Open Space Use On The Summit – Trail use

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In this second installment about open space use on the summit, I would like to discuss some of the issues concerning trail use and regulation as it pertains to the trail plan proposed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust (TDLT, see map below).

DTLT-RG Trails 8-23-13

The genesis of this plan as a product of public outreach was discussed in the previous post. TDLT has stated that the intention of the plan is to provide equal recreational opportunities to the diverse user categories while protecting the natural environment of the Donner Summit area. Toward that goal the plan utilizes a network of multi-use trails that will allow equal access to most of the open space area by the three major groups of users; hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. In this post I will discuss some of the issues that have been raised about hiking. In subsequent posts the issues concerning mountain bikes and horses will be addressed.

Calla LC Ann hiking in Royal Gorge area-02 7-11-12For this discussion we will define hiking as walking across country. I have heard some people say that walking is somehow different than hiking but by this definition we are just talking about where the walking gets done. I have also heard people say that trail running is different than hiking. I would agree with that in the sense that the pace is elevated, but both activities consist of accessing the trails propelled simply by foot power with no added equipment (ie: a mountain bike or a horse). The impact on the trail for each individual hiker is their two feet alone. According to the TDLT public outreach survey hiking is the most popular trail use activity. Since the TDLT trail plan was proposed there have been a number of objections to the multi-use aspect of the trail plan that primarily promote hiking as higher valued activity that should receive priority over other activities. I would like to discuss a few of these objections here.

Seniority = increased priority

The gist of this argument goes something like this – humans have been walking (hiking) for hundreds of thousands of years and therefore hiking should have a higher priority on the trails. A variation is “I’ve been hiking the trails around here for ___ years (fill in the time of your choice) and I should have more right to them than another user that hasn’t been here as long as I have”. Most of us that visit the summit have our favorite trails and it’s just human nature that you start the think of them as “yours”. This seniority argument however is really a can of worms. Does it mean that us older folks have priority over younger people. And what about the kids. If we go back far enough then none of us should have access to the area. After all the Native Americans were tramping through the summit (probably on some of the same trails) thousands of years ago. Even in more recent times, people on horseback have been riding through the area since pioneer times. Shouldn’t people on horseback have as much priority. And so on and so on.

The reality is that open space land by definition should be accessible to everyone as long as they treat it with respect and do no harm. The trail system being proposed by TDLT is designed with good trail practices to provide a sustainable system with equal access and minimum impact on the land. Some sort of temporal priority implies that some users are more equal than others which defeats the purpose.

Exclusivity = Equality

This argument has manifested itself as a request for trails that are exclusive to one use (ie: hiking only) so that there is an “equality” between multi-use and exclusive use. This argument is really based one three faulty premises.

The first premise is that hikers can’t have a quality hiking experience on a multi-use trail and in order to have one they need an exclusive trail. This is just not the case. I can safely say that I have hiked every inch of the proposed trail system numerous times. During the summer Linda and I with our three blonds hike the area almost every day. I can count on the number of times that we even see another hiker (or biker) on less than my own ten fingers. This is not really surprising if you do a little simple arithmetic. There are approximately 29.5 miles of trails specified in the TDLT plan. Even if you assume that on any random day there might be 200 other users out on the trails at any one time (and this would really be a super crowded day) there would still be

29.5 miles x 5,280 ft = 155,760 ft / 200 users = 779 ft of clear trail for each user

Brita a natural bridge near Rowton Peak in Royal Gorge area-09 8-4-11That’s over 2 football fields distance between you and another user. Now of course this is pretty simple minded and assumes a completely random distribution, but it does make the point that there is really a lot of space out there. The fact that a trail is multi-use won’t have much affect when the density of users is so dispersed. A hiker in a multi-use system has access to 100% of the trails and in the Royal Gorge open space it should be possible for any hiker to pick a route in the area that will result in a quality (and solitary) outdoor experience.

The second premise is that equality is achieved by trying to provide equal numbers of exclusive use trails. Does this mean that there should be equal numbers of hiking only, biking only, and equestrian only trails? There are a finite number of trails and often only one or two to particular area (ie: Mariah Pt). Does this mean that one group gets access to a specific area and others don’t? How is this egalitarian? In a multi-use system every user has equal access to all of the trails and all areas.

And finally the third faulty premise is that it would be possible to enforce a regime of exclusive use trails in the sparsely populated open space area. Let’s face it, it is impractical for any agency to constantly patrol the 3,000 acres of forest that make up the Royal Gorge open space area. Even if a plan for exclusive trails was implemented, people would find it hard to understand why they should not use a particular trail when no one else is using it. I think a system of mutual respect and conscientious trail etiquette by all users would be much more effective in preventing trail conflicts and insuring a quality outdoor experience. Sure there are always going to be a few people that abuse the system, but it is really counter productive to restrict every one’s access to counter the behavior of a small minority of users.

Hiking trails should be single track “footpaths”

I have to admit that this objection leaves me scratching my head. When you look at the trail plan proposed by TDLT superimposed on a satmap of the area it is easy to see that the trail system is simply utilizing existing cross country ski trails (which utilized existing logging roads). The reality is that there is a much more extensive network of established “trails” and TDLT is using only a small subset of those existing trails for their system. As you would expect with a ski trail (or logging road) it is pretty wide and relatively straight. In fact the existing trails make great multi-use trails because they provide plenty of space for the rare interaction of users and they provide good sight lines to give people plenty of notice if another user is approaching.

It is important to keep in mind that the Royal Gorge open space area is a wonderful natural area, but it is not a pristine wilderness. The area has been trodden extensively since pioneer times and exploited many times over. The area was extensively logged on many occasions (hence all the logging roads) and been the subject of various ventures, most recently the proposed development by Foster-Syme. Nature has done her best to repopulate the area, but the effects of years of logging have taken its toll. The current forest restoration project underway by TDLT should go a long way toward eventually establishing a healthier forest. It will not, however, result in an area resembling a natural wilderness for generations. TDLT is trying to provide access to the area as soon as possible and it is only logical that they would use the existing trail system. While their plan does call for the addition of new single track trails in the future, it seems reasonable for them to make the most out of the existing trail systems.

It should be noted that TDLT did modify their trail plan to include about 3.5 miles of trail designated as hiking only. While I have expounded on why I don’t see the need for it, I do applaud their effort to respond to the feedback they received from their outreach program. It does demonstrate that they are willing to apply oil to the squeaky wheel. Of course you always have to be careful not to apply so much oil that the wheels come off. No one can predict with complete certainty how the trail system will work out. As users get out on the trail system this summer, we will see where the kinks are and TDLT will be able to make modifications through signage or redesign to handle any problems. My feeling is that we really need to give the plan a chance.

Stay tuned. Mountain biking will the subject of the next post.

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10 Responses to Open Space Use On The Summit – Trail use

  1. david africa says:

    This is so right on, answers the nay sayers. Thank you! David

  2. Ann Reisenauer says:

    Excellent blog on hiking trails George! See you out there on your feet and your mountain bike! Multi-use trails rock! (pun intended) ann

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Well said!

  4. Lorrie says:

    Just a couple quick points in response. I’ll be elaborating in my letter to the Land Trust.

    Doesn’t your formula work only if everyone is walking? Mt bikers cover a lot more distance and more quickly. Also, there have been very few people on the trails in the past because, until last year, we were trespassing on private property. I believe that as the word gets out there will be more use in the future. How much more it hard to predict but I expect that the mountain biking network will be particularly active in spreading the word. Even before the land trust took over that mountain bike trail that appeared spontaneously a couple years ago was starting to see increased use that, yes, did disrupt my experience on a trail that I had used for over 10 years. Furthermore I believe that the sudden appearance of this trail and subsequent tolerance for it’s existence reflect on a sense of entitlement at least by some in the mountain biking community which I feel like we’re seeing in many of these arguments on behalf of multi-use trails. As for revisiting the issue in the future, once that cow is out of the barn it’s going to be pretty hard to get it back in.

  5. admin says:

    Lorrie – My formula probably really doesn’t work for any real life condition. There are all sorts of variables involved. The point of that little exercise was to show just how much space there really is out there. In fact as you know there are actually many more trails that are out there being used by hikers and bikers and the current trail plan does not actually reflect the real distance in trails.

    Of course there will be more use in the future. Actually my 200 people out on the trails at any one time would be a very large increase in traditional use. I doubt if there were more than 20 people out on the trails at any one time before and that would have been unusual. Again, my point is that there is enough open space out there that trail interactions will probably be very brief and very occasional due to the large amount of space.

    With regard to the use by mountain bikers on “your” trail. Besides the fact that the trail is on Forest Service property and is not really under the authority of the Land Trust, your argument sounds very much like “seniority = priority” to me. I believe that the Land Trust has no intention of letting any group modify any of the trails for specialized use. And you are quite correct that there is a sense of entitlement being expressed. Entitlement is being expressed by every user group and is exactly what the multi-use trail system addresses. Not entitlement for any one group (like hiking only or biking only) but entitlement for all users. That is why I support it.

  6. Nicole Person says:

    Excellent points and let’s remember to say Howdy and Welcome to the most beautiful place in California!

  7. Lorrie says:

    Regarding the engineered Mountain bike trail – has there been any discussion about removing it? It’s continued existence may give others the wrong idea about mountain bikers and their sense of entitlement. Furthermore, while, yes, it is on National Forest land, since it appears on Land Trust maps it contributes to the impression, already held by many, that the Land Trust is biased in favor of mountain biking. Dismantling it would be a start. I would volunteer to help.

    More important, George, please don’t put quotes around words I didn’t use. I didn’t say “my trail” I said, “my experience.” I didn’t offer the example of this trail to assert what you call seniority, unless it is in the same sense you yourself cite your years of hiking and biking at the summit to establish your credibility. I mention my experience on this trail because that’s what it seems this issue is coming down to; mountain bikers insisting that they don’t have a negative impact on the experience of hikers while hikers assert that, yes, actually, in fact, they do.

    I stopped hiking the Hole in the Ground trail to Lola Montez tens years ago precisely because of the mountain bikers. The trail was pulverized to a fine dust with pavers to prevent erosion and it’s complete degradation. Stepping aside for a steady stream of bikers, albeit polite ones, was finally too annoying. Would I ever suggest that this trail should be closed to bikes? Of course not. Call it seniority if you will but they were there first. I have found other, bikeless trails to hike and hope that there may be some to enjoy on the Royal Gorge lands as well.

    I don’t believe that mountain bikers are impolite, lycra-clad, speed demons. I think mountain biking is a fine way to enjoy the outdoors. I myself have mountain biked many times and countless trails throughout the west. What I do believe strongly is that my hiking experience is negatively impacted by mountain bikes on the trails. I am not in any way saying that mountain bikes should not have access to trails here at the summit. I am only asking that we start out with more than three miles or ten percent of the trails (by your count) dedicated to hiking. If the allocation is revisited in the future let it be because hikers have found that their quiet enjoyment of the trails just wasn’t complete without mountain bikers to share it. The other way round, if mountain bikers are first allowed on a trail and then restricted from it, doesn’t seem very likely to happen without even more turmoil than we are seeing now.

    Lastly I cannot state strongly enough my belief that basing assumptions on past usage of forbidden and unpublished trails is patently irrelevant to this discussion.

    Here’s another math problem for you… if 200 users are spaced evenly and alternating along 29 miles of trail, half of them mountain bikers averaging ten miles per hour and half hikers averaging three miles per hour, how many times will a hiker be passed by a mountain bike? Actually, that’s another red herring. The question that matters is; how do the hikers feel about it and does the Land Trust care?

  8. admin says:

    Lorrie – My last words on this thread which I refuse to make into a battle about one group over another. I think your comments pretty much illustrate all of the points I tried to make in this post. I always find it difficult to carry on a rational argument when strong personal biases are involved. You are OK with mountain bikes as long as you don’t see one on the trail. I take it that you are OK if you see another hiker on the trail or should we think about single person trails? Of course people are entitled to their biases. Problems always arise, however, when they try to impose them on others. If the Land Trust really had a bias for mountain bikes then there would be a lot more “mountain bike only trails” (my words)? Multi-use means exactly what it is says. The trails are for hikers, bikers, and equestrians with no supposition that any one group has priority over another (no bias). It seems a shame that people can’t see that it really means that we can all share this wonderful summit area if we are all tolerant and respectful of each other.
    And my last word on the mountain bike trail on Forest Service Ridge. The trail is not under the authority of the Land Trust and they have no power to “dismantle” it. In fact I really believe that they made a mistake on their map when they included it in the plan. I think the term “engineered” (your words) is inaccurate and somewhat loaded. It has definitely been modified specifically for mountain biking, but all materials used are native and no artificial “engineered” structures are present (which is prohibited on federal lands). I think most people reading this don’t even know what we are talking about and have no impressions of it at all. I suggest that if you want it dismantled then take your case to the owner of the land, the US Forest Service.
    Nuff said!

  9. admin says:

    I have had to close commenting on this post temporarily. For some reason all the spammers in the world seem to have zeroed in on it. I’m currently getting about 300 spams/day targeted on this post. I’m hoping if I rest it for a few days the spammers will move on.

  10. Mimi Vishoot says:

    I live in Nevada City and enjoy all three multi-use activities. Although, I must admit, until I can retire, I don’t really have time to do much of all three. The mountain bike is the sad loser… for now. (The horse and the dog and my legs all need exercise and fresh air!)

    I will also admit that I am not active in our local trails council. I do believe they have done a very nice job of promoting and supporting multi-use trails. Since my current number one priority is getting the young dog used to trail hiking, I plan my hikes on local trails at times when I think there will be fewer bikes and horses. This way we can hopefully learn good manners without too much active distraction!

    We will soon be going up to the summit to enjoy the wonderful trails there. I am a newbie so I don’t have any sense of ownership, but I know how that feels. It may not take long for me to start feeling like that is also my backyard!

    I am really looking forward to hiking and eventually riding my horse on any trails I can find that are available. And, when I have time, I hope to bike on many trails as well.

    Thanks to everyone involved with creating and maintaining these trails for people like me to enjoy. I am feeling very lucky right now just thinking about it!


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