According to the Outdoor Industry Association, most Idahoans engage in an outdoor recreational activity every year. Also, around 30,000 new people move to, are born in or otherwise end up in Idaho every year, where mountain biking, trail running and hiking are not fads—they are reasons for living here. As an Idaho native, this is where I might launch into a frustrated diatribe about non-natives cramping my style, but we all know that rhetoric is neither constructive nor beneficial. I also know better: I have transplants in my family now, and they are responsible trail users.
What does all of this mean for Idaho trails and open spaces? Let's go back in time ...
In the summer of 1997, I rode the Lower Hulls Gulch Trail 17 days in a row. I didn't come across a single person during any of those 17 rides. It was my own little paradise. I let my inner recluse run free as I banked through curves with reckless abandon, never fearing what may lie around the corner. In 1997, most of the Lower Hulls trail was less than a foot wide, and the rock sections were steeply pitched, with a natural facade intact. Those are days I will never forget.
Today, Lower Hulls is an ever-widening single track, and human-caused erosion has changed the aesthetic of the trail and its adjacent features. A downhill trip on a weeknight will result in five to 30 yields—sometimes one every 100 yards. Those rocks are now troughed out, a byproduct of decades of high use.
If I head to Camel's Back Park on a Saturday, I may not only encounter hundreds (occasionally thousands) of people catching sun and gearing up to hit the lower Ridge to Rivers trail system, I may also end up parking in front of a North End resident's house—which sucks for the folks who live around there and leads to additional confrontations.
The City of Boise has gone to great lengths to manage the massive influx of users, including increased signage, more dog waste pick-up stations, public surveys and rebuilt sections of trail to better handle new levels of traffic. This is all beside the point, however. The greatest challenge facing our trail systems is not how many users there are, but how they use the trails. User-on-user conflicts have risen in recent years as everyone has seemingly adopted their own rules of etiquette. On every mountain bike ride or trail run I do these days, there are at least a half dozen interactions with other people. Last summer, I was involved in a head-on collision with an older gentleman on a mountain bike who refused to yield to uphill traffic. He screamed at me as he tumbled ignorantly down the hill. For the record, there is a list of easy-to-follow rules available at ridgetorivers.org/etiquette. If every trail user made an effort to follow these guidelines, we could spare ourselves—at least temporarily—the lameness that has befallen so many other cities in the region.
If we do nothing, we'll likely start to see one-way trail systems, exclusions for certain groups and more of an ants-marching look and feel on Idaho trails. This has been the case in Marin County, California, Salt Lake City and other areas around the West. It's a reactive mitigation plan rather than a proactive approach to curbing bottlenecks.
As with most solvable things in this world, the solution gets back to communication. I applaud the City of Boise for its effort to expand and extend the 2001 open space levy, which has given us the opportunity to have a world-class trail system. I appreciate the effort to expand trail miles in and around Bogus Basin, Hidden Springs, Eagle and Harris Ranch. I commend the efforts to manage—or avoid—on-site conflicts with increased signage and public outreach. The efforts have been robust. The question is: How do we get the word out to everyone? I don't have the answer, but I do know this: Until all trail users follow the same set of rules, we'll continue down a path toward restrictions for many groups, continued erosion, and environmental and trail-widening issues. Whatever happens, you'll still see me on the trails—frustrated and longing for 1997.