An investment in reducing dangerously high fuel loads in Ashland forests is returning dividends to hikers and bikers who use trails in the Ashland watershed.
The Ashland Forest Resiliency project is a 10-year effort spearheaded by the U.S. Forest Service to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire by thinning 7,000 acres in the Ashland watershed. Part of the AFR master plan involves improvements to the area's trail system.
For more information on the trails master plan, see www.ashlandtrails.org.
Though the plan is still undergoing environmental review, two new segments at the popular White Rabbit Trail on Ashland Loop Road were built recently as part of a fuels-thinning project at that location, and up to 25 more miles of trail are planned over the next decade.
"The White Rabbit Trail ran through this old helicopter landing built in the early 1990s that we cleared to haul out the logs from the AFR," explains Don Boucher, AFR project manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
To ensure a safe helipad, the Forest Service cleared and chipped all the brush. This circular, one-acre clearing straddles a ridge and will ultimately be planted with ponderosa pine seedlings.
"The wood chips will serve as mulch to conserve scarce soil moisture and to prevent erosion," Boucher says.
The wood chips also covered a quarter-mile of the White Rabbit Trail, so the trail was rerouted and split — one for bikers and one for hikers and equestrians. Each segment follows an opposite side of the perimeter of the old helipad.
This reroute furthers the trails master plan goal of separating trails by uses, according to Bill Roussel, board member of the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association, a coalition of nonmotorized trail users who wrote the plan.
"What we got out of this was two separate trails," says Roussel, co-owner of Ashland Mountain Adventures and a long-time competitive mountain biker.
"The bike-only trail provides the opportunity for a biker to ride up and down without a potentially unsafe interaction with a pedestrian," Roussel adds.
"The former trail came straight down the fall line, and bikes came down at up to 30 miles per hour, and it was really uncomfortable walking up that trail with my dogs," says Roussel. "This also allowed us to create a more sustainable trail" with a gentler grade that is less prone to erosion.
The new trails have more switchbacks, converting what was once a steep, 17-percent grade to an average grade of 8 percent.
With an estimated 40,000 trail visits per year scattered throughout the trail system, erosion is an ongoing problem, says Boucher. In addition to building better trails, the AWTA hopes to build 25 miles of new trails in the next 10 years to help spread out traffic on the trails and reduce erosion.
The all-volunteer AWTA has taken on the task of maintaining much of the watershed's trail system, as well as constructing the new trails. A group of about 20 AWTA volunteers built most of the new White Rabbit Trail segments this summer. High school students working for the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project provided the finishing touches.
"It's a lot easier to get people to build a trail than to maintain one, it seems a lot sexier," says Rob Cain, AWTA president and trail ultrarunner. "That being said, if you build the trail right, the amount of work you need to do on a trail is not a whole lot."
The next task for the trail builders will be installing permanent trail signs.
"Signage is probably the biggest thing now," says Roussel. "I see people still walking up the old trail, right through the chipped bark and deadfall. There aren't signs to even point out some of the brand new trails up there."
Signs will become even more important as the master plan unfolds and more trails are separated into pedestrian-only and biker-only.
"A big goal of the master plan is to have a pedestrian-only trail from Lithia Park all the way to Siskiyou Mountain Park," says Boucher.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.