The Outdoor Education Classroom: Trailbuilding at TSC
Trinidad Campus / September 13, 2021 / by Todd Cotton
Trinidad is home to some of the most spectacular natural areas in Colorado. Nestled at the base of volcanically formed mountains and surrounded by dramatic cliffs, Trinidad’s natural region features miles of beautiful Colorado trails, creeks, forests, wetlands, and plains, all within easy access for students of Trinidad State College (TSC). The TSC campus sits on the eastern edge of the Colorado Rockies, surrounded by mountains on three sides and by grasslands to the east. That makes it the perfect location for a new outdoor education program where students study the specific needs of park systems and Colorado trails.
With ideal geography as the backdrop, TSC launched an exciting new outdoor education program focusing on the skills required in trail making, maintenance, and the sustainable development of hiking trails for recreation. Few programs exist focusing on sustainable practices of trail maintenance and hiking trails construction, and TSC is uniquely qualified to fill the void.
Outdoor Education and In-Demand Skills
As Colorado’s first community college, Trinidad State has led the way in innovative programs targeting skills that are in workplace demand. This new program follows in that tradition. According to Keith Gipson, Coordinator of Special Projects at TSJC, “there is a tremendous interest in trails of all kinds around the world,” and that as a result, there is a strong demand for knowledgeable professionals in the trail building industry.
Ecological responsibility and sustainable development are critical components in trail making, and the skill set students gain in learning to build and maintain Colorado trails is an advantage they can take wherever they go in their recreation and trail building careers. Gipson expects that this new outdoor education program will not only benefit the local community of Trinidad, but it will also allow students the opportunity to improve local parks and enhance the sustainability, desirability, and economic health of the region, “all while gaining necessary skills for the exploding industry of recreation and trail making.”
The Craft of Trail Building
All outdoor enthusiasts love trails — whether they are for biking, hiking, or horseback riding — but they don’t always realize what goes into creating a functioning trail that’s sustainable and eco-friendly. It starts with a great deal of planning because there are so many elements involved.
Environmental sustainability must always be at the forefront of trail design, and designers have to be cognizant of the impact of the trail and its users on the surrounding environment, including the watershed, wildlife, wetlands, and grasslands that need to be protected. “Trail designers need to keep their users from shortcutting the trails. If trails are not convenient and accessible to points of interest, hikers may avoid the trail altogether and end up destroying off-trail terrain,” says Gipson. Keeping hikers on trails and “planning for factors like water flow, erosion, wind, and wildlife” with proven modern sustainable practices are integral to the trail builder’s job.
At the same time, hiking trails must be practical for recreation, functional, and beautiful — and accessibility must always be an important consideration. Additionally, trail builders need to have the technical skills to use the heavy equipment and tools inherent in the trade while understanding Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and learning many skills of the land surveyor’s job. It’s a complicated skill set to master, and that’s where the TSC program comes in.
The Trail Making and Environmental Sustainability Curriculum at TSC
TSC’s program provides a unique opportunity for students to gain the skills and experience necessary to design, plan, and implement effective trails and develop environmentally sustainable maintenance plans. Career application of these skills is integral to the program, and internships and help with professional placement will be important components of the program. At the end of the coursework, students finish with a resume of experience working with industry professionals on public lands — and make valuable professional connections in the private sector.
Courses are scheduled to begin in the spring semester of 2021. Initially, there will be four intensive courses, each held during the day, Monday through Friday, for one week. Each course is worth two credit hours. “These first courses will be held in the spring so that ideal weather conditions will exist for outdoor field experience and to allow professional trail builders to teach classes without missing their prime summer contract months,” says Gipson. These will be in-person courses, with the first introductory course taking place primarily in the classroom and the other three going out in the field.
After an introductory course in trail management, subsequent courses will cover project leadership, crew leadership, management courses, construction courses, design, trail maintenance, and environmental sustainability. Students will analyze and plan the development of a sustainable Colorado trail that works with the natural terrain and unique ecological needs of a specific location, and then implement that plan with technical training, including the applied aspect of infrastructure.
Additionally, says Gipson, “Students will gain surveyor skills such as slope, water control, and GPS use to protect property rights,” as well as the natural terrain. Students will also have access to local state parks with existing trails for use as examples and will have the opportunity to improve existing trails and overcome problem situations, giving them valuable experience that they can apply to future work in the field.
Because this is a career and technical program, students will receive a great deal of onsite experience in the field. The courses can also be combined with other programs to count toward an associate degree. “TSC currently has an Associate of Applied Science degree in Applied Technology, and these four courses would work toward this degree program if students decide to go that route,” states Gipson.
TSC also has a variety of related programs that could work in conjunction with trail making courses, such as heavy equipment operation and construction programs. Eventually, many of these heavy equipment operation classes will be built into the trail building program.
Trinidad State hopes to expand on these courses in the near future, developing them into three different certificate levels; the ultimate goal will be to implement a top-rate trail management and construction associate of applied science degree program accredited and approved by the Higher Learning Commission and the Department of Education, but that’s a little bit further down the line.
According to Gipson, “Because of the tremendous interest in trail building around the world, this program is intended to be a terminal program.” Students will leave the program with the required expertise, “ready to join a private or public trail building company as a professional trail builder.”
Learning From the Pros in Trail Maintenance and Construction
The trail building program at TSC is partnering with the Professional Trail Builders Association (PTBA), an organization dedicated to excellence in private trail building. The PTBA adheres to strict codes and standards of excellence in the profession and has a long-standing reputation both privately and through government contracts, representing at least 100 private builders. Gipson adds that TSC is building this outdoor education program “in conjunction with Tony Boone of Tony Boone Trails and with the Professional Trail Builders Association to develop the curriculum for this series of courses,” along with some other well-known sponsors such as Timberline Trailcraft and Backshop Bicycle Supply.
Boone, a well-respected leader in trail building with decades of experience, will not only be creating curriculum, but will be among the professional instructors for this program. TSC plans on forming a high-powered group of instructors and advisory members from leading professionals in the trail building field who will provide a wellspring of knowledge from which students will draw.
A Career in the Great Outdoors
Because these courses run in two-week blocks, one class per week, students will be able to take the minimum time away from their lives and jobs to visit TSC and complete these courses in a time-efficient manner. Gipson expects these courses to be extremely popular because “the trail building field is booming worldwide.”
Trail making and maintenance as a career is taking off more than ever as environmentally sound practices and sustainable development come to the forefront in light of ecological and climate concerns, but that’s just part of the appeal of this career. For those who love the outdoors, having the grandeur of some of the most beautiful natural landscapes as their working environment ranks very high — as does working to create something lasting, while ensuring the sustainability and eco-friendliness of trails for many generations to come.
National and state parks, the forestry service, private landowners, and nature conservancies have expressed a strong need for experienced and well-trained trail builders specializing in planning and design, sustainable development and maintenance, and reclamation all over the world. Gipson states that among some of the potential employers are “many trail building companies around the world and in the United States who contract with all kinds of different agencies to build trails, public and private.” Gipson says some of these employers include “the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the forest service, the state divisions of parks and wildlife, or a local municipality,” all organizations tasked with creating new trails and maintaining existing trails and natural areas.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nearly half of all jobs required outdoor work in 2016. The technical abilities gained in TSC’s outdoor education program can easily transfer to all kinds of high-paying construction, recreation, and outdoor management positions. Private and corporate landowners are also in need of trail builders. These contractors and outdoor recreation companies need people who have expertise in trail making and knowledge of environmental sustainability practices. Students choosing to attend courses at TSC in Trail Maintenance and Construction will have skills they can use in a variety of workplace options.
Location, Location, Location
Trinidad State College students undoubtedly enjoy the benefit of a perfect outdoor classroom when it comes to their trailbuilding studies.
The Scenic Highway of Legends begins near Trinidad and takes travelers through miles of history and scenery, such as the Sangre de Cristos and the Spanish Peaks. Students in the outdoor education program have access to Trinidad Lake State Park with its dammed reservoir, existing hiking trails, and historic mining ruins. Known for its dinosaur tracks, Comanche National Grasslands is only 40 miles northeast of Trinidad and a place where students may be able to exercise their new knowledge of sustainability and gain experience in working with different ecosystems. The famous Santa Fe Trail makes its way through these Colorado grasslands, where sustainable practices have been crucial to its longevity.
Gipson points out that just north of TSC sits Fisher’s Peak, Colorado’s newest state park with over 4000 acres of forest, basalt peaks, and plains. “This new park will need new hiking trails, biking trails, and possibly equestrian trails” before opening fully to the public. Gipson is excited that TSJC is partnering with The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, Great Outdoors Colorado, as well as the city of Trinidad and other stakeholders to plan, design, and maintain some brand new trails while delivering valuable experience to TSC’s trail building students.
If you’re ready to join the rewarding career field of trail building and sustainability or want to learn more about the classes offered at Trinidad State, please visit the program page on our website.