- Associated Press - Saturday, May 17, 2014

COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Chad Irey, who’s either built or supervised the construction of most of the trail system in Covington’s 700-acre Devou Park, recently became the first Kentuckian and the 85th person in the world to be accepted into the Professional Trailbuilders Association.

Since 2009, the 40-year-old Covington man with a passion for hiking and off-road cycling has done everything from recruiting and supervising volunteers to build natural surface trails in Devou Park to helping raise money for trail construction.

As a result, the self-employed carpenter with thousands of volunteer hours designing and building trails has turned a hobby into a business that’s dedicated to building a regionally renowned trail system. Irey’s Dirt Artisans company has specialized in natural surface trail design, construction and maintenance at various locations in Greater Cincinnati for the past four years.

“To be accepted by some of the masters in the profession is awesome,” Irey said of his April acceptance into the Professional Trailbuilders Association. “Those people have been building trails for 40 to 50 years. It’s a huge professional jolt, but more than that, trail building is fun. I’m a lucky person who’s been able to turn my hobby into a profession.”

Founded in 1976, the Professional Trailbuilders Association is North America’s largest private sector group of trail specialists, professional trail contractors, designers and consultants. Besides U.S. trail builders, the group has members from Canada and France. Its website boasts that its membership is small because it stands for quality over quantity.

Irey moved to Covington for a job after graduating from college. Although intrigued by Devou Park, the Lewisburg neighborhood resident found himself driving several hours to Brown County, Indiana, because of the quality trails for hiking and off road cycling.

Nine years ago, Irey and a group of volunteers drew a master plan for a Devou Park trail system and started petitioning Covington officials for approval.

“The park had an untapped green space that was just sitting there vacant,” Irey said. “So a couple of other local guys and I went to the city and petitioned them (to build the trails).”

Construction started in late 2009. Nearly 1,000 volunteers have devoted more than 10,000 hours to trail construction and design since.

An advocacy group, Cincinnati Off Road Alliance, also raised about $210,000 to build the trails, including $120,000 from an anonymous donor.

Irey decided to get training on how to build trails after the advocacy group began raising money. That prompted him to apply for membership in the Professional Trailbuilders Association. Devou Park also was the professional catalyst that prompted Irey to establish Dirt Artisans.

“Chad approached me back in 2008 about constructing mountain bike and hiking trails on the west side of (Devou) Park,” said Natalie Gardner, Covington’s programs and strategic projects manager.

As the volunteer leader for the Greater Cincinnati Off-Road Alliance, Irey’s overseen fund raising for the project, Gardner said. He also organized volunteers to help build the trails and took the time to become a certified trail builder, she said.

“Chad loves mountain biking, and he wanted trails close to where he lived,” Gardner said. “He’s created trails that he and his friends can ride on, but we also have people driving down from places like Dayton, Ohio, to ride on our trails when they’re open.”

The city had 2 miles of paved trails and about 1 mile of nature trails in Devou Park when Irey approached them, Gardner said. Nature trails now total about 10 miles.

Irey said the trails draw tourists and are a selling point for potential Covington residents.

Hikers and off-road cyclists who visit Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on business may stay in Covington because of the recreational opportunities the trails offer, Irey said. Those visitors also patronize restaurants, hotels, shops and area attractions.

“More and more municipalities across the country are seeing the value of having a trail system,” Irey said. “The bang for the buck is huge.”

Mike Passo, director of the Professional Trailbuilders Association, said that “it’s a tough process” to be accepted into the group. He cited Irey’s “excellent experience,” especially in building trails for mountain bikes.

Besides supporting its members, the Professional Trailbuilders Association serves as a resource for anyone looking to build a trail.

Too often, Passo said, governments will hire a road contractor to build a trail.

“Building a trail is very different from building a road,” he said. “If you hire someone who doesn’t specialize in trailbuilding, you can end up with this horrible trail that’s washed out every year or is too wide to use. We’re all about building sustainable trails that last for 50 years plus. For that, you need specialized equipment and very specialized skills.”

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