Meet a trail champion: Susie Murphy

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

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

Meet Trail Champion Susie Murphy, Executive Director of the San Diego Mountain Bike Association.

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

Susie: I started mountain biking in the early 1990s to follow my husband who had started biking with our young daughter in a backpack. I just needed to watch them, but we soon discovered a family hobby that took us on many adventures. Some of our best times were camping at Sea Otter, going to races in Baja and out west, and attending 24 hour races with all of our friends. After 10 years of running in various disciplines and volunteering at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, the trail defense bug has really set in. I love mountain biking because of the people you meet, the good times and the fabulous places you visit. And on top of that, as a San Diegan native, I really love getting to know every nook and cranny of our amazing San Diego County.

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

Susie: Southern California is a particularly difficult place to defend trails due to so many land use constraints and the incredible biodiversity and cultural resources of the region. 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 post for at least several years so they can really get into projects and management plans. In any agency, a big challenge is when staff members change jobs or locations every couple of years. We’ve had success with the county and city of San Diego as well as smaller local jurisdictions, but either way it’s because a staff member believed in the vision of 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 building relationships with local land managers. Understand who manages your local areas and what their position is on the development of improved recreational trails. Find those rangers or decision makers, including elected officials who are recreation-friendly. Are they hiking, horseback riding or trail running? Take them on an excursion! Next, build trust by starting with small projects. Even cleaning up waste in the area and attracting other stakeholders can go a long way in building trust. Do your homework and always come to the table offering help and solutions. Another important aspect is understanding all of the trail users in your area and knowing what kind of experiences they are looking for and how their needs can be balanced with available resources and land use opportunities. Another top priority is making sure your local trail organization has the help it needs. Do they need board members or volunteers for events and trails? Is there a local planning group or parks and recreation commission that needs a mountain biker at the table? Do you need to start a formal trail organization in your area? Work to find one or more donors who will pay for the formation of a 501c3 nonprofit, then get to work!

Susie working at the SDMBA table at an event. Photo courtesy of José 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 regions and trail organizations that have been successful in guiding our vision for trails in San Diego County. As SDMBA has grown, we’ve really gotten a lot of great advice from other groups. Working with like-minded nonprofits has helped inform our work, raise funds, and build community and consensus at the same time. As an affiliate member organization of IMBA and the California Mountain Biking Coalition, they are very important as they work on larger trail advocacy efforts at the national and state levels with agencies such as 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 strengthen our efforts. Other resources come from our staff and volunteers who bring skills such as mapping, project management, land planning, grant writing, event planning, fundraising and development. , nonprofit management and more.

IMBA: People forget that trails don’t fall from the sky. What support would you like to have at the beginning of this work?

Susie: It’s always amazing to me when I meet people who just don’t understand that trail work is a thing. Even the simple maintenance of the cut is very important to keep the trails pleasant for everyone. When I first got involved in trail defense, 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 am still learning new things about this process every day. Admittedly, anyone who gets into this game can easily get discouraged. I find most trail defenders I know who have been around a long time to be an equal combination of passion, vision, and stubbornness. If I could wish for more support (when I started or even now after seven years) I wish everyone who believes in the mission of more trails would spread the word to their friends and gather more members and support for local trail organizations.

Susie on horseback at an SDMBA event. Photo courtesy of José Galaz.
IMBA: There is often apprehension around the trails. How did you energize your community around a vision for more trails?

Susie: Trails are very personal to people. Any proposed changes or future plans may encounter opposition. Sometimes the opposition comes from trail users, sometimes from land managers who simply want to keep the status quo and sometimes from certain stakeholders who prefer to see preserved areas without human access. The old adage “You can’t make everyone happy” is one I often use. I believe there needs to be a balance between recreation and conservation in our open spaces, especially in our urban and suburban areas of San Diego County. It is the only realistic way. We try to describe the need for trails for all types of users while keeping mountain biking access front and center. Some people still consider us the new kid on the block. This kind of thinking needs to be debunked so that the pace of trail development can attempt to keep up with the immense need. Like most areas, we need more progressive mountain bike optimized trails while maintaining what already exists. Our work is often wonky and cannot be told in a 15 second tik tok video. But for those with the patience to learn, we try to tell the story of a given trail project with all of its challenges and milestones achieved. The more people we can get to listen to the story, the more they will appreciate the trails and the precious open spaces we have.

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 people to do this job. Our members and donors are truly the most supportive of what we do. We value each of them because we know they truly believe in the value of building relationships and attending meetings where decisions are made…so many meetings! SDMBA currently has three employees and also hires at least one seasonal winter trail specialist. Our staff is versatile and accomplishes a lot for a small team. Of course, the staff is supported by our Board of Directors and other wonderful volunteers who help in so many ways. We also always appreciate people who had the vision to found SDMBA in 1994 and who built the foundation on which we continue to grow. We also value our land management partners, with whom we have worked for many years, who believe in increasing trail opportunities for San Diego County. We also have many loyal corporate sponsors who help support our trail work projects and events.

Susie on horseback at an SDMBA event. Photo courtesy of José Galaz.

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