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Q&A with Gary Vernon on building MTB trails for the Walton family

Gary Vernon is the man tasked with transforming Northwestern Arkansas into a mountain biking destination under the vision of Tom and Steuart Walton, grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

Gary Vernon’s official title is Program Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, however the title “Chief Mountain bike Officer” is a more appropriate description for what Vernon actually does. Vernon’s job is to carry out the mountain biking vision of Tom and Steuart Walton, grandchildren of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

We caught up with Vernon at the Oz Trails Off-Road round of the Epic Rides series to discuss the Walton’s vision for cycling in Arkansas, and how he is working to make that vision a reality.

VN: Your current title is Program Officer for the Walton Family Foundation, but it seems to me like you’re really the Chief Bike Officer. Can you explain your current role?

Gary Vernon: When I moved to Bentonville, I was already a mountain biker, but there weren’t any trails. I heard a rumor that city was putting in trails. I was out one day and saw the first few miles being cut. Tom (Walton) was out walking the trails, and I introduced myself.

I ended up being president of our local advocacy group, FAST (Friends of Arkansas Singletrack), for eight years. I got to know Tom pretty well, we started going on bike trips together: Moab, Crested Butte. He was always having me do special projects for him, and as the trail projects continued to grow, he had me get involved with that.

Five years ago, I’m looking at my email, and half my emails are bike-related projects.

I knew Tom and Steuart (Walton) had this big vision to grow trails out, so I put together some things I knew someone needed to do full time, and I emailed them and said ‘next time you’re in town, I’d like to talk about an idea.’ Next time they were in town, I sat down with them and handed them the job description. Three months later, I had the job.

Vernon and his son Grayson. Photo: Carl Zoch

VN: Ah, so you really could be called the Chief Bike Officer!

GV: You know, when this whole bicycle thing poked its head up, I saw the opportunity and thought ‘huh.’ With their (Tom and Steuart Walton) appetite to build all over the state. I thought ‘man, they need someone to help coordinate this.’ Tom and Steuart have a lot of great ideas, but they have so many areas they’re working in. Developing restaurants, hotels, recruiting companies to Bentonville, building out Allied Bike Works — they have a lot going on to make this the world’s number one destination for mountain biking.

VN: So tell us about how you are executing Tom and Steuart’s vision now.

GV: Part of my position is working with communities within Arkansas, the state parks group, regionally in Northwest Arkansas, trying to figure out ‘what’s the next project?’

We’re also focused on helping Northwest Arkansas become the next best destination for mountain biking. We bring in trail builders, coordinate all that. When a good idea comes up, or a property comes up that looks promising, we put a plan together, present it to them, tell them why it makes sense, and ask for approval. Then, they either approve it, or we work through it and tweak it, or they deny it.

It’s a lot of fun.

Vernon riding the Arkansas trails with his son. Photo: Jarrod Sorrells

VN: It sounds like it! It also sounds like it’s somehow easier to build trails in Arkansas than anywhere else. Where I live, it’s hard enough to build trail, let alone have it be approved in the first place. What’s the special sauce out there?

GV: Well, in Bentonville and Bella Vista, trails are mostly on city property. Coler (Mountain Bike Preserve) is on private property. Half an hour from here, we’re in National Forest.

There are five IMBA Epic trails in the state. The first mountain bike trail in the state was in the National Forest. When we started building these great trails in urban areas, we realized that no one was riding those National Forest trails – why would you drive out there? Plus, they’re harder and more expensive to maintain. For the number of riders that we’re seeing, it makes sense to grow the urban trails.

Now, we’ve decided to partner with the state parks. Arkansas has 52 state parks on some of the most gorgeous land in the state. We’re branding them the Monument Trails. Instead of putting trails out in the middle of nowhere, we’re putting them in parks that have the infrastructure already – parking, toilets, camping, etc.

VN: Was that (building trails in state parks) your idea?

GV: Tom is brilliant. He has this vision. He said ‘Vernon, let’s go big in state parks.’ And so I said, ‘got it, done.’ We took Grady Spann (director of Arkansas State Parks) and the State Parks and Tourism team to Oregon to see how they market their state. I got Grady on a mountain bike in Oakridge and shoved him down a hill, and he fell in love with it. We then helped Grady create a state parks foundation to enable funds to be raised from across the state to be used for trails and other amenities in state parks. Now we’ve got this wonderful team building trail in state parks. Just last week we kicked off phase two on Mount Nebo State Park. You’ve gotta come ride it.

VN: Are the projects ever challenged?

GV: We have to modify some of the vision. If a trail goes through private property, it takes longer. Tom has a lot of cool ideas, but we might have to take a step back sometimes. There may be 12 property owners whose doors we have to knock on. We have to work with the community. Sometimes, you just have to buy a house.

Now, we work with and support a nonprofit group called the Trailblazers, a project management team led by Erin Rushing. They do a lot of our paved and mountain bike trail projects. Paved trails are a lot like building a city road – very complicated, a lot of engineering, working with city, getting permission and permits. We’ve recruited some expert trail designers to be on the team, so they can go out and get bids from the building teams. We can also do some maintenance in house instead of hiring out with our small maintenance and project crew.

When I was a volunteer president for FAST and we wanted something done, it was harder – to talk to the city and convince people. I’ve learned that anything can happen in Northwest Arkansas. The Foundation has really led the way in creating trails that then see a return on economic investment which in turn improves the quality of life in these communities.

VN: When you first moved to Bentonville in 2003, or when you took on this new role four years ago, did you ever imagine that this would be the current state of mountain biking in Northwest Arkansas?

GV: The truth is, I didn’t have the capacity to see it. When I first met Tom, and we’d go out and dig on the first few miles of trail and he’d tell me about this vision of mountain biking I said, ‘yea that sounds great,’ but really, I just wanted to get the trail built so we could ride. He was just this 23 year old, but I had no idea who I was working with.

I recently had an opportunity to go to Zermatt and speak at the International Trails Summit. I did my presentation on Oz Trails — how we got here, where we’re going. It was really fun to see people from all over the world with their mouths wide open when they realized how much stuff we have going on.