Texas Conservation Corps Completes Work on Emma Long

“One man’s unsustainable corrosion is another man’s righteous gnar.”

-from an online comment expressing the delicate balance and frustration involved when incorporating erosion control and environmental protection into a well-established and well-loved trail system. 


Emma Long Metropolitan Park is one of the largest parks in Austin, TX and it has, perhaps, the only motorcycle trail in the whole city.  In fact, its one of only a few motorized trails on public land in the entire state.  There are 9 miles of trail winding through juniper and oak scrub forest, allowing motorcyclists and mountain bike riders to test their skills on some pretty intense, but somehow still serene, terrain.  It’s full of steep hills and sudden drops down rocky terraces, sharp corners and low hanging trees, punctuated by flowing tracts of even tread under a dense, green canopy. All of it perfect for doing tricks on motorbikes: in short, it’s a motorcycle paradise.

We, the Service Learning Academy Green and Yellow crews, had the opportunity to spend a month there doing rock-work from late January to March 1st. The short time span we were given to complete the project was due to the presence of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, an endangered species of song bird residing in Central Texas, beginning its nesting season. The Migratory Bird and Endangered Species Acts stipulate that their nesting areas cannot be disturbed during the season; though, I often wondered how disturbing our crews would have been compared to the noise made by a motorbike!

We were given 29 sites scattered throughout the trail system that needed work done to prevent erosion and fix other kinds of damage, and ended up completing 27 of them in the very short amount of time available to us. Most of the work consisted of armoring the sudden drops along the trail, which means that we laid large, flat rocks into the ground as if we were placing tiles in a floor.  We also made rock ramps (the first time I’ve ever built with rock that way!) to allow the non-expert riders to get through, and made step and wall-like structures to check the erosion that was occuring on the trail.

Our work at Emma Long was unusual for us in the fact that we were exclusively building for bikes (motorcycles and mountain bikes), as opposed to hikers, horseback riders, etc. By far, they were the most involved group of trail users I’ve ever encountered. Many of them get together often for weekend trail repair workdays and some offered regular friendly and constructive comments.  Unfortunately, not all of our users were happy with the prospect of the city hiring us to work on their park.  Some days angry trail users would ride through and insult our work … but then, as if to demonstrate the duality, they’d be followed not five minutes later by someone who was thrilled with the quality of what we were doing.  The subtitle of this post itself comes from an online debate on the methods and goals of the work done at Emma Long.  The coveted “gnar” factor sought by mountain bikers and motorized users can push a trail to the edge of a hillside or on climbs up through a tight-walled creek bottom, both fairly unsustainable routes.  The challenge of the the trail builder and designer is to keep the “gnar” alive while building a sustainable trail tread that will stand the test of time and nature.  And that’s always going to be a exciting challenge at Emma Long or anywhere else.    We’re proud of the hundreds of hours our team put in at Emma Long and hope that time will show the value of those techniques.

Charles Edmonson, Crew Leader

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