Dogs, horses, cyclists, joggers, hikers foment forest friction, trail sabotage, interesting conversations and blood

Members of the Forest Management Committee at their Jan. 12 meeting. Seated around table, from left: Jack Naylor, Russ Forsburg, Yana Valachovic, Danny Hagans, city liaison Mark Andre, Dennis Halligan and Michael Furniss. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Even before the Jan. 12 Arcata Forest Management Committee meeting had reached the first business item on its agenda, a theme had developed – user conflicts in the Arcata Community Forest. Virtually none of various forest user groups escaped criticism.

While the early morning meeting rarely enjoys much public participation, several citizens turned up this month to detail incidents of trail friction between dogs, horses, cyclists, joggers and hikers. Even the committee itself was called out on a few points.

First up was Sean Tetrault of the Redwood Coast Mountain Bike Association. He sought to correct the record about an illegal bike trail that had been constructed in the Arcata Community Forest. Alluding to “something in print that could have been misconstrued,” he made clear that his group opposes illegal trail building and that it wishes to be part of constructive solutions.

Environmental Services Director Mark Andre said illegal trails like that one could be “put to bed” and replaced by legal ones, with the work carried out by volunteers this summer. The committee is to do a field inspection of the now-obliterated bike trail when weather and schedules permit.

“There are lots of placeholders on this year’s volunteer workday trail schedule,” Andre noted.

Longtime forest user Bruce LeBel renewed objections previously voiced by himself and Open Space and Ag Committee Chair Uri Driscoll about the one-way trail used by bicyclists in the Sunny Brae Tract of the forest. In comments and a lengthy letter, LeBel set forth a detailed case that the trail was created without proper public process, that it poses a safety threat to forest users, that it violates the Forest Management Plan, that it favors bicyclists over others, that it isn’t properly signed, and related objections.

Tetrault asked LeBel whether offering cyclists a steep trail could help reduce conflicts elsewhere. LeBel said it could, but that a hostile “HSU” cyclist had yelled rude things at him for walking the unsigned trail. “From experience, I don’t think it’s a successful model,” he said.

Andre said trail signs were going up in the Beith Creek Loop of the Sunny Brae Tract, and that a special sign to be placed at the entrance to the one-way trail will designate it as such.

Committeemember Yana Valacovich reported that a “new stick person” was placing logs in the trail, presumably to sabotage bicyclists. She said a woman had been injured by such an obstruction.

Another perennial problem – that of unleashed dogs – took a toll on Valacovich’s family during a New Year’s Eve walk on Trail 5 off Diamond Drive. A loose Rotweiller attacked and bloodied her husband’s arm, leading to “an interesting conversation” between her and the dog owner. The victim was taken to the hospital by a city worker who was in the area.  She also said that some runners and hikers are failing to yield to cyclists and equestrians, and she called for a new “responsibility message” for peaceful coexistence among all forest users.

Committee Chair Mike Furniss told LeBel that he had made a “strong case” that the Forest Management Plan, which the committee is in the process of revising, doesn’t match the reality of what is happening in the forest. “We can certainly acknowledge that,” he said. “We’re slowly but surely working on that.” But, he added, the suggestion that there are widespread conflicts between cyclists and others isn’t factual. “So far, I’m not hearing that, other than from you, that there’s a serious problem,” he said.

LeBel insisted that the new trail coincided with a new “sense of entitlement” by reckless cyclists, which he had never experienced before its installation.

Lebel laid out his case in a nine-page document that included two attachments, one of which lists YouTube videos taken on forest bike trails and purportedly documenting the hazards he discussed.

In it, he quotes an article in a bicycling magazine which states that “Plans have also been made for the construction of directional mountain bike-specific trails catering to every skill level.” (While nothing like that has been publicly discussed, Andre later said it hasn’t been privately aired either. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that,” he said. “We’ve had no setting up stuff like that.”)

“It breaches the Forest Management Plan,” LeBel told the committee. “That’s my concern.”

Andre responded, saying that the plan doesn’t give anyone permission to be reckless. Speed limits in the forest are unenforceable, he said, because that would require someone to track cyclists with a radar gun. “There’s nothing that says you don’t have to control your bike,” Andre said. “There’s no explicit directive saying it’s a free-for-all.”

Furniss noted that the plan is an “old plan,” one which needs updating to account for many new recreational phenomena.

In his letter, LeBel proposes several solutions to the issues, including creation of a steep, uphill-only multiuse trail; closure of the present one-way trail; installation of bike-calming measure such as “deep waterbars” on the trails, right-of-way signage at trailheads; outreach to cycling clubs; formation of a “Trail Monitors” group; and an insurance plan separate from the city’s municipal insurance, one that would be paid for by cycling groups.

With dog owners, cyclists and hikers already impugned for poor behavior, horse riders were next.

Referring to trails off Diamond Drive, citizen Sheryl Esparza spoke of difficulty sharing steep, single-track trails full of blind turns with equestrian users. “It’s kind of like having a semi truck and a pedestrian on the road at the same time,” she said. “You have to either climb [up the side of the trail] or go back.”

Esparza said she fears collisions between cyclists and horses. She also complained that horse hoofprints create deep holes in the trail, and piles of manure disturbed by bike wheels fly up onto riders. “It seems to be more and more and more horses,” she said. “They are creating a lot more sediment and erosion.”

Andre said that some trailheads are “a concentration point” for equestrians, which will be eased by new trails. A big problem is horses and cyclists using the trails in the rain, when they are most easily damaged. “Riding in the rain should be unacceptable,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”

Esparza suggested a police mountain bike patrol be formed “for people who are so entitled to have their dogs off leash.”

Tetrault said the mountain biking community appreciates what’s been done in the forest to accommodate all users.

Last week, new signs were installed along the Beith Creek Loop in the Sunny Brae Tract. Andre said one has been ordered for the entrance to the one-way trail, labeling it as such.

The committee continues to struggle with updating the Forest Management Plan, its progress stymied by the inability of members to find common meeting times.

The Forest Management Committee meets the second Thursday of each month at 7 a.m. at Arcata City Hall, 736 F St.

 

Bruce LeBel's letter to the Forest Management Committee

To: Forest Management Committee

From: Bruce LeBel

Re: Concerns about ad hoc variances from the Forest Management Plan

January 12, 2017

In December I sent a message with photo to FMC Chair Furniss and to Environmental Services Director Andre regarding confusing and misleading signage at the bottom of the “directional trail” in the SBF tract of the Arcata Community Forest.

This morning I frame my concern for the integrity of the Arcata Community Forest Management Plan (FMP) regarding the wink-wink nudge-nudge establishment of the high-speed downhill mountain-bikes-only (unsigned but implied) trail in Sunny Brae Forest.

  • Is or is not the FMP the guiding document for management of the Arcata Community Forest?
  • Is or is not the public process for revision of the FMP the process that must be followed for significant variances from FMP guidance?
  • Is or is not the Forest Management Committee and the Environmental Services Dept responsible for implementation of, and obligated to adhere to, the FMP?

If any of these questions are answered “is not” then it appears to me that the FMP is no longer worth the paper on which it is printed.

There are several clauses in the FMP that are relevant to my concerns:

  • The Arcata Forest Management Plan includes the following Standard: (Chapter 3, Page 5) “Standards and Guidelines  …

9. (S) Bicycles are prohibited from attaining high speeds on downhill grades by which the safety of other recreational users or the cyclist themselves are jeopardized.

  • The Arcata Forest Management Plan includes these further clauses, Standards and Guidelines relevant to the unprecedented construction of an engineered high-speed mountain bike facility:

Preface:  “Subsequent activities affecting the City forests must be in compliance with the Management Plan.”

Ch 1. P1: “The Plan and its Appendixes will serve as an umbrella document for future management of the City forests.”

Ch 1. P2: “Any revision will incorporate public involvement in the process.  The City Council will take final action on all revision or amendments.”

Ch. 1 p4. “The committee and council conduct a study session once per year to discuss policy issues pertaining to forest management.”

Ch 2 p2: “The Plan addresses the need to resolve the increasing user conflicts...”

Ch 3 p4: “Developed recreation will be limited to the existing interpretive facilities. … the Community Forest provides a ‘back country’ experience.”

*  *  *

For historical reference salient to this issue:

It appears that both the Forest Management Committee and the respected Mark Andre, Environmental Services Director, were unaware that as early as Q1 2013 a City staffer was having private meetings with, and making commitments to, advocates for high-speed downhill mountain-bike-only trails in the Arcata Community Forest.  See Attachment 1: From http://adventuresportsjournal.com/the-dawn-of-a-golden-age-for-california-singletrack/, dated April 10, 2013.

When I raised concerns about such private special-interest group meetings with City Staff regarding planning and construction in the Arcata Community Forest contrary to the Forest Management Plan and with no public process, at a meeting of the Open Space and Agriculture Committee in early 2015, Mark Andre denied that such meetings had occurred.  I believe that Mark was unaware of these meetings and that a particular low-level staffer was responsible for this breach of protocol and process that has resulted in significant conflict and construction that is contrary to the current Forest Management Plan.

*  *  *

My requests and considerations:

  • I request that the Forest Management Committee, make a recommendation to the Environmental Services Dept., the City Manager and the City Council that the Arcata Community Forest Management Plan standards and guidelines be formally applied to all of Arcata’s Community Forest tracts including Sunny Brae Forest.
  • Given
    • the construction of the high speed mountain bike course in SBF, under supervision of the City Environmental Services Dept., and given
    • the fact that this facility includes the “ride through tree” and engineered and constructed ramps, jumps and steep banked turns, and given
    • that this high-speed mountain bike facility was built in contradiction to at least two Standards in the Arcata Forest Management Plan that specifically preclude A) “high speeds on downhill grades”, and B) “developed recreation” and that states unequivocally that the Community Forest is to provide “a back country experience”, and given
    • the fact that both mountain bike advocates and City staff characterize this course as “advanced” and needing to have signage and physical “filter” that precludes use by individuals without adequate skill and athletic prowess (i.e. only downhill use by a limited subset of mountain bikers), and given
    • the fact that subsequent to building the high-speed mountain bike course that mountain bikers are now either  “dropping in” from illicit entry points on Fickle Hill Rd. or riding to the top of SBF and then racing at high speed from top to bottom of the SBF, essentially converting all the SBF trails into a mountain bike race course, and given
    • that in 2016 even this breach of the FMP to provide developed recreation for advanced high-speed mountain bikers was inadequate to the sense of entitlement of mountain bikers to the extent that they illegally damaged the Arcata Community Forest to build at least one more downhill mountain bike course, therefore
    • I request that the Forest Management Committee recommend to the Environmental Services Dept., the City Manager and the City Council that the high-speed downhill mountain bike trail in Sunny Brae Forest be specified as a directional UPHILL ONLY trail, open to all users, and that the high-speed downhill ramps and jumps be decommissioned.

Supporting details:

  • Two directly relevant Standards that were ignored with the construction of the high-speed downhill mountain bike course intended for advanced riders only are:

Ch 3, p5: “Standards and Guidelines  …

9. (S) Bicycles are prohibited from attaining high speeds on downhill grades by which the safety of other recreational users or the cyclist themselves are jeopardized.”

Ch 3 p4: “Developed recreation will be limited to the existing interpretive facilities. … the Community Forest provides a ‘back country’ experience.”

    • The engineered construction of the high-speed mountain bike facility on the steep ridge trail in SBF has been equated by the City Manager to a “bocce ball court or other special purpose facility as exist at multiple locations in the City” to the benefit of users of those facilities.  The engineered and constructed high-speed mountain bike course is clearly “developed recreation” and as such is specifically precluded by the Arcata Forest Management Plan.  I have never seen engineered jumps nor steeply banked turns, nor a ride-through tree in any “back country”.
  • The high-speed downhill mountain bike course has engendered the behavior of high speed riding and jumping of mountain bikes from top to bottom of the Sunny Brae Forest.  I have witnessed groups of riders in full racing protective gear shuttling their bikes from the bottom of the SBF to the top, for repeated high speed downhill runs.  I have had near-collision encounters with racing mountain bike riders various points on different trails.  My point is that the so-called “directional trail” on the steep ridge with engineered and constructed features encouraging high-speed mountain bike riding created the behavior of high-speed riding and racing from top to bottom throughout the Sunny Brae ForestThis behavior can be witnessed at any time via videos posted to Youtube.  See Attachment 2.  This objectively evident result, while unintended, is what has actually occurred following the City’s construction of the high-speed downhill course.
  • As the high-speed downhill mountain bike course was built in contradiction to at least two Standards in the Forest Management Plan, the fact that this “developed recreation facility” now exists should NOT carry weight in the decision as to whether or not it is even appropriate to have a “developed recreation” facility that encourages “attaining high speeds on downhill grades” in lieu of respecting and adhering to the Standards in the Forest Management Plan that specifically preclude high speed riding and built facilities, and that state unequivocally “the Community Forest provides a backcountry experience.”
  • I first encountered the debacle of the “ride through tree” on the steep ridge trail in SBF on July 4, 2013.  (copy of message to Mark Andre previously provided).  This is NOT like any other constructed bridge or steps or other trail feature in our Community Forest that are necessary for a trail to be functional.  This trail was rerouted specifically into this old growth stump that was then butchered by City staff to create the “ride through tree” as nothing more than another feature on the developed facility of this high-speed mountain bike course.  The ride-through tree is definitively NOT “a back country experience”.  As further evidence of this overall trail debacle being initiated by a low-level City staffer, Mark Andre was not aware of this trail “feature” having been constructed until I alerted him to it in July 2014.
  • During a prior Forest Management Committee meeting where I expressed similar concerns one of the committee members used the term “sweat equity” to describe that riders had somehow earned their own trail by virtue of putting volunteer hours into trail building.  I have in writing from Mark Andre that, as appropriate, “That is not how the city operates”.  Volunteer means that all you get out of an experience is the experience itself.  There is no quid pro quo for volunteer hours and certainly no “sweat equity” of a special purpose trail as compensation for volunteer hours.
  • During that same Forest Management Committee meeting there were comments made by a Committee member that due to the steepness of the trail that now has the engineered jumps, steep banked turns and “ride through tree”, that it seemed appropriate to make it a downhill directional trail, because “who would want to walk up it?” and “It’s not that nice a trail anyway.”  I beg to differ.  For several years prior to the downhill race course trail construction I hiked a loop in the Sunny Brae Forest several times each week and nearly always chose to walk uphill on that steep ridge trail precisely because it is such a beautiful trail, and because I appreciate the exercise that I get from walking uphill on this trail.  (It is no steeper than multiple trail sections elsewhere in our Community Forest.)  There were no unique attributes of this trail that should have relegated it to “downhill, directional” status.
  • At that same meeting of the Forest Management Committee there were explicit statements made both by advocates of the high-speed downhill mountain bike facility and by City staff regarding the advanced and difficult elements of the constructed downhill course that indicated a need for both signage, e.g. “black diamond”, “Warning”, and for a physical “filter” to keep beginner and intermediate riders from attempting this dangerous course.  The fact that the advocates of this course acknowledge that it is dangerous, high-risk, and only appropriate for a limited subset of mountain bike riders raises several further questions:
    • Should there be a downhill trail on City property that is so dangerous that if a beginner or intermediate mountain biker attempts to ride it, whether intentionally or inadvertently, that this rider with insufficiently advanced skills would be at high risk of injury?
    • Given the admission by advocates of the high-speed downhill facility that it is only appropriate for use by advanced mountain bikers, i.e. by the nominal percentage of the mountain bikers in our community who are highly skilled, have athletic prowess and are technically advanced, why does City staff advocate in favor of this small subset of users?  This highly preferential treatment by Environmental Services staff of a very small but highly vociferous group, including unprecedented actions that create high liability to the City, that are contrary to City policy as established in the Forest Management Plan and that have spawned undesirable high-speed riding behaviors throughout SBF, merits objective explanation, or else retraction.
  • Suggestions for your consideration:
    • Make this steep trail a directional UPHILL ONLY trail for multi-use.  That would create an excellent challenge for the mountain bike riders and would not create trail conflicts.
    • Alternately, close and decommission for all uses the steep ridge trail also known as the “directional trail”.  It should never have been converted into a developed recreation facility as both the high-speed nature of the constructed trail and the developed recreation non-backcountry attributes of this trail are precluded by the Forest Management Plan.  Now that the pattern of high-speed use has been established by the City, the potential for changing that pattern seems nil unless something clear and unmistakable is done to send the message that the Community Forest is not a place for racing mountain bikes.  Better to call the current trail a “failed experiment” and build a different trail in a few years with attributes that conform to the Standards in the Forest Management Plan.
    • Apply calming measures on all trails in Sunny Brae Forest to control the speed of mountain bikes, e.g. “deep waterbars” (as recommended by the Forest Management Plan), switchbacks, narrowing of trail passages, requiring sharp turns, etc.
    • Post right-of-way signage at entrances and key trail junctions.
    • Distribute the “Share the Trails” brochure including at all trailheads, bicycle retailers, HSU Cycling, IMBA meetings, etc.
    • Formalize an outreach program to the bicycle retailers, mountain bike clubs and HSU Cycling to actively educate local riders on trail etiquette and proper use of the trails in the Arcata Community Forest.
    • Form a City-sponsored “Trail Monitors” group with pedestrians, mountain bikers and equestrians to remind users of appropriate behaviors and to report significant infractions.
    • If the ultimate result of the public process and decisions is that the engineered and constructed high-speed downhill mountain bike facility in Sunny Brae Forest is to remain, it does not make sense for the general citizenry of Arcata to pay the insurance bill for the high-risk activities of the small group of advanced users of this dangerous “black diamond” course.  I encourage consideration of requiring that an appropriate insurance policy be acquired and maintained, specific to use of this facility, with the City as named Insured, covering death, injury, property damage, etc., and paid for by some combination of the local IMBA chapter, local bicycle retailers and HSU Cycling.  A condition could be: If at any time such insurance is not provided by the consortium of mountain bikers, then the trail would be closed and decommissioned.
      • If there is to be organized training use of the Community Forest by HSU’s Mountain Bike Racing Club (note: NOT a “Team”; rather equivalent HSU standing as the Chess Club), then it would seem appropriate for HSU’s Mountain Bike Racing Club to carry an adequate insurance policy with the City as named Insured.  The citizens of Arcata should not be subject to the liability of high-risk top-level competitive mountain bike training by HSU Cycling.
        • There could also be an Agreement with HSU Cycling as part of allowing their organized use of the Community Forest that at all times they will not ride at excessive speeds and will conscientiously yield right-of-way to all other trail users, as is expected of all riders.
        • The HSU Mountain Bike Racing Club could apply to the City for permits for their exclusive use of certain trails on certain dates and times, that could include as a condition, for example, that all entrances to that trail, top and bottom, will be staffed and marked at all times such that no unaware hiker is put at risk by one of the Club’s high-speed downhill riders.
      • Given the existence of the directional high-speed mountain bike trail, and if the trail is not to be promptly decommissioned or reversed to “Uphill only”, the signage at the top and bottom of that trail should be immediately reviewed and revised.  Today’s lack of signage at the top of the trail in particular is misleading, inappropriate and creates unnecessary safety hazards.
  • If in the end the guidance of the Forest Management Plan is to be ignored by the Forest Management Committee and the Environmental Services Dept. then I suggest consultation with the City Attorney would be appropriate to assure that such actions are not in violation of any municipal code nor directive of the City Council.  I will venture the guess that her answer would support the integrity and validity of the Arcata Community Forest Management Plan.

Thank you for considering my experiences and concerns.

Sincerely,

Bruce LeBel

p.s.  I have raised my two daughters in Arcata and have founded and incorporated five ongoing Arcata businesses.  Over the past 26 years I have run, hiked and ridden over 12,000 miles in the Arcata Community Forests, and have never, before July 2014, seen anything on Community Forest trails like the current high-speed riding in SBF.  I have a deep appreciation and respect for our Community Forests, and for the Forest Management Plan that has guided their management and use.  I remain seriously confused by the actions of the Environmental Services Dept, for whom I have had such respect, of constructing the unprecedented high-speed downhill mountain bike special-purpose recreational facility in contradiction of multiple Standards of the Forest Management Plan and without prior public process.

Attachment 1: Evidence of inappropriate City staff private meetings regarding new trails in the Arcata Community Forest that would breach FMP guidelines

Quoted from: http://adventuresportsjournal.com/the-dawn-of-a-golden-age-for-california-singletrack/

Dated April 10, 2013.

(My bolding for emphasis)

"The Arcata Community Forest, is a 2,350 acre forest owned by the City of Arcata. The forest sits directly adjacent to the City as well as Humboldt State University. Sustainable logging revenues fund forest management, habitat restoration, and creation and upkeep of recreation facilities in the forest. The forest features just over eleven miles of mostly multi-use trails. The city recently purchased an adjoining piece of property known as the Sunny Brae Forest, which had been the site of several illegally built mountain bike trails. Bigfoot Cycling Club has worked closely with the city on the trail development plan for this new acquisition. Several miles of multi-use trail will link the Sunny Brae Forest to the Arcata Community Forest, and construction on these trails began in the fall of 2012. Plans have also been made for the construction of directional mountain bike specific trails catering to every skill level."

Attachment 2: Videos of unsafe riding and other breaches of FMP guidelines

Links to videos of high speed inapproriate downhill Mtn Bike Riding

 







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