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Meet a Trail Champion: Susie Murphy

Meet a Trail Champion: Susie Murphy

Advocating for Trails in Southern California

By: Isobel Feiges
Posted: September 27, 2022
Photo courtesy of: Jose Galaz

What is the definition of a trail champion? These select few are leaders in their community who have bestowed their knowledge, influence, and passion into building the best local trails.

We are celebrating these trail champions through a Q&A style blog series. These local leaders have been nominated by members of their communities and have agreed to share insights into their success.

Meet trail champion, Susie Murphy, Executive Director of the San Diego Mountain Biking Association.

Susie speaking to young mountain bikers during the 2021 Take a Kid Mountain Biking Day hosted by Sprockids San Diego. Photo courtesy of Sprockids.
IMBA: Tell us about your experience with mountain biking.

Susie:I started riding mountain bikes in the early 1990's in order to follow my husband who had taken up riding with our young daughter in a backpack. I just needed to keep an eye on them, but we soon discovered a family pastime that took us on many adventures. Some of our best times were camping at Sea Otter, traveling to races down in Baja and around the west, and going to 24 Hour races with all of our friends. After 10 years of racing various disciplines and also volunteering at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park the trail advocacy bug really took hold. I love mountain biking because of the people you get to meet, the good times, and the fabulous places you get to visit. And on top of that, as a native San Diegan, I love to really get to know every nook and cranny of our amazing San Diego County.

IMBA: What partnerships have been the most successful for you in creating more trails in your area?

Susie: Southern California is a particularly challenging place to be a trail advocate because of so many constraints on land use and the amazing biodiversity and cultural resources of the area. The partnerships that have been most successful for us have come from relationships built over time with land managers who have the experience and passion to develop more recreational opportunities in their areas. We have a great partnership with the Cleveland National Forest, for example. Success also comes when agency staff members can stay in their local positions for at least several years so they can really dig into projects and management plans. In any agency, a big challenge is when staff members change positions or locations every couple of years. We have had success with the County and City of San Diego and with smaller local jurisdictions as well but in every case it is because someone on the staff believed in the vision for more trails for San Diego.

IMBA: What advice would you give to communities that want to see more trails near them?

Susie: A top priority is always creating relationships with local land managers. Understand who is managing your local areas and what their stance is on developing improved recreational trails. Find those rangers or decision makers, including elected officials who are friendly to recreation. Do they hike, ride or trail run? Take them out on a field trip! Then build trust by starting with small projects. Even cleaning up litter in the area and pulling in other stakeholders can go a long way to building trust. Do your homework and always come to the table by offering help and solutions. Another big aspect is to understand all the trail users in your area and learn what sort of experiences they are after and how their needs can be balanced with the resources and land use opportunities that are available. Another top priority is to make sure your local trail organization has the help they need. Do they need board members or event and trail volunteers? Is there a local planning group or Parks and Rec Commission that needs a mountain biker at the table? Do you need to start a formal trail organization in your area? Work to find a donor(s) who will pay for the formation of a 501c3 non-profit and then get to work!

Susie working at the SDMBA table during an event. Photo courtesy of Jose Galaz.
IMBA: What resources have you found most helpful in guiding the trail vision you have for your community?

Susie: We often look to other areas and trail organizations that have had success to guide our vision for trails in San Diego County. As SDMBA has grown we have really gotten a lot of great guidance from other groups. Working with like minded non-profits has helped inform our work, gather funding and build community and consensus all at the same time. As an affiliate member organization of both IMBA and the California Mountain Biking Coalition are very important as they work on larger trail advocacy efforts at national and statewide levels with agencies like California State Parks and the US Forest service. The high level work of these organizations allows us to focus on our local opportunities and challenges while using the resources they provide to bolster our efforts. Other resources come from our staff and volunteers who bring skills such as mapping, project management, land use planning, grant writing, event planning, fundraising and development, non-profit management and more.

IMBA: People forget that trails don’t just fall from the sky. What support do you wish you had when you were starting this work?

Susie: It is still amazing to me when I run across people who just don’t understand that trail work is a thing. Even just trimming maintenance is very important to keeping trails enjoyable for everyone. When I started getting involved with trail advocacy I can’t believe how much I didn’t know. So many land managers, so many agencies, so many different rules, regulations and planning processes. I have learned so much and I still learn new things every day about this process. Admittedly, anyone jumping into this game can get easily discouraged. I find that most of the trail advocates I know who have been in for the long haul are an equal combination of passion, vision and stubbornness. If I could wish for more support (when I started or even now after seven years in) I would wish for everyone who believes in the mission of more trails to spread the word to their friends and gather more members and support for local trail organizations.

Susie riding during an SDMBA event. Photo courtesy of Jose Galaz.
IMBA: There is often trepidation around trails. How have you energized your community around a vision for more trails?

Susie: Trails are very personal to people. Any proposed change or future plans can be met with opposition. Sometimes the opposition comes from trail users, sometimes from land managers who just want to keep the status quo and sometimes from certain stakeholders who would rather see areas preserved with no human access. The old adage “You can’t make everyone happy” is one I use often. I believe there must be a balance of recreation and conservation in our open spaces especially in our urban and suburban areas of San Diego County. This is the only realistic way forward. We attempt to describe the need for trails for all types of users while at the same time keeping mountain biking access front and center. Some people still consider us the new kid on the block. That sort of thinking needs to be debunked so the pace of trail development can attempt to keep up with the immense need. As in most areas, we have a need for more progressive mountain bike optimized trails while are the same time maintaining what is already here. Our work is often wonky and can’t be told in a 15 second tik tok video. But for those who have the patience to learn, we try to tell the story of any given trail project with all of its challenges and milestones reached. The more people we can get to listen to the story, the more they will value the trails and the precious open spaces we have available to us.

IMBA: We know that Trail Champions don’t work alone. Who’s on your team for more trails?

Susie: It definitely takes a village of folks to do this work. Our members and donors are really the ones who support so much of what we do. We value each one of them as we know that they really believe in the value of building the relationships and being at the meetings where decisions are made…so many meetings! SDMBA currently has a staff of three and also hires at least one seasonal, winter trail specialist. Our staff is multi-talented and achieves quite a lot for a small team. Of course, the staff is supported by our board of directors and other amazing volunteers who help in so many ways. We also value all the time of the people who had the vision to found SDMBA in 1994 and who built the foundation upon which we continue to grow. We also value our land manager partners, some of whom we have worked with for many years, who believe in increased trail opportunities for San Diego County. We have many loyal corporate sponsors as well who help support our trail work projects and our events.

Susie riding during an SDMBA event. Photo courtesy of Jose Galaz.

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