Equestrians and hikers lauded the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association's plan to create separate trails for downhill mountain bikers at a community meeting Wednesday, but said the dangerous conflicts between the two groups need to be addressed immediately.
Torsten Heycke, vice president of the trails association, invited the equestrians to join the nonprofit's board of directors so the group can work toward educating bikers and other watershed users on safety, especially around horses.
"Right now, if we asked most people, they wouldn't know what to do if they encountered a horse on a trail," he said. "There used to be more of an equestrian presence in the watershed, but they've been so spooked, they don't want to be there anymore."
Pat Super and several other equestrians said they are afraid to ride in the watershed because they have had close or dangerous encounters with bikers who come speeding down the mountain and scare the horses.
"I call them kamikazes, because they're the ones who come tearing downhill so fast," Super said. "They're going so fast, there's no way you can avoid them or they can avoid you."
More than 100 people attended the Wednesday meeting at the Ashland library to give their comments on the new trail network. The trails association presented four large maps of the new trails it proposes in the eastern, western and southern watershed and for a new mountain bike park.
"Right now we have a trail system that's everything for everyone, and guess what? It's leading to a lot of conflict," said Rob Cain, president of the trails association. "So that's why we're here tonight."
The proposal, a joint project with the U.S. Forest Service, aims to nearly triple the number of authorized trails in the watershed, roughly between Mount Ashland and Lithia Park.
The nonprofit is asking the Forest Service to create 36 miles of new trails, as well as to authorize 23 miles of existing but unofficial trails, bringing the total to 89 miles.
"This is a wish list," Cain said. "It's what the user community would like to see the trail system in Ashland look like."
He hopes to begin construction in about 18 months and have the first trail completed in September 2012. It likely will be 10 or 15 years before the project is finished, he said.
The Forest Service supports the creation of new trails, as long as they meet environmental standards, said Steve Johnson, recreation specialist for the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District. This spring, the agency plans to begin a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the proposed trails, to ensure they don't pose erosion problems or risks to wildlife.
The trails association is raising $50,000 to support the project, which the Forest Service hopes to match.
Plans call for creating at least four trails specifically for downhill mountain bikers, complete with jumps and steep slopes, to try to reduce the number of conflicts in the watershed, Cain said. The proposed mountain bike park would offer roughly 12 square miles of jumps and challenging terrain made of rocks and logs.
"This will give people a place to ride and hopefully mitigate some of the rogue trail building that's going on," said Mike Bronze, president of the Southern Oregon Freeride Association, which is working with the trails association on the mountain bike park.
Because trail use has increased substantially in the past few years, tension between downhill mountain bikers and hikers or runners also has skyrocketed, Cain said. The watershed is nationally known for all three activities.
Mountain bikers at the meeting said they think creating separate trails is a good idea but that some bikers might not respect the rules.
"There will definitely be some people that don't want to stick to the trail criteria," said Clifford Josey, who rides both downhill and cross-country bikes. "I know a lot of people who, they're on their own program and they want to ride where they want, so it's going to be hard to corral those people. But we have to do something. This will be better than what we have now."
Another community meeting, identical to Wednesday's, will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 22, in the Ashland library's large meeting room, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.
People can view the trail maps and submit comments on the project by visiting the trails association's website, www.ashlandtrails.org, and clicking on the "create a master trail system for our community" link.
Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or firstname.lastname@example.org.