FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
TRAIL ADVOCACY IN A NUTSHELL
Every time we ride a trail, we may think of issues like the trail condition, how the trail could have been better built, that the trail should have been longer, maybe extend to the next hill across the highway and many other things these "planners" overlooked, or were not "experienced" enough to have figured out earlier. Yes, we all played Smart Alecks some times. But, look beyond your comments on what could have been done better, and you may have noticed that there are tons of effort put into every trail built. The very first question should have been: How did this trail came about?
WE LIVE AMONGST NON-RIDERS
Mountain bikers like to make the following complains:
– There are too few trails for the growing mountain-biker community
– The few trails in our area are over-utilized
– With only a few trails available and yet they are badly maintained, the authorities are clearly not doing their job
– Shared trails are dangerous, there should be signage stopping non-biking activities in these areas
– There's nothing wrong with us using an unused plot of land or forested area, it's vacant after all
– and the list goes on …
As mountain bikers, we are all "guilty" of saying at least one of the above statements (in varying degree of intensity) at some point in our riding days. Many of these statements may seem like harmless rants but they are only symptoms to a greater cause – the correct understanding of what effort had already been put into building the trail that we are riding on. What we need to first understand is that we live in a world where there are unlimited wants but limited resources. Everybody wants to have the best for themselves – including the use of limited and precious land. Regardless of whether a country has large or small geographical area, all land use are assigned and planned for. Some plans are made decades ago and only went through minor fine tuning before they are executed. Very often, the public will only have summarized information on it unless a certain individual sought to approach the authorities for more detailed information.
Presently, mountain bikers occupy only a very small percentage of any community's population. As such, allocation of land for off-road cycling has to be justified with the actual number of users. The usual safe bet by the planning authorities would be to design a shared-use facility for each plot of land. So we usually have off-road cycling, hiking, adventure activities and even equestrian (in some countries) all in the same area. Only in some extreme, purpose-built area would the area be exclusively catered to a single group of users.
It is safe to say that the user authorities' approving and planning team are usually not made up of mountain bikers only. Approved projects has initial consultations and forums with the user groups and then subsequently moved on to the most "neutral" execution plan. The end result may look like a "half-bucket" effort to all the end user groups. While we see this as room for improvement, we see no cause for anger or alarm (yet). There is always a channel for feedback. And when a community's need became more evident, it is time for a systematic and democratic approach to get what is wanted. Trail advocacy is a vital part of mountain biking.
Advocacy is defined as an act or process of supporting a cause or a proposal that one cares about within your community and taking informed and direct action to address the issue.
It is therefore worthwhile to have some understanding of the process so that the whole mountain biking community can
– pool efforts and resources together for the collective benefits of the mountain biking community
– avoid disrupting work-in-progress efforts by advocators
– have an understanding of the efforts and resources put into every advocacy
– help to brainstorm and contribute ideas and resources towards an established common cause
STEPS TO ADVOCACY
There are 4 main steps to getting your opinions heard by the authorities. Each step works towards a final complete and well thought out proposal.
(1) IDENTIFY THE ISSUE OF PUBLIC CONCERN
First off, we need to state what we are advocating, and why is is beneficial to the community. At this point, only the benefits need to be identified.
Eg: A new mountain biking trail with additional freeriding options at area XXX for mountain bikers, with adjacent hiking trail.
(2) IDENTIFY THE DECISION MAKERS
We then identify who would read this proposal. Eg: National Park Boards. As your proposal's reader, these decision makers deserve some attention. Do some research on their organization objectives and campaigns and see how your proposal can fit in or co-exist with their other projects.
(3) IDENTIFY RESOURCES
The next step is to list the following:
(a) The people involved who would help this project succeed. A description of their expertise and qualification would be helpful in getting the proposal through the doors. It is definitely helpful to have as many stakeholders from the various interest party involved as possible, this include parents from families of potential users, school representatives and public officials who have interest in youth or sports projects
(b) The cost estimates for the project. If the advocacy benefit is clear and there is a high chance of getting the approval, listing sponsors and supporters would show that there are parties that share the same visions and willing to pool significant resources to make it work. These are positive signs for the authorities to consider.
(c) The public awareness channels used during the project. This would gather more support and understanding from the general public during the various stages of the project. Internet and social media are currently the cheapest and most powerful.
(d) A good understanding of public policies or laws already in place is important when planning your proposal. Eg: A conflicting proposal that would affect wildlife protection in the area would definitely not be given the go-ahead.
(4) IDENTIFY ACTIONS
Educating the stake-holders is of extreme importance. We cannot stress that enough. (Ed: Alright, we wish to add that educating is an on-going process that will not stop even after the advocacy is completed. the various user groups will be increasing in population and communicating with them will extend into the later stages of the whole project)
The project leader need to educate himself/herself and the group on what information is necessary to become informed for the advocacy work? This is not as straight forward as it seems. Even within a same community, different folks will have different habits and best-practices. It is therefore important to gather a representative work group that can provide enough information to form a sound action plan. Of course the old saying of "too many cooks spoils the broth" remains, so a strong project leader is also important in maintaining group harmony and keep work efficient and effective.
The project group will then need to Identify where they need to go to get the information needed to become an expert to educate the decision-maker(s) that are going to have to be influenced. Again, having a good knowledge of the local law system and policies will give added advantage during the advocacy process.
When proposing an advocacy, 3 important factors has to be considered: (1) Local policy, (2) Official institutions (local authorities) and (3) Social Values. These 3 factors should be looked into to identify and solve problems within the proposal itself.
Some common advocacy strategies are listed below, although we prefer the less aggressive approaches;
– Using a model example and proposing a similar one
– Collaboration with existing projects and value-adding to it where applicable
– Research and presenting solid facts and figures to the respective authorities and forcing an answer
– Persuasion tactics through lobbying, clouting or conversation
– Public Education or media influence
– Public or online protest
It is easy to get carried away at the planning stage when working out the advocacy details. What we want is to acquire a benefit for the community without causing substantial inconvenience to other stake-holders. As such, it is important to keep the objective SMART. By that we mean keeping the objectives Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.
LOVE YOUR SPORT, CONTRIBUTE WHENEVER YOU CAN
Starting an advocacy is no easy task. It involves rallying a group of like-minded team mates with relevant expertise and can work well as a together. It also involves months of publicity, discussion with the various stake-holder groups. This equates to forfeited weekends and hours of number crunching and proposal writings. But for the love of the sport, we are sure many would do it. For those who has an intention to start an advocacy, we suggest pooling resources with currently existing groups as some of them has already established some headway and your contribution to them would make faster progress than should each group work on their own. And always do what is within legal and civic boundaries. Let's ride!
Note: The steps to advocacy is only a listing of the steps involved in preparing for advocacy. Bikezilla does not guarantee that the steps will ensure responses for any proposal whatsoever. Good luck.