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Laying the groundwork

Acomprehensive report on the popular trail system winding through the hills roughly between Lithia Park and Mount Ashland is finished and ready for policy makers, the project-leading Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association announced last week.

The near 100-page report will serve as the groundwork for plans by the U.S. Forest Service to carry out a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the association's recommendations, which include about 32 miles of new trails for authorization.

It's been more than 10 years since the last authorized trail was added to the system, said AWTA president Rob Cain, but well over 20 miles of unauthorized rogue trails have been constructed there — mostly by mountain bikers — since the 1980s.

Currently, the Forest Service recognizes about 14 miles of trails in the system, and will have the option of approving about 19 miles of already-constructed rogue trails along with about 13 miles of proposed new trails.

About five miles of existing trail is proposed to be closed, including the unauthorized Pete's Punisher Trail.

But before any dirt starts flying, the Forest Service, which received the report from AWTA last week, will have to finish its NEPA analysis, which should be complete by summer 2012, said Brian Long, recreation staff officer with the Siskiyou Mountain Ranger District and Wild Rivers Ranger District.

The NEPA analysis is carried out to ensure that the proposed trails don't pose erosion problems or risks to wildlife, but is not required for all of the proposed trails, he said.

"Once we identify what trails we will analyze, we will initiate the scoping process to obtain public comment on the project," Long said. "Each trail will be studied to determine its feasibility and potential environmental effects."

In the past, the Forest Service said it supports the creation of new trails in the area, as long as they meet environmental standards.

Volunteers with AWTA spent nearly two years studying, mapping, and researching the trail system above Ashland, before Torsten Heycke, a board member for the association, drafted its current plan.

"The problems with the existing trail system are rather significant," Heycke said. "The explosive user growth seen in the last ten years, when combined with many unauthorized routes down the mountain, made for both an unsustainable environment and increasing user conflict."

The association's plan identifies three areas in the trail system where congestion is a problem. The first area, which the Forest Service estimates receives more than 50,000 visits annually, is the lower portion of the trail system above Lithia Park. That area includes the Alice in Wonderland Trail and the unauthorized Jabberwocky Trail.

The report names two other high-use areas, including the area directly north of Four Corners, a popular jumping-off point for downhill bicyclists, and the Caterpillar Trail, the second most popular trail in the system, according to the report.

For many existing trails, the report recommends reconstructing, even rerouting portions, and installing better signage.

The reason for building many of the new trails is so that different types of trail users — including mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians — can be separated to designated trails around high-use areas where conflicts have historically occurred, said Cain.

According to the AWTA master plan, some trails would be limited to certain users.

"I think it's a good idea," said Dana Ahera, 51, of Ashland. "I've had some close calls with mountain bikes in the past."

Ahera, who was preparing for a five-mile walk with her two dogs from the White Rabbit Trailhead Wednesday afternoon, said she has been using the trails there for about 20 years.

"I definitely don't walk with music in or anything," she said, "I need to be able to hear them coming."

Most mountain bikers — the nice ones — she said, let people know when they are coming down a trail by yelling before riding up on other trail users.

"I try to go out of my way by keeping my eyes ahead and yelling to give people a chance for me to go by," said Sam Scorso, 40, of Ashland, a runner and mountain biker. "When I am hiking I hate bikers."

He said certain trails, like the city-owned BTI trail, above Lithia Park, should be a bike-only trail.

"Bikers go crazy down that," he said, "and, yeah, it's dangerous — for other people and them."

Cain said in addition to its work with the Forest Service, he also hopes AWTA can work with the city to mitigate some of the risks involving its trails above Lithia Park.

As a nonprofit organization, AWTA, is attempting to raise at least $50,000 to carry out the plan, which it initially hoped the Forest Service could match in order to fund the estimated $100,000 project.

"That won't be happening," said Cain, "but we're about to $50,000."

Now, the association is turning to grants, more fundraising, and hopefully donations to reach the $100,000 mark, he said.

Back in the late 1980s, Dennis Odion, 52, of Ashland was a downhill bike enthusiast.

"These days I'd rather go up than down," he said, explaining that going uphill allows him to get into certain mental rhythm he enjoys. "I've ridden down so many thousands and thousands of feet that it's just lost the thrill."

Odion said it is dangerous for downhill bikers, who are usually travelling very quickly, to be riding down the same trails that people are walking and riding horses up.

"Those riders, the downhill specific ones, are in it for the speed and thrills," he said. "When you're going downhill, you're thinking about riding your bike, not the safety of others, because you have to."

"A few new trails would be nice," he said, leaning over his bike.

If that plan is approved by next summer, Cain hopes to have the first trail completed in September 2012, but it likely will be 10 or 15 years before the entire project is finished, he said.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.