The people of the Outdoor Recreation Alliance aren’t “they-sayers.”
When the volunteers and board members hear people saying, “They should do this,” or “You know what they should do,” they step up to make it happen.
“We all have this desire to live in a more vibrant community, in a community that values its resources, and public parks just play such a pivotal role in access for all levels,” ORA vice president Jed Olson said.
It began nearly 20 years ago with people like Ralph Heath and Kurt Schroeder. The group, then known as the Human-Powered Trails, saw a piece of city-owned property that didn’t have a lot of attention in 2000 and thought someone ought to put in trails for hiking and biking.
“It was a group of users who said, ‘Can we put trails here?’ and the city said, ‘Sure,’” Olson said. “In those days it was a gentlemen’s agreement and probably not even a handshake and away it went.”
Things are a bit more complicated these days — requiring legal agreements and easements — but fundamentally the group’s focus hasn’t shifted from developing and promoting outdoor recreation opportunities.
“We’re still that same group at the core, that group of users who say, ‘Can we get more people using these public resources?’” Olson said.
It’s a matter of practicality, said ORA member Robbie Young, who’s been helping coordinate events and volunteers and build trails for about 12 years.
“This is a thing that needs to be done, and we can’t all stand around and say somebody else should do it,” Young said.
In practice, that involves a lot of free labor. The all-volunteer organization has weekly Monday workdays throughout the summer to groom trails and remove invasive species on Upper Hixon Forest, they groom the ski and fat bike trails in the winter, and they host an annual clean-up of Grandad Bluff to pick up trash and remove graffiti.
The work ORA does is a huge help to the city of La Crosse, said interim Parks, Recreation & Forestry Director Jay Odegaard.
“They’re really kind of the hands on the ground, so to speak. They provide the volunteer support pieces that we can’t cover with staff,” Odegaard said.
Not only do they have a lot of people willing to lend a hand, but they also have a lot of local expertise. Their work developing trails has kept La Crosse at the forefront of trail design, with paths for biking and hiking that follow the natural contours of the land, rather than cutting through straight lines.
“Their kind of passion drives support for that outdoor recreation that benefits a lot of people,” said Odegaard.
The group is responsible for a bicycle pump track at Upper Hixon, as well as the recent renovation of Leuth Park. One of its latest projects is the connector trail between State Road Elementary School and Chad Erickson Park, a paved trail designed to boost access to the park and connect the neighborhoods.
“Our goal isn’t ‘Must touch dirt,’ our goal is to get people outside, whether that’s out in the woods or down to the beach or out on a snowtrail,” Olson said.
Their focus is on boosting accessibility and predictability. They want outdoor opportunities that are available to just about anyone and don’t require a huge time investment to take advantage of.
“You know what you’re going to get. You know you can get over here, do a lap, sit for a little bit, get some vitamin D and back to your house in 20 minutes,” Olson said. “You do it and go, ‘Oh, wait, that was awesome.’”
The idea is to give people from all economic backgrounds and most physical abilities the same opportunity.
“When you can give that power to people it’s fantastic. It’s heartwarming and it’s inspiring,” Olson said.
It allows ORA to reach more people, bringing in users from two-year-olds to people in their 70s and boosts the economy of the whole region.
“A lot of people have picked this place on purpose because we want to live in a place that has happy and healthy people. We know that connection with nature, exercise, time outside, relationships with others, meaningful work, all these are the key pieces to being ourselves a happy and healthy person,” Olson said.
Conservation is a huge focus for the volunteers, especially as they build trails meant to last for generations.
“If you enjoy the outdoors, then naturally you want to help maintain and protect them,” Young said.
The group takes into consideration everything from ecological sensitivity and endangered species preservation to invasive species mitigation and hydrology when building trails, plus keeping in mind the fiscal impacts.
“Even the economic impact of bird watching is enormous, so maintaining healthy habitats for migratory birds is one of the things you do when you build trails,” Young said.
Building trails for people to follow helps keep the land as a whole in good shape.
“Instead of just having public land that people use at their own discretion, just a little bit of development of that land tells people this is how you responsibly use this protected space,” Young said.
One of the first tenants of the “Leave no trace” philosophy of economic impact is to stay on the trail, Olson said.
“You need to give somebody expectations, guidelines, parameters to function within … A trail does those things. It tells them where to go, it gives them a specific experience, it tells them where not to go,” Olson said.
ORA has begun to explore expanding its outdoor support to other municipalities in the area.
“Most of us involved in the organization didn’t get involved choose to get involved or don’t love the La Crosse area for one neighborhood or one specific feature. It’s a whole package and this package extends from Minneapolis to Madison. It’s the Driftless Region,” Olson said.