Mountain bikers, hikers and runners are finding common ground amid increasing concerns over illegal forest trails above Ashland and the potential for collisions.

Mountain bikers, hikers and runners are finding common ground amid increasing concerns over illegal forest trails above Ashland and the potential for collisions.

"There's a lot of positive energy in the air right now," says Nathan Riddle, an Ashland cyclist, racer and instructor at United Bicycle Institute.

The dialogue began after a July article appeared in the Ashland Daily Tidings, in which hiker Ben Benjamin raised warnings about a "proliferation" of illegal trails in the hills above Ashland.

Riddle, winner of the Spring Thaw downhill mountain bike race on Mount Ashland in 2007, contacted Benjamin about the man's concerns.

Riddle's attempt to demonstrate that not all mountain bikers are scofflaws evolved into a community forum and think-tank over the past month. A trail-building event this fall is planned to bring cyclists, runners and hikers together.

"There's a lot of momentum right now to make it happen," Riddle says.

The cooperative event likely will target the upper section of a trail known as "Time Warp," which the U.S. Forest Service stopped maintaining decades ago, effectively closing its sanctioned use. Likely blazed in 1915 for access to Mount Ashland, the trail cuts across a meadow.

Time Warp is one of approximately 15 illegal trails between Mount Ashland and Wagner Gap, says Steve Johnson, recreation specialist for the Forest Service's Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District. Most of the trails are on Forest Service land, but several cross onto tracts maintained by the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, as well as private property, Johnson says.

"Some of those are very short segments," Johnson says, adding that his characterization of the problem depends, in some cases, on one's definition of a "trail."

Because he's seen no evidence of more sediment entering streams, Johnson says, the primary concern is loss of vegetation. Lacking water-control devices, illegal trails can develop deep ruts after just a few heavy rains that could ultimately threaten watershed health.

"There is some quite severe erosion taking place in a few locations," Johnson says.

It's an observation that brought Russ Rickert, 51, to a round-table discussion at Ashland's Standing Stone Brewing Co. last month. The 51-year-old who's been riding the area's forest trails since 1984 says he isn't aware of "renegade trails, but couldn't keep quiet about damage to one of his favorite routes to Mount Ashland.

"I was brought to tears," Rickert says. "It was totally abused."

Large groups of mountain bikers who catch shuttles to Mount Ashland have been blamed not only for the trails' wear and tear but also poor riding etiquette that poses a threat to other trail users traveling at slower speeds.

"I'm concerned that we're going to have a bad accident," says Rob Cain, president of the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association.

"I'm running the Pacific Crest Trail now because I'm scared."

Local mountain bikers insist that the problem stems from a few "bad seeds." Bicycle shops and bike touring businesses like Bill Roussel's Ashland Mountain Adventures try to educate the sport's newcomers on proper trail etiquette, they say. But an industry trend of building bigger mountain bikes that encourage unskilled riders to tackle steep descents is cited as one driving factor.

"Now you have a different type of mountain bike," Johnson says. "You have far higher speeds."

The sport's changing face has negated efforts the Forest Service made a decade ago to create new bike trails and sanction others that were forged illegally. Unauthorized trail-building waned for a time, Johnson says, before the recent resurgence. Mountain bikers say the Forest Service's time-consuming process for approving new trails almost forces riders to take matters into their own hands.

"It's easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission," Riddle says, pointing out that most sanctioned trails were, at one time, illegal.

An environmental review is needed to build any new feature on Forest Service land, Johnson says, adding that trail approval typically takes two years.

"I know that sometimes our process seems really slow," he says, urging patience on the part of the public. "We're going to keep working on this."

Leveraging money to build a mountain-biking park would benefit everyone, including runners and hikers who would see fewer cyclists on existing trails, Cain says. However, mountain bikers historically haven't exhibited much cooperation with other groups that could help, he says, adding that he's "amazed" if a few cyclists attend scheduled trail work parties.

Hoping to bridge the divide, Riddle joined the Ashland Woodlands & Trails Association board last week at the group's invitation. More trails would require more volunteers, and Riddle is looking to mountain bikers to reverse their reputation for riding roughshod over the trails, little caring who's in the way. The image is nevertheless deserved because the group as a whole hasn't made itself visible to the larger community, Riddle says.

"The problem has been coordination."

At least six other mountain bikers pledged their support last month, along with Roussel, who, after seeing mountain biking venues in his hometown of Salinas, Calif., ruined, says he would gladly donate money toward the cause.

"Everybody can get along."