Leaders of the Pack
The Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship shapes its advocacy empire in Northern California
photography by gary perkin
Greg Williams steered his weathered ’84 Land Cruiser into Graeagle, California, as he recalls how everything that is now almost wasn’t. The Downieville Classic race, the role-model Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, the thriving Yuba Expeditions bike shop–he almost lost it all before it even started at the hands of a bad business partner who sued him for rights to the race, then called the Coyote Classic. He was 22 and had started the Coyote Adventures shop with a credit card, an old van to run shuttles and a dream to make a life for himself in the Sierras.
The lawsuit dragged for two years, with Williams going bankrupt to clear his name and keep the Classic alive. After a bitter battle, he renamed the shop Yuba Expeditions and rebranded the race as the Downieville Classic.
“You’ve got to fight for it,” he says, “You want to keep your family up here? You’ve got to turn yourself inside out sometimes.”
Two decades later, Williams has done just that, leading a trailbuilding nonprofit that employs up to two-dozen employees during its busiest season, providing much-needed jobs in rural counties rife with unemployment. With four full-time, year-round employees, a nationally recognized youth work program, lucrative events and trail days so packed with good times and camaraderie that members plan their time off around them, the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship is among the biggest and most-enviable trail groups.
“There’s no template for what we’re doing,” says Williams, a Nevada City native whose Miwok Indian roots run deep in the Sierras–his grandfather built some of the Downieville trails he rides today. “Nobody’s doing what we’re doing. There’s TAMBA (the Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association), but they’re all-volunteer. For us, to have the opportunity to get paid to do this–not that it’s easy, we have to be movin’ and shakin’ the whole time–but really to get the kind of stuff done you need to get done you need paid people.”
Indeed, says Mark Eller, communications director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the Stewardship represents a unique combination of trailbuilding, fundraising and event promotion unmatched by any other trail-advocacy group.
“It’s definitely a model that lots of groups can learn from and look at. It’s not usually the case that you can replicate the program wholesale, but you can cherry-pick the best ideas,” Eller says.
Williams’ unconventional business model started in the mid ’90s with the shop and the Downieville Classic, which was successful almost from the get-go and remains so–the all-mountain race sells out in less than a minute. But by the early 2000s, the quaint town’s main attraction was in danger. Up until then, the Forest Service had primarily maintained the trails, but that was short-lived in an era of belt-tightening at the federal level.
“At that time, our Forest Service was like, ‘Hey we need some help, we’re losing all of our funding.’ Shit, we depend on these trails, the community depends on these trails,” Williams thought. “It’s just really out of necessity, there’s no other alternative. If we don’t do something our trails are going to fall apart and probably get closed.”
Williams started the Stewardship in 2003 to improve the trails’ sustainability, protect the watershed and ultimately keep them open and his business alive. Before long, he had handed over the reins of Yuba Expeditions to a new manager so he could focus full-time on the Stewardship. Now the entire operation revolves around and feeds back into the 501(c)(3). Since 2011, the shop has operated as a nonprofit, returning all its earnings after expenses to the Stewardship, and proceeds from the events–the Downieville Classic, the Lost & Found Gravel Grinder and the new Grinduro–all benefit the Stewardship. The nonprofit runs on a $1.2 million annual budget, and employs Williams as executive director, Tara Stone as trails program director, Henry O’Donnell as project supervisor (Henry’s first job for Williams was swatting flies in the shop when he was 6) and Troy Morrison as trail crew leader. There are also several parttimers, including a leader for the youth program, which pays a top crop of high school kids minimum wage for an 8-week on-the-ground course each summer in trailbuilding, backcountry medicine, nutrition and CPR. The idea is that the kids will cultivate a connection to the outdoors and one day come home to contribute to the forests, whether as trailbuilders or biologists.
“These kids come out of here and they’re rad,” Williams says, his trademark grin breaking out from underneath a full, mountain-man beard.
In the past 12 years, the Stewardship’s crews have been responsible for 50 miles of new trail construction, primarily in Sierra and Plumas counties, and maintained three times that amount, including 72 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Yes, that PCT, the one that’s perennially closed to mountain bikers. The Stewardship is equal-opportunity, building anything from wilderness trails to ADA-accessible pathways to dirt-bike trails.
Williams pulls into a gravel lot in Graeagle where the Stewardship stores Rolling Thunder, a mobile trailer with integrated beer taps and speakers that brings the party to trail days. We’re there to meet Cosbey, the Stewardship’s longtime jack-of-all-trades whose past jobs include rigging America’s Cup boats, so he can shuttle us 3,000 feet to the top of Mills Peak, a trail the Stewardship conceived and built five years ago.
Graeagle is a former lumber town about an hour northwest of Reno, where golf courses and retirement communities have replaced logging and mining relics of the past. Williams and the Stewardship headquarters live a few miles down Highway 89 in Clio, an even tinier speck on the map. Graeagle is also home to several of the Stewardship’s most-prized projects, namely Mills Peak and the Lakes Basin trails, which are less than an hour from the famous Downieville trails but garner a fraction of the attention.
Mills Peak exemplifies the best of what a motivated, ambitious trail group can accomplish with few financial resources and a lot of creative thinking. Williams for years had peered up at the Peak’s natural ridgeline, wondering whether there was a way to access the high country. The Forest Service district ranger at the time was amenable to the idea of building a trail so long as the Stewardship did the work and covered the costs. Williams and the rest of the Stewardship kicked it into high gear. They won grants from Sierra and Plumas counties for construction, and raised $36,000 through an innovative campaign with Ibis Cycles–people donated $5 to sponsor a foot of trail and enter to win a new Ibis bike–which paid for a mini excavator. They leveraged that money with other grants, ultimately raising a staggering $300,000 for the project. In three years, the trail was completed.
Cosbey drops us off at the Mills Peak Fire Lookout at 7,300 feet above sea level so I can experience firsthand the fruits of so many volunteers and trailbuilders’ labor. The 9-mile alpine descent drops 3,000 feet through evergreen and cedar forests in a trail so perfectly flowing that it leaves no question that it was purpose-built for those who worship at the church of shred. Rock rollers and chunky sections of decomposed granite break up smooth dirt sections as the narrow singletrack cuts through fields of wildflowers and Manzanita groves. On the way down, the crags of the Buttes looming in the distance, the shimmering Gold Lake, and, if you catch a clear day, the volcanic 10,450-foot Mount Lassen, awe with beauty.
“This is the reason I live here–to have this experience,” Williams says. “The beauty of Mills Peak, Lake Davis, Quincy, that all kind of feeds off Downieville. If you’re coming to this area, you could have several weeks’ worth of riding. Go to Downieville, go to Graeagle, go to Quincy. It spreads people out, but also keeps them here for multiple days, eating at the restaurants, staying at the motels.”
To Williams’ point, Mills Peak is just a slice of what Plumas County has to offer. Up Gold Lake Highway from Mills Peak, the Lakes Basin trails deliver a special kind of beating to even the hardiest of riders. The best way to describe the feeling of riding the 40-mile maze is by using ‘dog’ miles–as in each mile traveled translates into 7 in terms of exertion.
The Gold Rush-era trails weren’t built for recreation and thus, they are spectacularly challenging. They’re loaded with rocks–not nice, rounded, easy-to-roll rocks, but angry, uneven, sharp rocks–and steep, technical uphill ledges that require a fair amount of grunting, gasping and slow-speed manual skills to clean. I set out on a seemingly modest 5-mile loop from the Gray Eagle Lodge–cozy riverside cabins that are an apt jumping-off point for Graeagle rides–and felt like I’d been on an all-day odyssey in the wilds of Alaska afterward. But it’s that semblance of remoteness, riding among the pristine backcountry lakes, towering granite formations and high peaks, that makes the Basin worth attempting at least once.
As The Stewardship rounds the bend toward its teenaged years, it’s maturing into an organization with a sturdy foundation poised to grow even stronger.
Because it employs a stacked roster of experienced trailbuilders, and holds the proper insurance to oversee projects and cover volunteers, the Stewardship contracts itself to other trail groups that have approved and funded projects, but need expert builders. Last summer, its crews joined builders in South Lake Tahoe to work on Corral, the first legal jump trail on Forest Service land, and they will continue with the next phase of that project this year.
Closer to home in Quincy, 20 miles west of Graeagle, the Stewardship is rehabilitating 40 miles of user-built moto trails and connecting them to 20 miles of new non-motorized trails to create a 60-mile network for mountain bikers. There are also plans for a new 14-mile connector in Downieville, joining Chimney Rock with another trail system, and Williams has devised a master plan for Graeagle that he hopes will one day link Mills Peak to a rim trail that connects to feeder trails all over the valley.
And events continue to be a key part of the Stewardship’s success. The Lost Sierra endurance run fell victim to politics, and would have required a $6,200 consultation fee with the Department of Fish & Wildlife to study its impact, but the Grinduro will fill its void. That takes place in Quincy in October and includes a 70-mile mix of dirt road, singletrack and pavement with timed hill climbs and high-speed sections. The Lost & Found Gravel Grinder debuted last May with more than 200 racers and the permit allows 10 times that number to participate. The signature Downieville Classic celebrates its 20th year this summer.
Even though solid work is coming in, Williams remains hungry and constantly mindful of his responsibility to keep a staff of 10 employed.
“I’ve been self-employed my whole life. I always have to line something up, gotta get something going. I can’t stop that. With co-workers now having kids and quality families leaving (to find better jobs), there’s pressure. Shit’s not just about me, that’s for sure. For the last 20-plus years, it’s always just worked out. It doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it, but that doesn’t do any good. It’s going to be okay. It definitely weighs on me, though, and that’s why I go ride my bike.”
Thanks to his work with the Stewardship, Williams has no shortage of exceptional trails on which to escape.