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Words Bill Boles
Photos John Goeller
Boston is both the capitol and the population center of the state of Massachusetts. Since the 1600s, it’s been pretty thoroughly developed, with two notable exceptions. Just to the north of Boston, there’s the Middlesex Fells Reservation and off to the south, you will find the Blue Hills. Like so many other advocacy efforts, the preservation of the Fells and Blue Hills riding area is a long story. Here’s the short version: In the late 80s, when some political groups wanted to ban mountain biking from these areas, local riders were upset. There was literally no place else to ride.
While attending a public meeting that would decide their fate, Heidi Davis got up to speak. One of her friends tugged on her arm and said, “Tell them that you represent The New England Mountain Bike Association.” Heidi did and made a good presentation in which she explained that mountain bicyclists were really no different than hikers except that they choose to explore the woods accompanied by a bicycle instead of a backpack. After the meeting, a number of people came up to her; they wanted to join NEMBA. So Heidi decided that she’d better take down some names.
That humble beginning was the start of the New England Mountain Bike Association. But it would be some years before NEMBA began living up to its name and actually become the “New England” mountain bike association.
While Heidi and her friends were fighting the battles of the Fells and the Blue Hills, trail closures were being proposed around the state and greater New England. As the word got out about NEMBA membership, calls for help began to come in from everywhere. It quickly became obvious that a local group, no matter how motivated or dedicated, couldn’t be present everywhere that was needed. So, while NEMBA’s membership was still lingering in the hundreds, they decided to reformulate the organization into local chapters. The expectation was that nobody would be more concerned with local trails than the locals.
NEMBA, which by then had become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, became the central office. Volunteers handled membership, created and distributed the newsletter, and answered the many calls for help that were flowing in from around New England. It became obvious that this could no longer be done on a volunteer basis, so an Executive Director, Philip Keyes, was hired to manage the organization. Philip’s dedication was inspirational. He was a part time employee on part time wages working a more than full time job. And under his leadership, the organization began to grow.
Becoming a Regional Powerhouse
Fast-forward 20 years and NEMBA has 20 local chapters all around New England, a well-paid Executive Director and even a part-time staff. But more than that, NEMBA’s mission has grown. We’re still involved in access issues, of course, but over the years we’ve become regionally recognized as trail construction and maintenance experts. We conduct trail schools every year, and NEMBA has even been hired by government entities to teach trail care skills to their employees. Last year, NEMBA chapters held over 150 Trail Maintenance sessions and will do even more next year.
In an effort to get more people out on the trails, NEMBA’s “follow the leader” rides and skills sessions offer members and non-members alike over a thousand opportunities to ride every year. And our NEMBA Explorers kids’ program is getting whole new generation of riders out into the woodlands.
NEMBA’s most notable accomplishment is the Holy Grail for mountain bike advocacy organizations: land purchase. “Vietnam” is a very popular Massachusetts riding area spanning the towns of Milford, Holliston, and Hopkinton. It contains some of the best cross-country and freeride trails in the region and was threatened by development. NEMBA was able to raise enough money to purchase a pivotal 47-acre parcel of this land. By working with the Conservation Commissions of the surrounding towns and the state government, we permanently preserved over 800 acres of pristine trail-dense woodlands from developers.
Recently, gambling officials offered to buy the NEMBA-owned land for more than 10 times its original purchase price, which amounted to millions of dollars. NEMBA refused their offer.
Over the years, NEMBA Mountain Bike Patrols and other Trail Watch groups have sprung up around New England. Their goal is to provide a welcoming presence at many of our region’s State Parks. They hand out maps and sometimes spare inner tubes, give directions to the lost, report dumpsites or trail damage, and act as the eyes and ears of the local land manager’s staff. These NEMBA volunteers contribute thousands of hours a year to their local riding areas.
In 2009, the Connecticut chapter of NEMBA received a Special Achievement Award from the Connecticut Greenways Council and the Department of Environmental Protection for all their hard work and dedication that the chapter has donated to the state of Connecticut for trail maintenance, advocacy, and their Trail Ambassador program.
Increasingly, communities and land management organizations around New England are coming to NEMBA looking for assistance with designing new community trail networks or to repair and improve existing trails.
Riding into the Future
In 2010, NEMBA chapters will put on 10 large mountain bike adventure rides around New England, benefiting local state forests and land management agencies. They consist of marked loops and guided rides for all ages and abilities.
Based on all this, you might conclude that mountain biking is safe in New England. Nothing could be further from the truth. NEMBA’s main mission is still to keep us out on the trails, to put out fires before they happen, and to build the mountain bike community into an effective voice for preserving trails for riders and everyone else to enjoy.
As for the Fells and The Blue Hills, we’re still riding there, and we’re still attending meetings to make sure that we always will.
Check us out at www.nemba.org.