Bryant Wright, trails coordinator for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, is leaving his position to take job outside of borough government.
Wright will be taking a job as a planner with R&M Consultants, the consulting firm that was hired to help the borough update of the Comprehensive Recreational Trail Plan. His last day with the borough is Friday, April 7.
A new trails coordinator has not yet been hired, according to John Haas, borough parks superintendent. The borough has been advertising internally. If an appropriate person can’t be found internally, then the position is advertised to the public.
“I think we will be done with our internal candidates, if we have any, by the end of April,” Haas wrote in an email. “So if it gets advertised externally I expect it might ‘hit the street’ so to speak late this month or early next month.”
Wright has been trails coordinator since 2016, when he took over from Tom Hancock. Wright had been a project coordinator for the borough’s parks and recreation department. Hancock had been the first Fairbanks borough trails coordinator, hired to fill a half-time role which eventually became a full-time position. A long-time borough employee, Hancock worked as the coordinator for nine years before retiring from the borough.
Wright has been an instrumental part of several big changes regarding trails in the borough, including the trail plan update but also the addition of the Trails Challenges and the “Trail-a-Year” program.
COMPREHENSIVE RECREATIONAL TRAIL PLAN
Unfortunately, the trail plan has not yet been adopted by the Fairbanks Borough Assembly. It first came up for a vote last November, when the Assembly voted to postpone its adoption. Several assembly members, including some who had been elected that October, had concerns about how individual property owners might be affected by the plan. (In the latest move, the plan has been referred to the borough Platting Board.) Wright said he is sorry to be leaving before the plan is adopted.
“I’d say it’s awkward timing with the status of the Trail Plan, but it seems these changes are never easy or conveniently timed.”
An update of the plan has long been needed, Wright said. Over the years, many people have come to the borough wanting to work on certain trail projects, Wright said, but borough staff has been limited in what it could do because the original trail plan, first adopted in 1985, had had only minor updates since then.
“I really wanted to do that plan when I started,” Wright said.
Wright and the borough’s Trails Advisory Commission (TAC) tried to take on the update, but the job was massive and complicated. Fortunately, the borough was able to include the plan update as part of a military grant aimed at improving living conditions for military personnel. That grant was based on the anticipated increase in military populations due to the addition of aircraft being stationed at Eielson Air Force Base. Fortunately, often what’s good for military populations is also good for the local civilian population.
Also covered in that grant are updates to the borough roads and land use plans. Originally, the focus was on the Eielson and North Pole areas, but it quickly became apparent that issues in those areas, including access to open spaces and trails, were affected by boroughwide plans that needed updating. The military was understanding of those needs and allowed for the boroughwide plans to be included in the grant, Wright said. With money from that grant, the borough was able to hire R&M Consultants to help with the trail plan update.
Probably most public change instituted during Wright’s tenure has been the summer and winter Trails Challenges, which encourage people to find signs on many of the trails in the borough. Twice a year, signs are placed at different places along trails and people have a few months to find them with the help of a Trails Challenge guidebook. Wright started the first challenge in the winter of 2016-17 right after he started. It attracted about 60 people, but now hundreds of people participate.
Wright came up with the idea of the Trails Challenges after being encouraged by his supervisor to find a way to “invite people to come out on the trails.” For a long time in the borough, many trail-related issues have had to do with people not knowing how to access trails or which ones were open to the public. While on vacation, Wright had seen a sign on a trail in Idaho that encouraged people to take a selfie. At first, he thought it was silly, but then he began to see the possibilities.
Wright is proud of the program in large part because it brings in such positive energy and a wide demographic. Over the years the program has added junior and senior categories to the awards program, for which prizes are awarded if people find a minimum number of signs. The trails challenges attract a lot of seniors, women, and families with children.
Another big though less visible step for trails that happened during Wright’s tenure is the inclusion of the “Trail-a-Year” program in the borough’s Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) list. That happened just last year. Officially known as the “FNSB Public Community Trails Improvement Program,” this program allows the borough to spend $350,000 a year to fix up physical access at trail entrances and purchase easements or otherwise negotiate legal access or develop reroutes where the borough has trespass issues.
For the Trail-a-Year To be most effective, the Trail Plan update will first need to be passed. But the need has been there for years.
“It was so obvious,” Wright said. “The TAC has been requesting something like that for 20 years.”
OTHER BOROUGH PROJECTS
Wright also mentioned trail work done in several borough parks during the time he has been coordinator. He has worked with several different borough employees on the projects, such as trails and trailhead improvements in Skyline Ridge Park, and Isberg, Chena Lake, and Tanana Lakes recreation areas. Those projects have largely been funded by federal grant programs that have generous match programs. Some require a 50 percent local match, but others require just a 10 or 20 percent local match.
“I think people should know how good of a deal the community gets with these programs,” Wright said. “We bring in a lot for very, very little cost to the borough.”
Wright said he doesn’t have any regrets regarding the job, though he does wish the trail plan update had been passed before he left. And he really wanted to get an agreement with the Mental Health Land Trust for an alternative route of the Equinox Marathon Trail around the infamous and problematic Alder Chute. That is still in the works, but Wright has made progress on it. Passage of the Trail-a-Year program and the trail plan update could help solve that issue. But overall, Wright said he is happy with all the progress made and all the support he has received from the borough and the public.
“This has been a really great job,” Wright said. “I would do it forever if my life wasn’t changing.”
Wright said there were too many people to thank for all they work they do to help trails in the Fairbanks borough.
“Fairbanks has something truly special with its trail system, but it also has exceptional people to make our outdoor adventures possible.”
In addition to his work as borough trails coordinator, Wright also serves on the boards of Alaska Trails and Fairbanks Paddlers and is on the state Outdoor Recreation Trails Advisory Board (ORTAB). With Alaska Trails, Wright has been a key part of the local working group for the Fairbanks to Nenana section of the Alaska Long Trail, an effort to create a trail connecting Fairbanks and Seward. The vision is for a multi-braided trail that allows multiple trail uses, motorized and non-motorized, where possible. Wright’s term on ORTAB finishes this year, but Wright plans to continue working with Fairbanks Paddlers, Alaska Trails, and the Alaska Long Trail project.
Wright and his family, who own Northern Alaska Packrafts, are staying in Fairbanks. R&M Consultants has an office here.
P.S. It seems appropriate that I learned about Wright’s departure while on the trails. I was on a bikepacking trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. I was biking part of the White Mountains 100 course backward on the day of the race. One of the participants, Mark Oldmixon, stopped to talk to me and mentioned the news. Mark is chairman of the borough Parks and Recreation Commission and learned the news the commission’s recent meeting.
Selfie photo of Wright from the Fairbanks Parks and Recreation Dept Facebook page for the first Winter Trails Challenge held during the winter of 2016-17.