La Crosse is on the map for mountain biking and hiking, and ORA Trails is the organization that has helped put it there. It hasn’t been an easy or quick path, but the natural topography and driftless beauty wouldn’t be denied; people wanted to enjoy the outdoors in the Coulee region.
In the early 2000’s the Outdoor Recreation Alliance was the umbrella organization for the group that developed some of the first mountain bike trails in the midwest, called the Human Powered Trails (HPT). Once at the forefront of access and opportunity, things slowly fizzled. In the past 5 years the action has really picked up again, and the flywheel has gained enough momentum that much growth is coming for outdoor recreation in the La Crosse area.
ORA Trails, as the organization rebranded itself a few years ago, is made up of volunteers who help build, maintain, and grow the trails in La Crosse. For many years the focus was mainly on HPT, but things have changed. The ORA Trails board is made up of skiers, runners, hikers, birders, and mountain bikers. Further, there are many other volunteers and great folks who have been supporting ORA, and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. There are a few individuals that have gone above and beyond, though, and it’s made a huge difference.
ORA Trails Vice President, Randi Pueschner, has been instrumental in helping move the organization forward. Randi, the co-owner of Smith’s Bike Shop, jumped in when she realized the opportunity that existed locally. Never one to walk away after being told no, Randi developed relationships with other board members, as well as members of the City Park’s staff and board. She was driven to organize ORA and channel the passion that existed with other members. Ed. Note: We’re also please to share that Randi has recently joined the Bike Fed Board! What a great addition to our team.
Josh Blum is one key member, a dedicated trail user and one of the people most responsible for the new trails that have been recently added. Josh helped plan a series of downhill trails, which were built by Rock Solid Trails, one of the premier trail building organizations in the entire US. This served as the proof of concept needed for future projects. If you’re curious about mountain biking in La Crosse and beyond, be sure to check out Josh’s podcast: Trail Eaffect. The new trails renewed interest from runners and riders, as well as the community at large. People truly saw what was possible. Josh had previously attended an IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) Trails Lab in Bentonville, AR with Jed Olson. Bentonville has shown the positive impact and economic return that an investment in trails creates, with an annual return of over $127 million. This also led to the development of the trails on and around Grandad’s Bluff.
Jed is the other key player in the La Crosse trail scene, having been involved with ORA for nearly it’s entire life. Jed took his passion for creating outdoor experiences and formed a company called VeloCity Projects – the group responsible for building the Leuth Park Pump track, one of the only paved pumptracks in the midwest. He is also responsible for the dirt pump track at HPT, having essentially built the trail partially out of pocket after putting in more than he was reimbursed for. These are just a couple of the many things that Jed has already done, and it’s not an understatement to say that Jed puts his money where his mouth is. He is one of the main reasons things are moving forward today in the way that they are.
ORA Trails hasn’t been without growing pains, though. A group of volunteers, no matter how dedicated, can only take an organization so far, and things were bursting at the seams. In a recent conversation with Jed, he shared about his decision to take a leap of faith to continue to grow what’s possible in La Crosse. Jed realized that ORA needed full time staff, folks paid to manage the projects that were happening and to develop and grow the future ones. So he proposed that he join ORA full time as the Executive Director. It was with no small amount of enthusiasm that the entire board unanimously agreed. Jed decided to wrap up VeloCity and to grow the staff at ORA to 3 members.
One challenge of this growth has always been funding. Jed knew that coming in, but he was confident that the many local outdoor enthusiasts would believe in ORA and put their collective money behind that. So a silent donation started happening behind the scenes, to put together a match for a Giving Tuesday campaign. ORA was able to raise over $65,000 for the match, and through many generous donations, were able to equal the amount, raising $130,000 for the continued growth of trails in La Crosse.
While this may be the end of a news story, it’s just the beginning of the future for ORA Trails. The flywheel is in motion, and it will continue to roll. There is an upcoming meeting for a new hiking trail system on a bluff overlooking the city, which will be funded by the City of La Crosse Parks, Forestry and Recreation team, and managed by ORA Trails. Jed and crew have an eye on creating a trail system that would traverse the east side of the city, among other projects. Many other local municipalities have seen the impact of the trails and are considering becoming involved in projects of their own. Things rarely have a straight trajectory, but it’s clear that despite some ups and downs, ORA Trails is blossoming and will continue to for years to come.