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Ashland trails up for changes

With trail use booming from 16,000 to 50,000 visitors in the mountains above Ashland during the past 15 years, the U.S. Forest Service is proposing changes to the maze of trails — many of which were built by users without authorization.

The skyrocketing popularity of the trails has sometimes caused conflict between hikers, runners, mountain bikers, horse riders, dog walkers and bird watchers.

In 2013, psychiatrist and hiker Jackson Tyler Dempsey was sentenced to 30 days in jail for dragging debris across trails, scattering nails and stringing nylon cord to impact mountain bikers zipping downhill.

At least two mountain bikers were injured, including a Southern Oregon University student who ran into a cord at neck height but likely avoided serious injury because of a protective brace he was wearing.

Meanwhile, other hikers, mountain bikers and users — especially those organized as the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association — have cooperated to help maintain trails and propose improvements to the trail system.

The Forest Service took the users' trail system improvement plan and used it as the basis for Alternative 2 in a new environmental assessment that examines three future options for trails.

The first alternative serves as the baseline and involves no changes.

Alternative 2 would add 9.4 miles of new trails and 5.2 miles of existing trails would be closed down and restored to a natural state.

Alternative 3 is similar to the changes suggested by users, but takes more steps to reduce impacts on the Ashland municipal watershed in the forest, wildlife and soil. It would add 7.4 miles of new trails and shut down 9.9 miles of unauthorized trails.

Alternative 3 is currently the Forest Service's preferred option.

The Forest Service will hold an open house about the proposed changes from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the downstairs Gresham Room in the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

"I think it's a good project. I'm looking forward to what people have to say," said Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District Recreation Manager Brian Long.

At the open house, people can learn more about the Ashland Trails Project and visit stations focused on recreation, wildlife, hydrology, soils and other areas affected by the proposed trail changes.

"If people have specific questions, they can talk to that specialist. You can come at any time and stay as long as you want," Long said.

Under Alternatives 2 and 3, some of the most significant changes would affect trails lower in the mountains, close to Ashland where use is highest.

The Pete's Punisher trail, which plummets down a ridgeline, would be closed. A new trail called Lewis Loop would lead across a slope and out to the ridge before making a loop and returning. The Lewis Loop route would avoid habitat for the Pacific fisher, a weasel-like animal.

The existing Jabberwocky Trail, which passes too close to riparian areas, would be closed. Two new, more environmentally friendly trails would be built roughly paralleling Jabberwocky, but higher up the slope. 

One trail in the pair would be for mountain bikers, while the other would be for hikers and horse riders, Long said.

The reservoir trail, which leads to Reeder Reservoir, would be closed, as would a trail called Poison Oak near Ashland and a short segment called Insane Drop high up near Mount Ashland.

"Insane Drop is too steep for the soil type. Soil erosion is our primary concern with that trail," Long said.

Among other changes under Alternative 3, the 3.7 mile Winburn Trap trail — located deep in the forest in the middle of the Ashland municipal watershed — would be eliminated to avoid spotted owl nest areas and impacts to the city of Ashland's Reeder Reservoir.

More information about proposed trail changes is in the environmental assessment, available for review at Ashland Fire Station No. 2, 455 Siskiyou Blvd., or online at http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/89822_FSPLT3_2397535.pdf.

Public comments can be emailed to comments-pacificnorthwest-rogueriver-siskiyoumountains@fs.fed.us or mailed to Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District, 6941 Upper Applegate Road, Jacksonville, OR 97530-9314.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

  Ashland Trails Map

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From left, Matt Wittler, Peter Hollingsworth and Trevor Pratt ride on a trail in the Ashland watershed, where the Forest Service proposes changes to reduce conflicts among users and minimize impact on soil and habitat. Mail Tribune file photo