I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of my 2007 Impreza–the one with a foot-sized dent on the rear hatch from when the dang thing wouldn’t latch properly. My kid’s in gymnastics for the next 45 minutes, so this is my office du jour. There’s lukewarm coffee next to my notepad, and I’m waiting for Steuart Walton’s telephone call.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not well versed in interviewing bazillionaires, or interacting with them in general for that matter. Part of me expects a parallel universe in which Steuart calls from the driver’s seat of a hovercraft, or whatever bazillionaires drive these days. But when I answer the phone, he’s apologizing about the leaf blower running in the background. He’s calling from the trails.
Brothers Steuart and Tom Walton are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and their shared passion for mountain biking has led the Walton Family Foundation to contribute $13 million toward trails in Northwest Arkansas. Remember when you were a kid (or, like last week) and you played that game: “What would you do if you had a zillion dollars?” Well, these guys can actually answer that question. And it turns out what they’d do is create a living lab for trail advocacy.
Tom’s first-ride story is one that many of us can relate to–rolling out too close to dusk on a borrowed bike while struggling to follow an experienced rider’s lead. “I went over the handlebars three or four times trying to stay on his wheel,” Tom says. “I thought, ‘This is insane!’” He was hooked.
When Tom returned to his hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, he saw an area surrounded by natural beauty with too few trails to fully enjoy it. There wasn’t even a bike shop in town. Using his work on the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Committee, which focuses on improving the quality of life in Northwest Arkansas, he helped resource a small pilot trail project called Slaughter Pen.
“The adoption rate of the local population toward mountain biking and support for more mountain biking surprised everybody,” says Steuart of the reaction to the new in-town trails. “Pretty quickly, Tom was thinking about how we go from 5 to 15 miles and then from 15 to 50 miles, so it was a progressive effort.” The brothers quickly realized that they had an opportunity to do more than just build stellar trails for their community. With a solid plan, public support and good data collection they could create the case for more mountain biking facilities across the country.
“That’s the benefit of working in Northwest Arkansas,” Tom says. “We can try things pretty quickly and see what works.” Being able to spread mountain biking in all its forms–from all-day backcountry rides to city-center bike playgrounds–has created a unique data set that can be referenced by advocates and agencies alike throughout the country.
“I hope we can be a model for the future,” says Tom. “Nothing we’re doing here is magical. We have our unique strengths, but this stuff that we’re talking about is just a master plan–a game plan–that any community can follow.” Projects have been developed in a variety of ways, from public-private partnerships on municipal land to developing bike-specific trails on private property that is transferred to cities with a defined use. Matching grants have been used to leverage community support and city buy-in, resulting in examples throughout the region demonstrating what happens when trails and bike facilities are given the same line items in budgets as baseball fields and playgrounds.
When it comes to the question of, “What’s the perfect type of trail for communities to have?” Northwest Arkansas responds resoundingly with d) all of the above. By providing access to a variety of bike experiences, the mass appeal of two-wheeled exploits is easy to see. “It’s not just young guys out there,” says Steuart.
“It’s older guys like my dad who’s 68, it’s women and children, it’s the NICA kids at the high schools that are racing–and that collective use is one of the ways we’ve been able to keep the demand going up,” Steuart says. “We try to engage and reach out to everybody. Even if you don’t ride a bike, come walk the trails, come run the trails–come enjoy them because it’s good for the soul to get out and watch the leaves fall.
“Having the community involved starting from day one was really something that allowed the trails to grow to where they are today because the obligation isn’t totally on the city to maintain the trails,” Steuart says, with evident appreciation for local volunteer groups like the Friends of Arkansas Singletrack (FAST). ”I can’t say enough about how FAST as an organization has enabled the trail density and the number of miles that we have to grow,” Steuart continues. “I think that element of maintaining the trails at a high standard–not just open–has been really helpful to the overall growth of trails in Northwest Arkansas.”
This work is producing a lot more than an exceptional regional trail system–it’s creating data that can help drive the mountain biking movement nationally. Research conducted on the area’s trail development and bicycling infrastructure is being turned into studies to be shared publicly. Next year, the Foundation is partnering with national advocacy group People for Bikes to study the economic impact of trails in Northwest Arkansas, with a goal of creating templates and formulas that any bike group can use to quantify their economic impact.
After hanging around Bentonville for a few days, I start to realize that the bike I always see around town, parked outside the coffee shop and the Flying Fish restaurant, is Steuart’s bike. And the guy at the local trail-maintenance barbecue? That’s Tom.
“Being out on a bike cruising through the woods…it’s an escape, it allows you to find that peace. Some people do that through meditation, some people do that through sleep, some people do that through alone time in their rooms, but for me it’s a reset,” says Steuart. “It’s probably not absolutely essential to life, but it’s essential to well-being.”
Feature: Land of Oz