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Mud Runners

Foothills trails face closures

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Next time you see someone cruising down one of the Foothills trails, big globs of mud either caked on the soles of their shoes or flying off knobby bike tires, take a moment and thank them for ruining it for the rest of us.

Thanks to those who insist on taking to those trails in the wettest, muddiest conditions, leaving deeply rutted and gouged tracks behind them, the Ridge to Rivers trail system management partners have decided to start seasonal trail closures across the entire 130-mile trail system.

The closures won't start until next winter, but in the eyes of many, the damage has already been done.

"The reason that we proposed this is that we had a lot of public input saying we needed to do something about it," said David Gordon, Ridge to Rivers trail program coordinator. "Even if we're only partially successful, it's still better off than where we are now."

Gordon said closing the trails was never an ideal option, but the partnership of agencies that have a stake in the Foothills—the U.S. Forest Service, Ada County, the City of Boise, Idaho Fish and Game Department, and the Bureau of Land Management—agrees that it has become necessary.

"Now, we've got nine months to determine how we want to go about it," Gordon said.

Using wet or muddy trails may not seem like something that would warrant the closure of an entire trail system, but it's an issue that has had substantial impacts.

As soon as winter's grip loosens, trails enter a daily freeze-thaw cycle, leaving them saturated through the warmth of the afternoon. If mountain bikers or hikers use the wet, muddy trails, they leave deep tire tracks or footprints. Once the trails finally dry out, they are left an ankle-turning, bone-jarring mess.

Additionally, as hikers and bikers try to avoid the muddiest portions by walking just off the main route, they effectively widen the trails, with some single-track paths becoming the size of small roads.

"Some [trails] are 6- to 8-feet wide," Gordon said. "You get noticeable brown swaths or scars on the hillside. People are losing their natural trail experience."

The use also leads to increased erosion, always a major concern in the delicate Foothills. "It's gone on for years," Gordon said. "It should have been addressed years ago."

Ridge to Rivers has posted signs at trailheads, asking the public to avoid using wet or muddy trails. And while many trail users respect the request, enough brazenly walk past those signs that the problem has gotten out of hand.

Combined with the fact that overall use of the trail system has increased along with the population, even regular trail users were fed up. Since the decision was announced, Gordon said he has received only three negative comments.

Among those in support of the move is the Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association, which is asking its members to stay off muddy trails. SWIMBA advocates a simple method for gauging if a trail is too muddy: If the mud stick to tires or shoes, it's too wet.

While mountain biking was once looked at as a divide-and-conquer sport, in which the best riders would be willing to ride over anything in any condition, attitudes have changed as the sport has become more popular and trail conditions have worsened.

"It is a difficult thing for people to accept, but mountain biking and hiking are not necessarily year-round sports. There are times when the trails need to be left alone. Horses need to stay off them. Dirt bikes need to stay off them. Hikers need to stay off them. Mountain bikes need to stay off them," reads a newsletter sent out by the organization.

But for many casual users, the possibility of a closure is a sad statement on how misuse by a few can ruin it for everyone.

"It makes me sad. I'm up here all year long," said Boise resident Brittany Phillips as she finished a wet spring walk with her dogs.

Phillips said she stays off trails Ridge to Rivers marks as too wet or muddy for use, and added most people she sees follow the guidelines as well. But the rutted tracks heading up the hillside testified that at least some people choose to ignore the mud.

The majority of trail damage happens in late February through mid-March, but spring's unpredictable weather also means swiftly changing conditions. Days of rain can leave trails that were nearly dry just as muddy as they were as the snow melted.

Next winter's closures will go into effect in late January or early February, or as soon as the freeze-thaw cycle appears to have set in. Trails will only be off limits during the time of the day when conditions are muddiest, leaving them open to users when the trails are still frozen or dry. These periodic closures will last roughly four to six weeks or until the trails are dry.

The closures will be across the entire trail system, rather than just those that are wettest simply in an effort to get more compliance.

"It's the only way you could pull it off," Gordon said. "We wouldn't get people to turn around two miles up the trail."

And while trail managers hope the closures will help the problem, it's going to be up to the users to follow the rules.

"It's going to be an honor system," Gordon said, adding that with a small staff and limited budget, there's no real enforcement.

For now, Ridge to Rivers staff is just trying to point trail-hungry recreationists toward the driest trails. Gordon advises to stick to the sandier trails this time of year, including Hulls Gulch and Bob's Trail, but to still be prepared to turn around if the trail gets muddy.

Trails to avoid are in the Table Rock area, as well as the Military Reserve, where clay-heavy soils are easily damaged.

"Just use common sense and judgment," Gordon said.