By Lucy Higgins • May 22, 2023
In this second installment of our interview with Mike Passo, the Executive Director at American Trails, we catch up to hear more details on the International Trails Summit. In this portion of the interview, we chat about the international focus on the conference, and how that scope is influencing both the culture of trails in the U.S. and abroad, and its impact on tangible outcomes of trail modernization. Passo also debriefs on the offsite day of the summit, and what’s next in the world of adaptive biking. —Lucy Higgins
Lucy Higgins: I’m curious about the international aspect that goes into the International Trails Summit. What’s that look like? Who’s coming in, and what do those conversations look like?
Mike Passo: Internationally, they’ve done a better job than in the U.S. of connecting trails to rural economic development and tourism. North America has a lot to learn from the way that Costa Rica has based their entire country around trail experiences and invested on the national level in trails, unlike in America. Obviously we invest federally, but there’s more of a cohesive national presence in places like Costa Rica, and Brazil, South Africa, Australia. There’s just federal investment in trails as infrastructure that isn’t realized in America yet.
And vice versa, international groups recognize America’s expertise in the technical aspect or trail building and sustainability–this is the center of that knowledge. Therefore, they’re hungry to learn from the experiences that we get from our National Trail Systems Act and the way that there are professionals creating an industry—that’s unique to the world. Americans are on the forefront of creating an industry around creating trails.
We gave awards to the Brazilian Trails Network. They’re spearheading in partnership with the Pan American Trails Network; they’re launching an initiate based on the Appalachian Trail 100 years ago. This is a trail network that spans northern Alaska to the bottom of Chile. It’s creating a trail that goes the entire length, but that also has a sister network that goes through the Appalachian Trail then down through the Caribbean to Venezuela and Brazil. It’s an exciting concept that’s generational. What I think is super cool about it is that our national trail system has a lot to add to those networks, but it’s being led by a South American trails network, and that’s exciting to me to have that interplay in leadership. They didn’t launch the concept, but they did launch the initiative at the summit.
LH: That’s huge. So what else next? The Pan American project is emerging–are there any other big projects we should know about?
MP: There’s an effort by a bunch of trail builders that’s being led by the Professional Trail Builders Association called the Trails Skills Project that is building trail-training core competencies and working closely with community colleges and higher education throughout the country to create a career path to get into trails. Similar to the construction industry, it would mirror a path where you can get all kinds of certifications and credentials. We’re developing that career pathway consistency across the country. I’m super excited about it, it has the potential to transform the trails industry. PTBA can’t hire enough people, and people don’t know you can actually work in trails for a living. It’s not well understood and it’s volunteer driven. There’s no other industry that’s critical to our infrastructure that’s volunteer driven. That needs to change.
LH: Is there anything else coming out of the conference that we should know about?
MP: We did an offsite day and took the entire conference out to a park. There were 18 mini excavators and trial dozers people could try out. There were pack goats, horse-packing demos, and outdoor workshops where you learned how to run a stand-behind dozer, and all kinds of hands on stuff.
It was kind of a last minute add, but a super cool addition was two trailers full of adaptive mountain bikes from Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra and Move United. They brought in 10 different styles of adaptive bikes and people were able to hop in them and try out the different versions. I heard so many people say, ‘I’ve known we need to design for these new techs coming through but had no idea why or how.”
They had these amazing aha moments being on a vehicle and understanding how cross slope is so critical to those 36” wide vehicles, and I think just a huge number of people had their minds opened by actually trying them out. Now when they go home, the trails that they build will be even just a little more accommodating to some of these new technologies. I use a wheelchair and have adaptive bikes, and I had no idea there were that many of them. It blew me away. I rode the coolest things I’ve ever been on. It’s e-assist. You’re sitting upright and it has these two front tires sitting out kind of either side of your knees, and they articulate. So when you have cross slope, you don’t get tipped over. They’re a game changer. They’re only 29” wide and they allow for that cross slope, and I was able to tear through single track like I’ve never been able to do, it was one of the most fun things I’ve done in years.
Mike was also interviewed by the local Channel 2 News. Check out the video below: