Sierra Buttes trail builders working on a switchback


Sierra Buttes trail builders working on a switchback


PayDirt Profile: Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship

October 06 — 2020 | Downieville, Calif. USA


Some 17 years ago Santa Cruz Bicycles helped found the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship in the Lost Sierra region of California, not far from world-famous Lake Tahoe. It was Santa Cruz’s first real foray into trail advocacy, so it’s somehow fitting that SBTS is the first PayDirt recipient. And while the boost PayDirt gives is certainly welcome, the year 2020 with its pandemic and wildfires and all manner of unrest has given SBTS much to deal with.

We sat down for a little Q&A with SBTS’ Executive Director, Greg Williams, and resident Writer/Trail Whisperer, Kurt Gensheimer, to see how they’re turning lemons into lemonade….


SCB: First off, Kurt, what’s a “Trail Whisperer”?

KG: Someone who tromps through the woods looking for historic trails to resurrect and figuring out new trail routes.


SCB: OK now that we have that out of the way, let’s start with the big questions…COVID-19 has knocked us all on our back feet one way or another. The race SBTS is most famous for–the Downieville Classic­–as well as the other two Triple Crown races, The Lost and Found, and Mountains-to-Meadows were all cancelled this year due to pandemic. How big of an impact is cancelling the races, psychologically and financially for SBTS?

KG: The impact on SBTS for not having events can’t be understated. Event proceeds were the biggest non-grant oriented source of funds for SBTS, and to have that source completely gone will change the future of the organization. At this point, we are not sure when events will come back, and if SBTS will even decide to do events in the future. SBTS is now forced to look inward, and figure out how we are going to replace this life-sustaining source of funding.

A trail builder cutting through a log with a chainsaw
A trail builder

SCB: Obviously that’s pretty serious. We know race registration money for the Downieville Classic was collected and not refunded. Why...and where did that money go?

KG: Long story short - those entry fees are being used to make sure the trails you know and love stay open to the public while preserving a handful of jobs that would otherwise force SBTS to close its doors.

The longer explanation is that every grant SBTS applies for comes with an “in-kind match” component, meaning, we must supply a portion of every grant awarded (this ranges from 25%-100% of the total funds requested), in volunteer labor or as a cash match. Over the years, SBTS has always had tremendous volunteer support that we could apply towards the match. But due to COVID, we’re unable to do that this year, leaving SBTS with a massive financial gap to fill.

Event registration fees from this year will go to filling this gap so we can still meet the grant match requirement and complete the trail projects already in process. Funds will also go to ongoing trail maintenance grants and keeping our core staff employed.


SCB: That sounds pretty devastating…with a compounding effect: No volunteers to actually move dirt AND you have to apply the dollars that you do have to meet the grant requirements…ouch.  What about the race sponsors? Did they honor their financial commitments despite the race not happening?

GW: Most race sponsors pulled their financial support when they learned the race was cancelled. Luckily SBTS has a handful of partners, like Santa Cruz Bicycles, that believe in our mission and understand the importance of supporting our efforts to create Dirt Magic.

One mountain biker riding down a trail at night with a light behind them

SCB: So some people may know that the bike shop Yuba Expeditions (with locations in Downieville and Quincy) is part of the SBTS empire. In a normal year they’d be cranking with rentals, repairs and shuttle service to the top of the Downieville Downhill. None of that is really happening this year…why?

KG: Our number one priority is protecting the communities in which we live. Sierra and Plumas counties have among the lowest COVID case counts in the state, and we want to help keep it that way. We felt it would be irresponsible to run shuttles this year. Now is not the time to be bringing thousands of people into our small communities with older residents who are more vulnerable to COVID.


SCB: So you have this fleet of shuttle vans that are just sitting there?

KG: No. We took out all the seats and refitted them to carry our trail crew and their equipment to the many project sites we have going now, which thankfully was deemed essential work early on in the pandemic.

a bunch of trail rakes

SCB: That seems like a really smart way to pivot…taking what would have been a wasted resource and repurposing it to get more work done on the trails. What specific projects has the crew been working on this summer?

KG: There have been a number of projects in the works, but the most significant is the completion of Cal-Ida Trail, 19 miles of brand new singletrack connecting Halls Ranch west of Downieville to the Chimney Rock Trail. This was a huge multi-year collaboration between SBTS, Tahoe National Forest, Nevada County Woods Riders, California State Parks OHV Division, and the Recreational Trails Program. The trail is open for all recreational use, including motorized use and e-bikes. The completion of Cal-Ida also puts SBTS over the threshold of 100 miles of new trail built since the organization’s founding in 2003.

Two trail builders moving an old cart with wooden sides
A Sierra Buttes trail builder

SCB: That’s quite an accomplishment in these rugged mountains…and we’re super stoked to see these visionary projects coming to fruition despite the conditions and the context of the moment. Let’s zoom in on the towns themselves for a moment..what’s it been like this year in Downieville and Quincy?

KG: Like everywhere else right now, it’s just….weird. The bar is closed. Yuba Expeditions is barely operating. The Downieville Classic–along with every other event in Downieville– didn’t happen. The morale of town is pretty low. But the upside is that we’re seeing a lot of first-timers coming to Downieville. There’s been unprecedented demand for families trying to escape the city and get up to the mountains for some peace, quiet and fresh air, so that’s good. I am hoping on the backside of all this that Plumas and Sierra County see some new full-time residents escaping urban areas and raising families in the mountains where the quality of life is so much better.

GW: Business at our shop in Quincy has also been slow without shuttles running. Beyond the negative effects we’ve experienced due to COVID, we’ve also had a 300,000+ acre wildfire burning to the immediate south of us since August 17th and our surrounding National Forests have closed and then reopened trails and trailheads twice because of wildfire danger. Quincy has been evacuated multiple times and the American Valley has been filled with thick smoke and falling ash, making it extremely tough for our shop and for other local businesses, that are dependent on recreational tourism and access to public lands, to survive.


SCB: I get the sense that your emotions run the full spectrum, which seems to be par-for-the-2020-course. What parts of the projects you’re working on help keep you sane given the context?

KG: The Connected Communities effort SBTS launched this year will change the future of the organization and the region, linking 15 mountain communities across four rural California counties via 300 miles of new and existing singletrack. The zone between Downieville and Quincy is particularly exciting, especially Buzzard’s Roost Ridge and Nelson Creek. These are both historically significant and beautiful, rugged old trails that almost fell out of the Plumas National Forest’s trail infrastructure, meaning, we would never be able to get maintenance funds to work on them. But thanks to the efforts of a few key staff, these historic trails have been resurrected, and the trail crew is in the process of brushing them out. They will serve as critical connector trails in the Quincy to Downieville route, which will be a premier multi-day backcountry route for mountain biking and motorized use.

Two mountain bikers riding down a singletrack trail

SCB: Having ridden many of these areas separately, I can see why you’re excited about the prospect of bringing them all together. And in a way, it seems almost miraculous. Who have you guys brought together to make this all possible?

KG: None of what SBTS does would be possible without partnerships, especially land managers. We are blessed to be working with some of the most forward-thinking land managers in the country. The Plumas National Forest and Tahoe National Forest are our two main partners, along with the Lassen National Forest and smaller local land managers like the Sierra County Land Trust and the Feather River Land Trust. And of course, without the public’s support and our army of volunteers (who will hopefully be coming back in 2021!), SBTS wouldn’t exist.


SCB: Sounds like you guys have an amazing thing going. Any words of wisdom (whispers of wisdom?) you’d like to inspire the rest of us with?

KG: Be good to one another. Times are tough for everyone. We’re all trying to make it through this rocky road. Let’s stick together, support one another, and make sure our communities come out on the other end healthy and strong.


For more info on riding in Downieville, Quincy, and the Lost Sierra, as well as info on the SBTS, visit