoor recreation resources are invested makes good sense, according to Sarah Bennett, executive director of Trails Utah, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to trail advocacy, planning, funding and building.

“Trails offer such bang for the buck in their ability to attract people and enrich communities,” Bennett says. “A golf course costs millions and millions to build and maintain. Foot per foot, tennis courts, swimming pools and soccer fields cost much more than trails, which are an absolute bargain.”

Bennett says the benefits of trail building are particularly impactful in rural Utah. That story needs to be told in two parts: how it started and how it’s going. 

How it started

Dedicated mountain bikers tend to know the lore by heart: In the mid-1980s, a crash in the price of uranium left the mostly inconsequential eastern Utah mining town of Moab on the ropes. At about that same time, a local entrepreneur and cycling enthusiast learned of newly invented, off-road-adapted bikes gaining traction in Marin County, California and suspected they might do well on Moab’s Slickrock Trail, which was originally developed for motorcyclists. The outcome was the launch of the now-famous Rim Cyclery bike shop and the transformation of not just a town but an entire sport. 

Within 10 years, the annual economic benefit of the Slickrock Trail alone came to exceed $8 million, according to Headwaters Economics

How it’s going

Today, 3 million visitors make the pilgrimage to the mountain biking mecca that is Moab each year, resulting in occasionally comedic levels of trail overcrowding. 

“Today, you go to Moab and it’s overrun. That has people looking for other places like it. You have these smaller towns trying to peel some of that away from Moab and create the same sort of vibe,” says Devrin Carlson-Smith, an e-commerce executive who moonlights as a coach for Park City High School’s mountain bike racing team. His racers participate in events organized by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), primarily in blue-collar Utah towns historically passed over by tourists such as Price, Manti, Mantua and Richfield.

Carlson-Smith’s vantage is informed by the impact he’s seen NICA have firsthand on these communities, both directly and indirectly. 

The direct benefits result from hosting thousands of racers and their families, who spend, according to Utah High School Cycling League Executive Director Dallen Atack, more than a cumulative $300,000 each weekend filling every available hotel room, campground, restaurant table and gas tank. In order to host NICA events, these towns first take the risk—generally on the order of $20,000 per trail mile—of building a race course meeting very specific criteria. Often, these trails are the first of their kind in the area.  

“I call our courses the gateway drug,” says Jake Weber, a retired Army combat engineer who currently occupies himself as a venue designer for the Utah league. “A perfect NICA course is 5.5 miles long and has 500 feet of climbing. Not super exciting [by recreational mountain biking standards]. But after it’s built, people try it, and it gets tens of thousands of hours of use a year, and they get hooked.” 

Weber points to Richfield as the model. 

Photos courtesy of Jordan Jeffs

Richfield built it, and they came

Dennis Jorgensen, the owner of Jorgensen Powersports in Richfield, organized Sevier County’s first mountain bike racing team in 2013. He then offered to split the cost of building a NICA course with the local government.  

“I wanted the county and city to get committed. When they saw that I was willing to invest, they were more willing to as well,” Jorgensen says. 

“Investment” is the right word for it, as NICA approved the course and began scheduling races there. The course and the economic impact directly tied to it clearly provided the proof of concept Jorgensen expected it would. 

“We then worked with the Forest Service and [Bureau of Land Management] (BLM) to develop a real trail system, similar to what Moab has, because everyone could see the benefits and growth,” Jorgensen says. “Since that’s been happening, we’ve had an explosion of people coming to Richfield to ride our trails, which are better than anywhere else, don’t have the crowds that Moab does and are two hours closer to the Wasatch Front.”

Jorgensen’s store initially focused on ATV sales and service, driven by events like the Rocky Mountain ATV Jamboree. In recent years, that focus has shifted substantially in favor of mountain bikes. Over the past decade, Weber has watched Jorgensen Powersports’ product offerings evolve. 

“Their bicycle department has grown so much bigger than what a town that size normally justifies. It’s huge,” Weber says.

And they keep coming

Jorgensen makes no effort to mask the fact that his altruism may have been motivated by the opportunity he saw.

“I donated the money that went into building that trail knowing that I would eventually see the economic benefit for my store but also because I wanted to ride these trails,” he says with a laugh. 

Jorgensen adds that no specific effort has been made to quantify the broader economic benefit generated by Richfield’s trail-building investment, which may be because it’s so obvious as not to be needed. He simply calls it “substantial.”

Richfield Mayor Bryan Burrows was a city council member that originally voted to take a chance on Jorgensen’s Field-of-Dreams-like venture. He failed to fully grasp the importance of that vote until he attended Richfield’s first NICA event, with its thousands of participants coursing in and out of a tent city covering several acres.

“It’s almost like we have a whole other community set up over there,” Burrows says. “It’s been an amazing thing. We have the ATV Jamboree, which we’ve touted for a long time, but this is more impactful than that.”

Burrows is especially enthusiastic about the many opportunities for service and employment trail building and maintenance provide to Richfield’s youth. “I’ve not seen a downside to it, and typically that’s not how things work,” he says.

"A stronger economy attracts healthier people, who demand more outdoor recreation infrastructure, which makes for a healthier, more productive workforce, which grows the economy, which attracts healthier people. It all creates a positive feedback loop. We’re starting to see more and more local and regional governments approach outdoor recreation infrastructure as a very reliable button they can push to get benefits in both health and economy."

Photo courtesy of Jordan Jeffs

Rural Utah is lining up

This conspicuous lack of drawbacks has caught the attention of towns throughout rural Utah. While attending the 2022 Utah Trails Forum, Weber says he was approached by multiple small-town city planners, each eager to get a NICA course built in their area. 

“Five years ago, I was begging land owners to let us come out and build trails,” Weber says. “Now, the BLM and counties are knocking down my door, begging us to build them.”

While the connection between a state’s health, economic strength and public trail mileage data is meaningful, these aggregates reflect the many circumstances and choices made by individuals whose decisions are more likely to be driven by what they see in front of them versus what is happening at the scale of millions of people living within the same imaginary lines on a map. 

Weber says at least one home builder understands this and uses it to his commercial advantage.

“I know a builder who built an excellent single-track trail system in the hills surrounding his development with his own money, free for the entire community to use. He believes that at least 30 percent of his home sales are because of those trails,” Weber says. “Active people want a trail system in their backyard, so they’re buying these homes.”

Utah is the success model

As president of NICA, Amanda Carey has a nationwide perspective on the state of mountain biking and the trail systems that support the sport. She is very familiar with Utah’s exceptionalism on both fronts.

“Utah is special. There is a confluence of amazing factors that made the numbers and participation of Utah’s league, which is now the largest in the country, explode. And that’s due in part to great leadership, volunteers and a very involved community,” Carey says. “But in Utah, you also have population density close to trails. It makes it easy for people to get into and remain in the habit of being healthy and getting outside.”

Carey says that while rural communities lack the Wasatch Front’s adoption-driving population density, they greatly benefit from their own unique place in the recreation ecosystem.

“A lot of these trail-building initiatives we’ve seen spread into Utah’s rural communities are taking advantage of the way mountain bikers love traveling to ride their bikes. This makes it easy to get into that habit where people say, ‘When we go on vacation, we ride our bikes or go hiking and access these trails.’”  

Carey is well aware of the economic impact NICA has on race-host towns. Still, she is quick to redirect the conversation back to its impact on health and wellness—specifically for student participants. She points to the NICA mission statement, which notably makes no mention of competition: “We build strong minds, bodies, character and communities through cycling.”

“We first identify as a youth development organization rather than a sports organization. We just happened to pick mountain biking as the tool,” Carey says. “We look at Utah as the success model and not just for the amount of kids that are riding. One of the core NICA values is ‘community.’ What we have seen in the Utah NICA organization, in particular, is a strong community organized around developing healthy, happy people.”

Judd Bagley is a Lehi, Utah based marketing and communications professional who launched his career in journalism, temporarily leaving that calling to raise a family. He always vowed to return to journalism, he is.