It’s like sidewalks in the woods…when neighborhoods have sidewalks, people use them and they meet and greet their neighbors…when we have trails, people meet and greet…along the trails.

Jed Olson

Executive Director, ORA Trails - Outdoor Recreation Alliance

In this episode, we hit the trails with Jed Olson, Executive Director of ORA Trails. We discuss Jed’s background, what ORA does, upcoming projects and how people can get involved in this trail building organization.

La Crosse Local is proud sponsor of the La Crosse Winter Roots Festival.

Balancing Act.

Jed Olsen 01:13
I’m Jed Olson, I was born in Mora, Minnesota. And I ended up in Ora Trails or with Ora Trails by way of some college roommates and friends who were La Crosse natives. They drew me down to the La Crosse area. And I kind of fell in love and was amazed that there was the geologic diversity, and all the amazing outdoor activities that we could do here. So that’s how I first ended up in La Crosse. And very quickly I got involved in Human Powered Trails, which eventually turned into Ora Trails.

Brent Hanifl 01:46
For me, I see it all the time, the different trail building, the different activities. For someone who doesn’t know about it, what is Ora Trails?

Jed Olsen 01:53
So, Ora Trails is a nonprofit and our primary mission is getting more people outside. I think our formal mission is along the lines of we’re committed to developing healthy, happy, healthy and resilient communities by providing access to sustainable and equitable outdoor experiences. So really what that says is we want people outside, enjoying the things that we have here, in turn, kind of engendering some ownership of the spaces and the experiences and developing outdoor minded and oriented community members and individuals.

Brent Hanifl 02:27
For some people out there they might already be participating in an Ora Trail project. What are some of your past projects? But also what are some that are coming up?

Jed Olsen 02:37
Yeah, so we’ve done a lot of projects over the years and early on. We started with a lot of just very small scale, hand construction, maintenance of trails, and kind of developed a lot of the system that you see at upper Hickson early on in conjunction with the city of La Crosse. That’s on on city owned property that eventually became part property as well. And so we had a big hand to do in the development of that trail system. Now since then, we’ve done lots of maintenance and new projects, restoration, reroutes trail improvements across a lot of the La Crosse park systems. And we continue to expand working with La Crosse County, Town of Shelby, city of Onalaska. We’ve had all sorts of projects from Little Free Sled libraries to ice skating trails to skate park improvements. So you’ve you’ve seen a lot of our projects around. And looking forward, we’ve got a lot of different types of projects on the horizon. We’re looking at expanding different events and programmatic projects. So expanding programs to get maybe its younger people, older people outside more engaged. Specifically, we’re looking at wrapping up a Miller Bluff project here in the fall of 2021. Working with the city of La Crosse to connect Miller Bluff on the north end of Hickson Forest down into the Hickson Forest parking area. But bigger than that, we really look to improve lots of parks and access points across the entire region. So again, I mentioned some of our other smaller municipalities in the region, we’re looking at continuing to connect and developing what’s called the Bluffs Land Coalition or the Bluffs Land Trail System. So a number of municipalities got together about five years ago to kind of lay out a plan on how we could really connect our community with trails. And we’re really working toward putting that plan into action and putting it into place. So that involves maybe purchasing some new parcels, the potential of getting easements, public easements on private land, where folks would allow a trail to cross through their property, as well as developing trails on parcels that are already owned and controlled by these municipalities.

Brent Hanifl 04:51
You know, just looking at it, is that part of the 50 and 5 commitment that you guys are doing?

Jed Olsen 04:56
Yeah, it’s that 50 and 5 commitment it’s just really, it’s a way to talk about the scale that that we’re talking in the next five years. We really feel like there could be 50 miles of trail that interconnect our communities. And that would absolutely be part of it, we would definitely tie some existing Bluffton properties like the Hickson Forest area, Matthew Quarry, and the Butterfly Trails at Shelby with maybe properties that are lesser known or properties that haven’t yet been acquired. Or like I mentioned, there’s a number of private parties who’ve said, man, we would love to have a trail cross through our property, especially if it gets our neighbors out moving and, and it’s like sidewalks in the woods, right? When neighborhoods have sidewalks, people use them, and they meet and greet their neighbors along the sidewalk. And when we’ve got trails, neighbors use them and people meet and greet their neighbors along the trails.

Brent Hanifl 05:45
I love the sidewalks in the in the woods component, that’s a good way to put it. I know for me personally COVID, the last 18 months, I know my family’s really appreciated the pump tracks, getting the kids outside. Also know that, you know, outdoor recreation kind of boomed with bicycles and hiking. How did COVID affect your organization? Or how did you adapt?

Jed Olsen 06:07
We had to pivot on you know, on little specifics, like we had to make sure that we were being socially distance and cleaning tools. And especially early on when really nobody understood how COVID was being transmitted, we weren’t sure if touching the tool that somebody else touched could get your COVID or not. And so we made some of those pivots on those small things. But the great part about what we were doing was so much of it was outside. And we did learn that being outside is a relatively safe space. And a lot of what we were doing was spread out outside. So we were able to maintain and carry forward with a lot of our types of activities that that really are valued, especially our volunteer opportunities, but we weren’t able to do everything. So public input sessions became a little bit trickier. And engaging the public with celebration events, and acknowledgement, you know, grand openings and stuff like that, you know, we didn’t even do a grand opening for our Grandad Bluff Trail project, which we were able to complete the project or during COVID. But we didn’t call, you know, people out into a big celebration, because we’re worried about people being close together. So like you mentioned, outdoor activities in general have seen a huge, a huge boom during COVID. And that’s really helped us. It’s brought new people, new voices, new eyes into our projects. We’ve talked to folks who sound like they’ve been hiking, you know, all of the trails around La Crosse for years. And, and they’ll say, oh, no, we just started during COVID. And now, you know, they’ve hiked everywhere you can hike, they know these trails, like the back of their hand. And they’re even proposing, you know, new neighborhood access connections and new possible partners that, you know, we didn’t know exist before. So COVID has been, if there’s any upsides to COVID, it’s definitely in the ways that it’s shown people the value of some of the things that we’ve had for decades or had for generations, but many people lost sight and lost the value in some of those opportunities. So it’s been beneficial in some ways.

Brent Hanifl 08:02
You know, you kind of reference multiple ways that people can participate. I know, I see the trail building activities, people can volunteer in different ways. And also, I also see that trails, you know, it’s said, now the trails also attract, you know, educated, smart people to actually relocate here, for businesses to come here. For someone who maybe just showed up, or someone who’s been here for a while that appreciates the trails, how can people participate in the group?

Jed Olsen 08:27
Yeah, so we have our most obvious way that we get volunteers out is getting volunteers dirty, right? We put people in the woods, building stuff, managing invasive species, doing all sorts of different in the woods projects. But we have a lot of room for volunteerism outside of those types of projects as well. We need people to check folks in and out of those projects. If you like just sitting at a picnic table and chit chatting with people, we’ve got a spot for you. We need people to help us with graphic design, data entry, party planning, all sorts of things. So the easiest way to get in touch is to contact Liz, our volunteer coordinator and administrative director and her email is Or we have a as well, which can always, you know, get you in the door. If you’ve got a talent that you want to see put to use give us a shout and I’m sure we can figure out a way to get it in place. Just this weekend, I was up in Eau Claire with our high school mountain bike teams, sorry high school and middle school mountain bike team. And the whole coaching staff for that is all volunteer. And we’ve got these parents who volunteer to help not only do the coaching but put together group meals for the whole crew. So these events involve kind of an overnight camping experience and then a mountain bike race. We’ve had, I shouldn’t say all parents, we’ve got some volunteers who are maybe our parents, but their kids aren’t on the team anymore. We’ve got quite a few that are under that category. So there’s all sorts of ways that folks can get involved. And one of them that we maybe sometimes don’t advocate enough is if you can donate, we can take your dollars and we can leverage them and blow them up, you know, turn $1 into three or $4. And then turn those $4 into great projects here in the community.

Brent Hanifl 10:15
Just knowing you a little bit and knowing how you know you like to indulge in the outdoors here seeing you on your videos, hidden up the trails, tearing it up a little bit. What are you excited for personally, I guess, excited for the next year or two in the La Crosse area related to trails?

Jed Olsen 10:30
Yeah, so I think the thing that I’m most excited for is not myself. I’m somebody who you know, I can go out and use neighbors land and I’ve got a lot of friends who say oh you can come out and hunt or hike whenever you want. I’ve got access to lots of things. It’s my neighbors and the people in our community that I really am excited to see the outside. I’d say one of those groups is kids. I’m currently giving this interview from the top of Grandad Bluff and our lead donor on that, he said when he was 11, he’d come to run up the bluffs and play with his buddies all day. And they, you know, came back home when the streetlights came on. And in the last year, since we’ve completed this project, that’s exactly what we’ve seen. We’ve seen kids from the neighborhood right around Grandad’s Bluff, you know, criss-crossing to the bluff, up and down the trails, being able to find it, explore it. What I’d really like to see is kids from other neighborhoods have that same opportunity. So whether it’s learning how to be on the bus, to get from a neighborhood over toward the bluffs, toward trails, or toward the river, or being able to put more access points and more neighborhoods. So that’s the piece that really just, you know, gives me goosebumps, gives me chills, and really keeps me going for the next project, the next adventure.

Brent Hanifl 11:44
If people want to find out more, maybe donate some money, or maybe just reach out, you know, to volunteer, what’s the best avenue for them to go to?

Jed Olsen 11:52
It’s really easy to get over to our website, which is So it’s o-r-a-t-r-a-i-l-s dot org. Or you can follow us on Facebook, and Instagram, we aren’t Snapchatting or Tiktoking yet, but you can definitely catch us on our Facebook and Instagram. And that’s where a lot of events and activities are posted. But we’re currently working on improving our calendar on our website. So hopefully those who want to resist the social media craze can do that. And we are totally good with that. So those other places you can find out about us and come up to one of our work nights and maybe you’ll get hooked and become a trained leader. We do have all sorts of volunteer trainings that happen throughout the year, including, you know, we’ve got upcoming chainsaw certifications. So there’s so many different ways to get involved in our organization. And we love watching folks go from, you know, from the sidelines to sitting the bench to you know, playing lead positions once they’ve been trained or have advanced, shown that they’ve got the leadership skills to take on projects and really help us continue to push our mission forward.

Amy Gabay 13:03
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