Rogue bike trails riling rangers
Downhill bikes can dig deep ruts on the steeper trails, and because downhillers usually ride straight down the fall line, those steep ruts can channel water faster and carry away ground cover and soils, says Dave Ozawa, a snow ranger at the Holy Cross Ranger Station.
“When people are pioneering a new trail, that’s what causes resource damage,” Ozawa says. “There’s a renegade element. They buy these $2,000 downhill bikes, but we don’t build and design trails for that kinds of use.”
The downhill bikes, which weigh up to 50 pounds, are equipped with shock absorbers offering up to six inches of travel. By comparison, the shocks on lighter, cross-country mountain bikes only travel about two or three inches and don’t dig ruts as deep as the downhillers.
“Most of the trails we have out there are designed to accommodate a cross-country type mountain bike,” Ozawa said.
A local organization, the Trail Action Group, has been working with Ozawa and forest officials to design steeper trails where downhillers can have harrowing rides without damaging the soils.
“It’s a challenge to provide technical difficulty in a way that doesn’t end up with all the dirt at the bottom of the hill,” said Dawes Wilson, a valley cyclist with the Trail Action Group.
New technology allows downhillers to ride all over the forest, Wilson said.
“They just ride through the woods and the skilled rider can ride down incredible steepness, rocks, logs. They can go seemingly almost anywhere and they do,” he said.
And once a trail is created, the problem only gets worse, he said.
“Once one person goes down, people follow, and in a couple of weeks there’s a trail and in a couple of months there’s a trench and then they abandon that and go somewhere else,” Wilson said.
“Polly’s Plunge,” which drops through the forest from Beaver Creek Mountain to the Eagle-Vail golf course, is an example of a successful trail, Wilson and Ozawa said.
Forest officials, members of the Trail Action Group and other downhillers worked together to reroute the trail and used logs to anchor the soil in hopes of preventing environmental damage.
“It was a success in keeping a trail interesting for descending and still making it sustainable,” Wilson said. “It was completely rerouted and some of the fall line sections that had widened to 50 feet where people cast about for better descents, have been narrowed back to singletrack.”
But there is still work going to improve Polly’s Plunge, Wilson said.
“It’s an ongoing experiment,” he said.
The White River National Forest is soon to complete a plan that will set management policies for the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. That plan is due this summer, and after its release officials will begin examining roads and trails in a Travel Management Plan, said Rich Doak, recreation staff officer at the White River National Forest.
“Nationally, erosion is a concern,” Doak said. “If we find a place where biking is causing environmental damage, we may be looking at closing that.”
The problem is not as dire on official forest trails, and Doak said he didn’t anticipate any closures this summer. But even the ruts created when bikers hit the brakes digs ruts in trails that aren’t so steep, Doak said.
“Any time you create a surface feature in a trail that’s going to collect water, that causes problems,” he said. “It’s very variable. Some soil types are really susceptible to it and others aren’t too bad.”
Every known trail, official or unofficial, will be analyzed in the Travel Management Plan, Doak said.
“Those places where erosion or resource damage is occurring, we’re definitely going to have to take some action, whether it’s hardening a trail, rerouting it or closure,” he said. “Everything will be a system trail or closed.”
Riders say there isn’t enough manpower to keep downhillers from blazing new trails. So the best solution may be to educate bikers and continue working with organizations like the Trail Action Group.
“We’ve gotten pretty good cooperation in helping us maintain the trails and design new trails,” Doak said. “But we have to encourage some mountain bikers that they have to start taking responsibility for these trails.”
But education will continue to compete with bikers and bike technology.
“There isn’t manpower or the possibility of real enforcement so I just encourage downhillers to get involved with legitimate trail-building efforts,” he said. “And learn something about what works and what doesn’t and just realize that there can’t be a trail everywhere.”
Matt Zalaznick covers public safety, Eagle County Courts and Avon/ Beaver Creek. He can be reached at (970) 949-0555 ext. 606 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.