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Hybrid Contracting: Extending resources with trail contractors

Hybrid contracting is an intriguing model for effective use of professional contractors in conjunction with other trail project labor-- volunteers, youth corps, and staff trail crews.

By Roger Bell

"The goal is still to accomplish what we all want: better trails on the ground, genuine cost effectiveness, and a sense of fulfillment."

As a trail contractor for over 30 years I'd like to share my ideas and approaches to using the expertise available from professional trail contractors. I also want to describe and urge consideration of some alternative approaches and point to various ways they might be used by agencies and trail advocacy groups to achieve really good results.

I have come to call these alternative models "hybrid contracting," and I increasingly believe, in this era of partnership development and keen interest in trails, that they may provide the best of both worlds-- the security of contract accountability while at the same time promoting community service values and real world skill advancement by engaging the resources of other groups.

In the traditional model, typical of work for the U. S. Forest Service, we follow the requirements of carefully-developed specifications and, under the watchful eye of government inspectors, seek to achieve the desired results while hopefully generating sufficient profit to keep the business afloat.

There is much to recommend the traditional contractor/owner model in building quality trails. It is true that not every project turns out as hoped, and there can be prolonged and painful disputes over the exact meaning of the written plans. But most contractors point with pride at what is achieved through this time-tested process.

In fact, we can get defensive when our hard-earned expertise is ignored and other taxpayer-supported or so-called "free" services are used instead of us. We might even parade stories of poor trails and resource damage caused by these well-meaning groups; and we'd argue that any apparent cost savings by use of these groups exclusively would turn out to be illusory.

Cost, we'd insist, is never just the initial outlay-- it has to do with what lasts over time, with hidden overhead paid by our tax dollars for the care and feeding of in-house crews, with the old fashioned importance of contract accountability. Yes, we tend to get downright patriotic when the value of the profit incentive is ignored in favor of what we might sloganize as "make work" substitutes. (I know, get out the violins!)

But truthfully, for timely completion, tight quality control, and long term cost effectiveness, contracting would usually be the preferred mode. In fact, Forest Service data suggests that contracting, when compared with alternative methods of getting trails built, does tend to produce the best bang for the buck. So for many of my colleagues and many agency people, the traditional model will continue to be the primary or maybe the only method by which they build trails.

Of course we have to acknowledge that there are some projects by truly responsible volunteers, crack job corps teams, and competent agency crews that are fully as good as anything we contractors have built. There are also good reasons why trail managers seek out the services of volunteers, user groups, job corps, prisoners, in-house crews, etc., instead of contractors. These include perceived cost savings, community service values, the importance of job training for youth, grant incentives, promoting interest and skills among user groups, developing trail building competence in-house, or even a lack of knowledge about availability and experienced trail contractors,

When the decision about how to get a project accomplished is being contemplated, the working assumption quite likely is that it must be an either/or approach-- either put the project out to bid and hope to find a qualified contractor or turn to one of these other groups. Rarely would it be recognized, at least from a practical standpoint, that it might be possible or even desirable to combine these resources in ways that would optimize the advantages of both. Or they simply might not know of the availability of qualified contractors who could provide design/build services or who are sufficiently flexible and willing to perform in conjunction with these other kinds of workers.

To make my argument more clear let me mention a couple of contextual examples from my own experience, one a winner and the other a loser, which perhaps will illustrate just how a contractor might be used in conjunction with other groups and what might happen when such expertise is ignored.

"The Winner"

I just completed a project for the City of Scottsdale in Arizona at Pinnacle Peak. This trail was built originally by hand methods and wasn't bad by those capabilities. However, over the past several years, close to 5000 volunteer hours had been spent trying to upgrade and maintain the trail, and still it was too narrow and too dangerous, for equestrians especially, and as a result the trail had been closed. I was hired as a consultant to come up with a plan to solve these problems. They liked the ideas I presented, and asked us to re-build the trail along the lines recommended.

We actually did a subcontract for the contractor who was building their million-dollar trailhead facility, rather than going through a formal bid process-- Scottsdale has very creative administrators! By use of equipment and know-how, we transformed the trail into something really special that, I believe, graphically illustrates what the experienced, equipment-savvy trail contractor can provide. I believe they could have spent another 5000 hours of volunteer help and never come close to what we did in an intensive two-month project. Now that it's in place, the volunteers can stay on top of things through various maintenance efforts. That kind of cooperative interaction between paid experts and "free" volunteer assistance makes better sense than an either/or approach.

"The Loser"

Some time ago, I was asked by a city that backs up into the mountains in the Los Angeles basin to look at an area for a re-routed trail that was in fairly difficult ground for which they had received a County grant. I told them I had good news and bad news. The good news was they could build the trail, the bad news was their grant was too small. I did suggest the possibility of using CCC help for the hand work following our design and machine construction as a way of holding down the costs. I later heard that, using an amateur designer, they had then literally turned the C's loose on the hillside.

The result was one of the worst examples of resource damage and God-awful mess you have ever seen. It was a huge waste of taxpayers' money and probably violated all the County's regulations about what to do on hillside construction. By not using contractor expertise, to save money, they now have something that is extremely unsafe and probably a serious liability hazard. By the way, they asked me to come back in afterwards and tell them how to fix the trail; I was so mad, after walking less than half way, I turned around and went home. I simply could not bear to deal with this mess, but I confess the privately expressed "I told you so's" were a twisted form of recompense. Unfortunately, I'm guessing the ugliness remains. There are four types of alternative, hybrid contracting approaches I want to mention. I am sure there are other variations, but these should provide some starting points:

1. Design/build contracts

Obviously, this is not an entirely new concept, but it has been used infrequently for trails. My approach with a number of city, county and developer projects has been significantly less formalized than might be necessary if our work was not already known to them and if we had not established a level of trustworthiness and competence from work with them and other clients with similar projects. In other words, this informality clearly is enabled only after a period of establishing credibility with a mix of such clients.

At their request, I typically begin by writing a brief proposal in which I lay out several phases of work. Since I have some idea about the project to begin with, the design phase is priced on a lump sum basis to include a physical layout, a description of any structures proposed, written specifications (adapted to this project from the Forest Service Specs with which I am quite familiar), time commitment, etc.

Where the work is fairly straightforward I can price the construction phase as well. Where the work is less clear at the outset, I can provide a rough estimate to be confirmed or altered after design work is complete and after they have approved or not the various recommendations offered. I also provide a one-year warranty for any defects that occur as a result of faulty work in fulfillment of the specifications, as well as insurance and license information.

I usually offer a one-year maintenance agreement for a nominal fee. I believe this is advantageous as most problems show up during the first year. If we are responsible for coming back to fix any problems, we have a stake in assuring the trail is built to a high level of sustainability to begin with. But, as in the case of Pinnacle Peak, this maintenance phase can be where the volunteers or agency staff take over. I contend that a trail built to standards enabled by our equipment and know-how, and upon which our reputation is built, will be considerably easier for others to maintain.

My own more or less informal approach might not work for larger procurement systems such as the Forest Service. But the creation of design/build contracts for trails apparently is on the agenda of that agency, at least partly because so many of their trail design experts have retired. A few such contracts have been let, but to my taste and admittedly skewed viewpoint, they seem to be mired in rather cumbersome, overly formalized procedures which don't necessarily evoke the full creative potential this approach offers.

My advice would be to select trail contractors much like they would architects using a Request for Proposal (RFP) format. Candidates would submit a portfolio of completed projects similar to that contemplated in this instance, along with references and recommendations. A preliminary idea of how the contractor would propose to handle the specific project would be indicated along with a cost estimate.

These proposals would be culled down to a "short list" of finalists. The contractor would then be selected by a mix of track record and proposed approach, with price a factor but not the only or even the primary one. Design/build clearly is a form of hybrid contracting that alters the way a project is perceived and administered.

2. Contractor as consultant for work by others

One of our former PTBA members, Jim Angell, has made a career out of providing his services to agencies and user groups as a design expert and as a supervisor/trainer for volunteer work groups. Mostly these are projects that use people power, hand tools, and winches rather than heavier equipment. For Jim and his clients it is a viable form of hybrid contracting that calls on the vast experience of a single skilled individual.

3. Projects done in conjunction with others

I have contracted a dozen projects in recent years in which we have worked alongside job corps teams, volunteers, and in-house crews. In some, we did the design and layout and the initial machine work while others did the hand work; or we came in to do a specialized aspect of a project for which the California Conservation Corps (CCC), as the primary work group, had been hired under the supervision of the agency.

Such projects do call for a certain level of creativity on the part of the agencies because they tend to fly in the face of usual procedural requirements. Terry Hanson, from the City of Redding, CA, describes a private development where the trail was part of the developer's responsibility. He wanted to assure that the trail was built to the City's and the local trail committee's requirements and suggested to the developer that he consider hiring me to do the design work and provide funds directly to the City for actual construction. I did come up for a few days to do the design and layout and prepared a set of specifications.

The City in turn gave the construction dollars to the local CCC, who have a regular trail crew, with the understanding that they would put out a contract for the machine portion of the project. All of the work would be built according to the specifications I had written. We then bid on the project and were awarded the contract.

We built a second trail in the system which followed a similar pattern-- although in this case the land had been provided to the City by the BLM, who held a proprietary interest in how the trail was built and how it impacted the ecosystem.

Glen Kinney of the Canejo Open Space District in Thousand Oaks, CA, describes a project to repair a difficult section of trail in their extensive system. Their well-trained trail crew owns a SWECO trail machine and does much of their own work. But in this case the grant required most work be done by youth and, because of heavy bedrock, the wider-tracked SWECO was not a good option. The District hired us for a week to use our Takeuchi Excavator to build several switchbacks in these heavy rock areas. Their crew and the CCC were present to haul in materials for the switchbacks and they continued with further aspects of the project after our departure.

4. The opportunity for on-going training

These projects also have an informal training dimension which could be made more explicit. It would be easy to write contracts to include training in the trail building process, equipment use, and other skills. WTBA has proposed this idea to the National Trail Training Partnership; we think actual projects are a great opportunity for developing excellent hands-on training programs.

Maybe hybrid contracting is nothing really new, but it allows us to look at some fresh ways of doing business. The goal is still to accomplish what we all want: better trails on the ground, genuine cost effectiveness, and a sense of fulfillment by all those who contribute to realizing our mutual hopes.

Roger Bell is president of Bellfree Contractors, Inc., and formerly a college administrator. He is also active with the Professional Trailbuilders Association. The Association represents an impressive range of experience among its 38 professional trail contractor members. For project examples, many photos, and contacts for trail expertise see PTBA's website at

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