The Arizona Trail Association is a global supporting partner of the Ledlenser Trails In Motion Film Tour, and host a number of screenings of the tour each year, we sat down with Matthew Nelson from ATA, to chat a little further around the association and the synergy between it and Trails In Motion.
Trails In Motion [TIM]: As some context, please tell us a little bit more about the Arizona Trail Association.
Matthew Nelson [MN]: The Arizona Trail Association is the non-profit organization responsible for the 800-mile Arizona Trail. This trail stretches the entire length of the state of Arizona, and is open to runners, hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Our mission is to protect, maintain, enhance, promote and sustain the Arizona Trail as a unique encounter with the land. We spend most of our time and energy engaging volunteers in maintaining the trail, getting youth on the trail and involved in service projects, protecting the trail from large-scale development projects (mines and power lines), and supporting the trail community in creating their own adventures through the mountains, deserts, canyons and forests that Arizona Trail traverses. In 2018, our volunteers contributed 27,500 hours of volunteer service ($650,000 value). We also organize five trail running events (from 10K to 100 miles) to get more trail runners excited about the Arizona Trail.
TIM: How do you see the Ledlenser Trails In Motion Film Tour adding value to what you hope to achieve with the ATA, and what are some of the synergies you see between the two platforms?
MN: Trail running remains one of the fastest growing outdoor sports, and although we have been building alliances with hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians for years, it wasn’t until six years ago that the organization made a conscious effort to engage the trail running community. Runners are healthy, love a good challenge, are typically younger than other trail user demographics, and tend to be a 50/50 split of males and females. This is an ideal group to tap into to help with trail maintenance! The Ledlenser Trails In Motion Film Tour allows us to bring trail runners together to celebrate our community (outside a running event) for the benefit of the trail we love to run on. It’s a community builder, and that adds great value and strength to the organization.
TIM: What challenges do you face in rolling out your vision for ATA?
MN: Maintaining 800 miles of trail is daunting, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck endeavor — every week, every month, every year. Our biggest challenges are environmental, financial and social. Environmental challenges are obvious…when thorny plants grow into the trail, we hack them back. When trees fall across the trail, we cut them out. When it rains and the trail erodes, we fix it. And for parts of the trail currently on dirt roads, we’re building single track to maintain a true trail experience. Other environmental challenges include wildfires and erosion events (a fire earlier this summer consumed 31 miles of AZT in a remote wilderness area), freezing winter events, insane summer storms, and much more. Arizona is the land of extremes. Financial challenges include the fact that almost everything we provide is free. 800 miles of trail, maps, youth programs — all for no cost to the consumer. So we rely on donations, grants, sponsorships and special events to support the organization. Social challenges include the fact that not everyone knows about the trail, or cares about long-distance trails for that matter. We’re also working to make sure that everyone is practicing kindness on the trail since not everyone was raised with that ethic. Negative experiences on a trail can keep people away forever, so a lot of our education and messaging has to do with yielding the trail to certain users, saying hello, and encouraging people to build community on the trail.
TIM: In future what sort of trail films would you like to see coming through in TIM tours, that we haven't necessarily seen before?
MN: I really like a mix of the “average person does something amazing” as well as the "super human defies all odds” types of films. I really love wild landscape, so seeing runners exploring obscure places with lush cinematography is what really makes film festivals so much fun. We all like the story of the human heart, but not every film needs to have that as its anchor. Humour is always good, too.
TIM: Do you have some ideas or advice for people who would like to implement similar initiatives in their own trail communities?
MN: Absolutely! Runners are an incredible community of people that should get more involved with trail organizations. After all, the future of trails relies on those who use them and care enough to protect and maintain them. In my experience, trail runners are the least-represented of outdoor user groups. It’s time to change that.
TIM: How can people get involved in the ATA, and where can they find out more information on the Association?
MN: We invite everyone to get involved with the trail, as well as our programs, events and activities. Runners can register for one (or all) of the events in our Arizona Trail Running Series. Check out www.runazt.org for more info. And if you’re injured (hey, it happens!) then consider volunteering. Some say it’s even more rewarding than running. We always need more members, donors and volunteers. Check out the various options at our website: www.aztrail.org. Perhaps most importantly, get out there and experience the trail. Do don’t need to do all 800 miles! We have divided the trail up into 43 segments, so grab a map and water source information from our website, then get out there and experience it for yourself. We work tirelessly throughout the year so that people can get outside, connect with nature and others, challenge themselves within a stunning and rugged landscape, and be the happiest versions of themselves.