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Playing nice together in the woods

ASHLAND — For years, bombing down trails in the Ashland Watershed made mountain biker Marcus McNeil a threat to himself and others.

McNeil had to keep his bike under enough control that he didn’t hit a tree, wipe out or send an unsuspecting hiker scurrying for cover if they met blindly around a corner.

Or worse.

“You really had to be careful,” says McNeil, of Ashland. “Hitting somebody on a bike is one of the worse things that can happen.”

Now hikers and mountain bikers have trails of their own, and the once-competing recreational users are living in relative harmony in the busy hills above Lithia Park.

A coalition of trail users, the city of Ashland, the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest have rerouted and repurposed miles of what were once multi-use trails into a network of largely bike-only and pedestrian-only thoroughfares — including some former rogue trails that have been made legit.

The trail system is now in its second summer, and the roughly 50,000 people who walk, run or bike the watershed each year are no longer at odds with each other.

“You don’t have to worry about people on the trails,” McNeil says. “It allows you to go faster and, to me, have more fun.”

The places to hike, bike and even ride horses in the watershed are highlighted in a free Ashland Map Guide available at Forest Service offices and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, or download a .pdf version from the Ashland chamber website at www.ashlandchamber.com/mapguide.

The color-coded map details hike-only, hike-equestrian only, bike-only, bike-hike only, and multiuse trails within the system traversing city-owned as well as federally managed lands.

“It’s really a great new resource that will direct people to the trails where they’ll be the happiest and most comfortable,” forest spokeswoman Chamise Kramer says.

Playing well with others was never a strong suit in the watershed, where conflicts between bikers and hikers, and rogue trails created by mountain bikers caused ill will among user groups.

Then two events helped create momentum for change.

In 2011, some “downhiller” bike riders drove a backhoe around a trail gate and onto a hiker-horseback trail called Marty’s Trail and dug a series of bumps and jumps for bikes.

The following summer, an Ashland resident who told Forest Service investigators that he “did not like mountain bikers” strung nylon cord across bike trails and scattered brush and nails on trails to sabotage them. Three people suffered minor injuries, and the man, a Jackson County psychiatrist named Jackson Dempsey, was sentenced to 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault and recklessly endangering another person.

To recreational managers, the alarm bell had rung.

“That really brought to the forefront that we really had an issue here,” said Brian Long, the ranger district’s recreation staff officer.

The city, Forest Service and various user groups created the Ashland Trails Project to separate the various backwoods disciplines and reduce conflicts.

They hashed out which trails were best suited for which users and even determined which rogue trails could and should be rehabbed. After the requisite environmental and other studies, the project was approved in early 2016.

The result was 25 miles of new trails added to the existing 16 miles of trails, with about 17 miles of the new trails coming from old access trails to things such as fire lookouts. The project also called for the decommissioning of almost 10 miles of unapproved trails because they created unacceptable impacts to soil, water, plants and wildlife.

In all, the project created 3.8 miles of trails open to all nonmotorized use, 9.4 miles of trails for hikers or hikers and equestrian riders, and 11.7 miles of trails either exclusively for bikes or for bikes and hikers, according to the draft environmental assessment on the project.

The differences between pre- and post-project circumstances are highlighted in and around the Caterpillar Trail southeast of the White Rabbit parking area at the end of the Ashland Loop Road off Morton Street in Ashland.

In the past, Caterpillar was the only authorized trail, with the unauthorized Jabberwocky Trail also there.

The result was that Caterpillar could easily have been called Caterpillar Boulevard.

“It had bikes going up, bikes going down, people hiking up, people hiking down, and the occasional equestrian in here,” Long says.

And next door, downhill riders flew down Jabberwocky — a one-time fire line discovered by riders last decade — without the banked turns regular bike trails sport.

Now, Caterpillar is for hikers, runners and uphill bike riding. In exchange, bikers got the new Lizard Trail, which funnels into a reworked and legit Jabberwocky down toward town.

But there are a few areas, such as a small stretch of the so-called Waterline Trail on city land lower in the watershed, where hikers and riders still share space.

“At some point, we’re going to try to separate it and reroute it so we can have a full pedestrian-only trail and a full multiuse trail, and not funneling everyone together,” says Jason Minica, Ashland’s forestry and trails supervisor.

Already volunteers and city crews have flagged a rough new trail to separate riders from walkers on Waterline.

When it eventually gets built, hikers, riders and runners likely will take heed of the signs designating who should be on what trail — not just because it’s the rules, but because it’s in their best interests.

The beauty in what we’re finding is that once we put in the trail, we have very few users who are on the wrong trail,” says Rob Cain from the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneMarcus McNeil of Ashland rides down the ‘Lizard’ trail for bikes only in the Ashland watershed.