What a trail needs

In September 2004, the remnants of hurricanes Frances and Ivan dumped nearly 20 inches of rain onto parts of our mountains during a 24-hour period. The storms also did a heap of damage to the region’s trail system—not a surprise when one considers that even short summer downpours can have a dramatic effect on a trail’s condition.

Photo By Jonathan Welch

“The problem with most of the trails is that they weren’t designed as trails: They follow timber-extraction routes,” says Woody Keen, who co-owns Trail Dynamics, a trail-construction business based in Cedar Mountain, N.C. For loggers simply wishing to get trees out of the forest, gravity was the guiding design principle.

So when it rains heavily, as it did in 2004, water finds its way to those trails and gets trapped in the path’s corridor like a bowling bowl in a gutter, wiping away loose sediment, exposing roots and rocks, and carving deep troughs. That’s good news for mountain bikers who enjoy steep, technical trails. But the heavy erosion along those trails can also transform them into superhighways for fine sediment that winds up in rivers and streams. That can be devastating for fish, which rely on the ecosystem’s fragile balance.

Organisms that serve as food for trout, such as mayflies, are particularly vulnerable to sediment wash. In the end, however, the riders themselves may be the trails’ worst enemy.

After the 2004 hurricanes, the U.S. Forest Service came into a bit of money for repairing storm damage, which it used to shore up a few of the trails, curtailing the gushing erosion.  Part of the effort was directed at a pair of well-used but unauthorized trails at Bent Creek Experimental Forest, formerly known as Mo’ and Betty Heinous. The worn-out, weather-beaten routes followed derelict roadbeds and firebreaks in the upper Bent Creek watershed. Now known as Green’s Lick, the trail ranks among the area’s most popular. The new version is less steep and rooty, faster and jumpier—a change that didn’t sit well with some riders, who lamented the loss of some technical aspects of the ride that they relish.

“Why does [every trail] have to be the same as every other trail?” asked an anonymous rider on a mountain-bike listserv, referring to trail work done at Du Pont State Forest. “I’m not fussing about the quality of the work, but there is no challenge. Now it could be ridden on a tricycle.”

Comments like that bother Keen, who did some of the trail work as both a paid contractor and a volunteer. “Most of our technical trails are in fact eroded slop ditches,” he says. “That may provide some fun riding, but that’s taking a narrow view.” Keen favors a widely accepted approach known as “rolling contour design,” which is the antithesis of those bygone logging roads.

While many mountain bikers understand the dynamics, expense and limitations of reconfiguring technical trails, Keen thinks that some of them believe trail builders don’t like technical trails. “If we can build sustainable technical trails that don’t impact surrounding resources, I’m all for it—assuming we have the support of the agency and the man-hours,” he says.

In fact, many trails are built entirely by volunteers, including the revamping of Bent Creek’s popular Wolf Branch Trail. They overhauled about a mile of trail, including a short but steep section that was a poster child for poor design. Keen admits that he would often like to add more technical elements to the trails he builds but says he’s sometimes constrained by limitations imposed by land managers to minimize user conflict, cost and a scarcity of volunteers. Although 40 volunteers toiled on the Wolf Branch project, a lot more construction and maintenance remain to be done.

And there’s the kernel at the center of the problem: Most users of a collective resource such as trails on public lands don’t pay their share of the tab. The age-old free-rider problem is a universal conundrum—and one not easily solved. Though most mountain bikers would agree that plentiful, technical and sustainable trails are needed, not all of them take part in building and maintaining them. As long as a group of dedicated volunteers does the grunt work, you can ride nice trails for free. After all, when was the last time you swung a pulaski?

The cost and labor constraints of building trails is one reason Keen is a vocal advocate of giving back to the resources used by outdoors lovers. “It’s not your right to ride these trails—it’s a privilege,” he proclaims. “The only way to have a voice about the way a trail comes out is to show up. Complaining about it is sort of like saying ‘The dog ate my homework’—it doesn’t hold a lot of water.”

[Jack Igelman lives in Asheville.]

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