By Trina Ortega
Sopris Sun Correspondent
The Red Hill Council, the non-profit group that manages trails and trail maintenance on Red Hill, is taking recent vandalism of trail work as a sign of protest.
The problems are occurring mainly on the lower half-mile stretch of Blue Ribbon Trail, which starts at the trailhead off County Road 107. In a number of spots, the trail switches back, and trail users have been cutting the corners, causing erosion and “trail braiding” (spur trails caused by trail users veering off the regular path — sometimes only by 20 feet — for shorter, more direct routes). The Red Hill Council has been trying to cover up the “shortcut” trails by placing larger woody material, dead logs, rocks and pine needles. Volunteers, including work crews from Backbone Media, have spent several days revegetating areas of the fragile desert soil. The council, furthermore, installed small signs with the words “Trail closed. Restoration area. Please stay on trail.”
In early July, however, the council discovered that someone removed the material. Volunteers then returned to re-do the work of revegetating the shortcuts. According to Davis Farrar, president of the council, the dismantling of trail work has occurred at least a half-dozen times in 2015.
“After the fifth time putting it back, you just want to be absurd and say, ‘Get the hint. We’re going to keep putting this stuff back forever because you’re wasting our time, you’re wasting the time of volunteers.’ It’s really the proverbial finger at what we’re doing. And if you don’t like what we’re doing, contact us and tell us your opinion,” Farrar told The Sopris Sun.
Farrar says it’s a “violent” act of vandalism because some of the woody material is large and would take more than one person to remove. “I say violently because some of the trees took three or four people to carry into place [during the trail work days]. I found one that was thrown down the steep hillside, that tumbled and slammed into a juniper tree and was upright,” he said. “It’s a form of protest, obviously. Are they protesting care of the environment? Who knows what they’re protesting. They’re protesting something that, in their mind, isn’t right, without any attempt to contact the Red Hill Council or to contact BLM.”
The Red Hill Council is a non-profit group that was formed in 1996 and operates under a Memoranda of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management, the government agency that formally manages the 3,000 acres of public land just north of Carbondale.
Bureau of Land Management public affairs specialist David Boyd said the BLM relies on the Red Hill Council to help manage and maintain Red Hill, as well as get the word out about responsible trail use at Red Hill, and “they do a great job for us.” Boyd said he is aware of the recent challenges on Blue Ribbon.
“It is mostly from people short-cutting, wanting to do more ‘downhill riding’ vs. trail riding. Red Hill doesn’t lend itself to downhill type riding; that’s best done at ski areas and other places like that,” Boyd said, referring to mountain bike use of the trails.
BLM could cite a person for resource damage in this kind of case, according to Boyd. “It is a difficult thing to enforce, however. The work being done on the trails is to keep them sustainable. Shortcutting leads to significant trail damage.”
Although the council does not have any leads on who might be destroying the trail work, council member Chris Brandt reported that after the July 7 incident there were fresh bike tracks through the re-vegetated zone. Brandt speculated the perpetrators might be mountain bikers who want to improve their descent times by cutting corners.
Both Brandt and Farrar are mountain bikers and acknowledge that the “message” may be from a small percentage of mountain bikers who are upset with the trail maintenance on Red Hill. Some riders say the council has gone too far in its trail work, claiming that technical challenges have been leveled out and the trails “sanitized.” One trail user (who wished to remain anonymous) said the council focuses too narrowly on erosion control and has little regard for safety.
Because Red Hill is a high-desert environment, it contains lots of natural, rock challenges but it also is susceptible to erosion. As they currently stand, all three trails that branch off from the sole trailhead are intermediate (“more difficult”) and advanced (“most difficult”), with only 5.6 miles of the entire 15-mile system being labeled “easiest.” In order to access any of that beginner terrain, however, one must first tackle an intermediate or advanced trail.
“I enjoy the challenge of riding up steep slopes with rocky, undulating terrain that really tests my limits. We all like a narrower, natural experience,” said Brandt, who joined the council four years ago to have a say in how the trails are maintained and to know when and why technical features disappear. A landscape architect, Brandt also has a strong interest in water and erosion. He likes to build, maintain and create things with his hands, which is another reason he is passionate about his work with the council.
He furthermore suggests that if Three Gulch (the intermediate trail to the top of Red Hill) is too easy for a rider, then he or she should move on to the next harder trail, Blue Ribbon. Mushroom Rock, also rated “most difficult,” is a final option for the upper two-thirds to gain the summit.
“We have two specific trail options when you enter the system. When the intermediate trail is too easy for you, go to the next — Blue Ribbon. We’ve tried to preserve the technical features of Blue Ribbon because that’s the advanced option. But even it is not sustainable according to modern trail-building standards. It’s excessively steep and built on highly unstable soil. It’s a challenge to juggle,” Brandt said.
He said with its trail work, the council aims to maintain the existing difficulty grades — not let erosion get so out of control that it becomes unrideable yet not do so much trail work that it’s too tame.
Farrar is a founding member of the council and when he first began work on formally developing the Red Hill trails, there was only one way up — Blue Ribbon. He noted that when there was no trail maintenance at all for a few years, the trails eroded so badly that prominent rock features were more noticeable, until they completely loosened up and came out naturally. At a time when it wasn’t even conducting trail work, the Red Hill Council was blamed for “destroying my favorite rock challenge,” Farrar said.
Farrar says the goal is not to satisfy 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. “Our goal is to make Red Hill a positive experience for everyone who uses it, to care for the resource, all this while working with the Bureau of Land Management.”
In terms of safety, he is firm in his stance that it is the mountain biker’s responsibility to ride at a safe speed and to follow trail rules.
“Biker control is the issue; biker responsibility not the trail. If you’re on Highway 82, do you go 100 miles per hour? No. There’s a speed limit and there’s cops. Are we going to have speed limits and cops on Red Hill? Nope, not on my tenure. If the trails are crowded, slow down,” Farrar said.
Mostly, though, Farrar wants trail users to communicate with the council, which has monthly meetings that are open to the public. “I don’t understand the inability to communicate and just acting out. That’s what a 3-year-old does. Mature adults don’t act out.”
Contact info (firstname.lastname@example.org) is on the trailhead signs as well as the Facebook page Friends of Red Hill.
Red Hill is designated as a special recreation management area for non-motorized use. The growing number of users, estimated at 60,000-70,000 per year, has created its own set of unique problems including trail cutting, dog owners allowing their pets to be off leash, dog owners not picking up after their pets and leaving poop baggies alongside the trail, and mountain bikers not yielding to uphill hikers and riders.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series on local bike trails.
Published in The Sopris Sun on July 30, 2015.