Happy trails: Maura McKnight leaves Headwaters Trails Alliance
November 13, 2014
FRASER — Maura McKnight has blazed an ascendant path for Headwaters Trails Alliance during the past five years, but the time has come for the organization's executive director to explore new territory.
"I'm so sad," McKnight said of her leave-taking. "It's been a really emotional time for me."
Since early 2010, McKnight has led an organization that has evolved from a fledgling agency with an ambitious mission to the premier trails organization in Grand County. In addition to completing the Fraser to Granby Trail — "pretty much the inception of HTA" — the organization has helped lay the groundwork for the East Shore Trail between Lake Granby and Grand Lake, has installed informative signs the length of the Fraser to Granby Trail and has been instrumental in getting officials and volunteers from across the county involved in numerous trail enhancements from Kremmling to Winter Park.
In addition, McKnight pioneered the hiring of full-time seasonal help to oversee the Adopt-A-Trail Program, which the organization took over during her tenure, she oversaw HTA's move into the former Fraser visitor's center, the organization led the Run the Ranches events for years, it has worked on the Grand County Master Trails plan, developed a new website, updated its print map and put an new interactive one online, and involved hundreds of youth in volunteer programs.
"It's been an amazing run," said Roger Hedlund, president of the HTA board. "It's been a joy and a pleasure to work with Maura the past five years. … She helped steer HTA to a new level."
Looking back, McKnight said at its core her work entailed connecting communities, both physically and figuratively.
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"I was so inspired by this work," she said. "It's part of who I am."
With the addition of the full-time summer Adopt-A-Trails coordinator this past summer, she said it was possible to log about 3,000 man-hours in the field, much of it volunteer work.
"It was the best year ever here."
But it was working with youth volunteers that she remembers most fondly.
"Putting youth to work on our trails is huge," she said. Their outlook is "so fresh and new." She estimated that during the past five years, some 1,000 youth have participated in HTA projects.
Leap of faith
Prior to taking the HTA director's job, McKnight was working at the Grand Foundation and was familiar with HTA. When the opening arose, she said she decided to take a leap of faith.
"It was almost like I needed to adopt that baby."
Some initiatives McKnight worked on remain works in progress, such as the Grand County Master Trails Plan, which is not yet in its final stages as she prepares to leave this month.
"It's a monster," she said. "That has proven to be one of the most challenging projects."
She said she thinks before it is completed, a consultant might have to be hired to work with all the competing interests.
She also said she would like to see the agency have a more sustainable and predictable funding stream. Though Grand County has stepped up and she has been successful at raising funds, it is difficult maintain momentum while relying on grants all the time, she explained.
During her tenure, she has raised about $25,000 in private donations, $300,000 in in-kind contributions and garnered $500,000 in grants, said Hedlund, all the while significantly enhancing the organization's profile.
"HTA is a much stronger presence in the community thanks to Maura," he said.
For her part, McKnight said she has greatly enjoyed working with people and officials at public lands agencies.
She said she's also been very fortunate. "I've worked with people who really care."
Another labor of love is drawing her away from HTA: McKnight is leaving to become the chief financial officer for her family businesses, Tabernash Tavern and Rocky Mountain Catastrophe & Restoration.
The businesses have grown to the point where her expertise is needed, and she's looking forward to it.
"It's exciting to be part of a successful company," she said, adding it is particularly rewarding to work for your own company.
Yet trails and HTA won't be far from her heart, and she sees a bright future for trails here.
"I think this is going to become a trails mecca," she said, noting that there are about 1,000 miles of trails in Grand County. And the county is particularly well suited to further trails development and coordination.
Whether one likes to hunt, fish, bike, hike or ski — all of which take place here enthusiastically — "the common denominator is trails. … It's the economic driver of our communities," she said.
Given that, "I'm hopeful about HTA's future," she added.
"It's with heavy hearts" that the board accepted her resignation, Hedlund said. "We're only wishing her the best."
Then again, the parting may be only temporary, he noted: She may end up serving on the board.
In the meantime, Hedlund said the board has decided on McKnight's replacement but was not quite ready to make an announcement.