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Tell-tale trails

Allen Best

Erosion is at the heart of the argument about trails near Eagle and Gypsum, and nowhere is this new erosion of recent years so starkly evident as at Hockett Gulch. It’s a glimpse of an unrestrained, unmanaged future.The thin gypsum-based soils of Hockett Gulch are crisscrossed with trails in a way reminiscent of a map of New England, with little squiggly lines everywhere. Applied to the rumpled landscape, no one line is annoying. The amalgamation of them is.”Twenty years ago you didn’t see any of this. Ten years ago you saw very little of this,” said Bill Heicher, open space coordinator for the town of Eagle. “Most of this damage has occurred in the last five to eight years.”Heicher, who recently retired from a 32-year career as a state wildlife officer in the valley, first began fretting about unrestricted use in Hockett Gulch in the mid-1970s. At that time, he wrote a letter to the Bureau of Land Management urging restrictions on designated trails.Even so, damage was minor for many years. But rapid population growth combined with new “toys” elevated his sense of urgency in the 1990s. “I understand that (Bureau of Land Management officials) take direction from Denver and Washington, but somewhere, somebody has to be accountable,” he said, surveying the maze of trails through the pinon and juniper forests.Eagle’s rapidly expanding population is a major reason for the proliferating trails. The community’s population has doubled since the mid-1990s. Now at 4,000 people, the numbers are expected to double again based on housing already approved. Just as profound has been the proliferation of mechanized and motorized vehicles. Use of mountain bikes and motorcycles has surged, and if other areas are a guide, all-terrain vehicles are sure to follow. Leaving behind roads, bicyclists and motorists – as their level of expertise increases – are seeking the thrill of defying spills on steep, one-track trails.

I remember my first appreciation for the physical brazenness of – and the soil erosion caused by – mountain bikers. I went to inspect a new mountain bike trail called Oso on the ridge above Eagle-Vail. It lunged down through the trees in a way that earned your instant respect. Whoever rode this trail had more than leather seats. Looking at it I envisioned broken bones, blood, and mangled bikes. But obviously, people were riding it with success.The cost of this success was a hillside that looked like it had been scraped down with a Bobcat earth-mover, maybe even a front-end loader. And this was in the forest, thick with duff, not on in the crusty Eagle Valley evaporate which passes for soil around Eagle and Gypsum.Since then, I have had many occasions to study erosion. No matter how dainty our feet, no matter how narrow our tires, we all dislodge the soil. It’s just a matter of how fast.Everybody erodesPartly because of scant moisture, partly because of the chemical composition, the soil around Eagle only grudgingly concedes vegetation. This makes these hills easily vulnerable to erosion. Also affecting erosion is the steepness of the slope. The steeper the hillside, the greater the erosion. A trail running straight down a slope creates the most erosion. Given these two generalities, there’s probably a pecking order of damages. All other things being equal, it seems that the feet of hikers create erosion most slowly. Beyond that, it’s hard to say whether mountain bike wheels or horses create more damage. Horses are heavier, but wheels create a continuous V-shaped groove that allows water to rush, gaining velocity. Causing the most erosion – again, assuming all other things are equal – are motorized vehicles.The operative phrase here is “all other things being equal.” A hiking trail straight up a chalky hillside will probably cause more damage than a trail on a meadow used by slow-moving Jeeps. But we’re talking here about steep hillsides and erodable soils.Motorized tires can dig up the dirt quickly. A trail above Avon, at a place called Cross Gulch, became deeply rutted in just a year. For decades it had been used by sheep, by horses, even by a few hikers and mountain bikers. When the motorcycles came, the grass was beat down rapidly.”Healing” such ruts takes decades, perhaps more than a century, land managers say. History bears that claim out. In Wyoming, even today, the path once used by oxen-drawn wagons crossing on their way to Oregon during the 1840s remains visible.In many cases, after the erosion has started, it’s not simply a matter of ceasing use of that particular trail. Once the path for water rushing down the hillside has been created, it takes on a life of its own. In places across the West there are big gullies that began as small ruts.Following this logic, the conclusion should be clear: Unrestricted use of public lands is a major, unsightly headache in the making. Unless, that is, a landscape that looks like an old mining waste pile is your idea of pretty. Beyond aesthetics, though, is the issue of muddied waters, which in turn affects aquatic life. Enough unrestricted motorized use and every creek becomes a Muddy Creek.”This area is semi-arid, so it does not vegetate very quickly. Damage is there for a long, long time,” explained Willy Powell, Eagle’s town manager.Trail system the solution?

A solution with wide support is to create a trail system, which is what is now happening. There are two sets of land surrounding Eagle, with different ownership. On the ring of land closer to Eagle is the town’s designated open space lands. Most of these lands were acquired by the town as part of the approval of the Eagle Ranch subdivision. Some trails have been created, and others are being considered.It would make sense for these town-created trails to connect to designated trails on the next ring of land, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. That trail network, however, has been very slow in the making.The basic law of Bureau of Land Management lands is that, unless specifically dictated otherwise, people are free to go wherever they want. People are never free to damage land, but that’s a broad gray area and one vaguely enforced, if at all. To protect the integrity of the landscape requires travel management plans. To call the Bureau of Land Management “slow” at getting after this task would be charitable.In this region, the Bureau of Land Management first issued a travel management plan for the Castle Peak area in 1997, saying for the first time motorized vehicles and bicycles had to stay on designated trails. When prodded by Eagle town officials to do a travel plan south of Interstate 70, however, Bureau of Land Management staff members always cited higher priorities – even as the pirate trails were created in Hockett Gulch. Why not just put together a quick and dirty network of trails on the Bureau of Land Management lands? It would seem easy, but the laws governing the federal agency require that before designating a trail, the Bureau of Land Management must first conduct environment studies, documenting how traffic on a designated trail will affect artifacts left by the Utes, and the other resources of the land.It’s a maddening paper bag of logic. To ensure there are no “impacts,” the agency has done nothing -resulting in impacts from the maze of new trails. This finally is changing. The Bureau of Land Management still isn’t ready to begin drawing up a plan that will create a formally designated road and trail system. That, at least in theory, begins next year and could yield a plan as early as 2007. Usually, such land plans take longer. In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management is finally ready to do a stop-gap procedure. Using money from a grant – matched by funds from Colorado State Parks, Eagle County’s EcoTrails, and commitments of time by volunteer groups – the agency has hired Otek, a firm based in Carbondale. Otek is to conduct studies this summer and design a system of perhaps temporary trails.This trail network will be only voluntary. The law on Bureau of Land Management lands near Eagle and Gypsum will continue to be, at least for a few years more, go wherever you want, even if you are creating erosion that will be around as long as your grandchildren.But the Bureau of Land Management believes that most people, if given reasonable recommendations, will try to do what’s right for the land. It’s about time that became the criterion for proliferating the trails around Eagle.


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