If you're a hiking trail, too much love can be bad for your health.
There are thousands of miles of trails in Jackson and Josephine counties, many of them in remote areas that see relatively few hikers. But the most popular trails, such as Upper and Lower Table Rocks, the Jacksonville Woodlands and Cathedral Hills near Grants Pass, are in danger of being loved to death, requiring a lot of behind-the-scenes maintenance from local trail tenders.
One of the biggest problems on these trails is that "people take short cuts, user-created trails we call 'social trails,' " says BLM recreation technician Levi Dean.
Many social trails are caused by hikers too impatient to descend a hillside by following the designated, gently sloping but longer switchbacks. Over time, some social trails may appear to be the true trail, exacerbating the problem.
"These social trails often follow the fall line, the shortest distance to the top, and those routes are not sustainable, and they create lots of erosional issues," Dean explains. "When we plan a trail, we try to maintain a more subtle, sustainable slope with grade reversals every so often."
An accumulation of concentrated, unofficial social trails destroys vegetation and compacts the soil, creating a recipe for soil erosion. On the top of both Upper and Lower Table Rocks, there is an additional problem.
"Spring is the highest use at the Table Rocks trails because of the wildflowers," says Dean. "But at the top during that time you have rare vernal pools containing endangered fairy shrimp. It's especially important to stay on the trails there."
One technique the BLM is testing at both Table Rocks trails to focus hikers onto the official trail is to build calf-high rail fencing in problem areas. They hope the visual cues and the extra effort to step over the fence will deter potential short-cutters.
Certain soil types — clay soils in particular — don't hold up well to high use, especially when wet. To combat this problem, the BLM has lined problem areas with gravel. Even this technique is only so useful on steep trails during and after heavy rains. As water washes down the hillside — often along the trails — the water picks up speed, increasing its erosive force. A common solution to this problem is to funnel water off the trail with a series of shallow channels cut across the trail known as water bars or drain dips
"At Upper Table Rock, we have drains armored with rocks; we converted them into rolling-grade dip drains, which makes them last longer," says Dean. "In 50 years they'll hopefully be around, as opposed to maybe five years (without the armoring)."
These rock-armored drain dips hold up well to foot traffic. Not so for mountain bike traffic, which is why they're not being constructed on trails open to mountain bikes, such as the Jacksonville Woodlands.
"Most of our trails have recommended uses," says Dean. "We construct each trail so they can stand up to whatever they are recommended for."
BLM and partner Jacksonville Woodlands Association are currently testing a new, sturdier type of water bar designed to hold up to the demands of mountain biking. Eight-by-eight lengths of timber are buried with just enough rising above the soil surface to trap water, but not high enough to cause a flat tire or to move with impact.
The level of maintenance required on a trail depends on several factors, including the number of users. To gauge the use, BLM has recently installed hidden infrared sensors on trails and parking lots. The highest count during November was 3,615 at the Jacksonville Woodlands, a surprisingly high number for an unusually rainy month in the offseason.
All three trail systems — Table Rocks, Cathedral Hills and the Jacksonville Woodlands — have received tender loving care this fall and winter, thanks to a partnership the BLM has formed with the Medford-based Job Council, funded by a federal Title II grant.
In addition to improving the Rogue Valley's most-trafficked trails, the program provides important job skills for young adults during a three-month stint with the council.
"A lot of times young people especially have a hard time finding work because they don't have much experience, and how do you get it without getting hired?" asks Christie Lawson, crew supervisor for the Job Council. "This is a good opportunity to get some training.
"They learn work ethics: getting up early, coming out in the snow, in the rain, showing up on time, being prepared, working on a crew," Lawson says. "These are all transferable skills, whether or not they ever work on a trail again."
Lawson estimates that nearly 50 young adults have worked on trails and other projects for the Job Council this year. For a few weeks of hard work, an estimated 10,000 hikers-plus per year on the Table Rocks trails and thousands more at the Jacksonville Woodlands and Cathedral Hills systems will enjoy the outdoors for years to come.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.