Heroes or hoodlums? City vows to identify, apprehend ‘pirate’ trailbuilders

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA COMMUNITY FOREST – The Arcata Community Forest is growing, gaining infrastructure and is, once again, steeped in a certain amount of drama and mystery. Just a stroll from where the mysterious cabin once stood, the city has cracked down, undoing new illegal construction. But this time, rebellion is afoot, both overt and stealthy.

The story unfolded at the Thursday, Oct. 13 meeting of the Arcata Forest Management Committee. Environmental Services Director Mark Andre began the meeting by briefing the committee on illegal trailbuilding in the Community Forest. A single-track mountain bike trail was recently discovered, linking Trail 12 to a spot near the intersection of Trails 6 and 8.

Built in an area recently thinned, it extended a previously created and also unauthorized trail extending Trail 13 to 12. That trail, dubbed the “Lower 13,” parallels the existing Trail 13. Though it doesn’t appear on official Community Forest maps, the “pirate” trail was left in place by the city, and apparently users took that as tacit permission to extend it further.

But on discovering the new trail, the city uninstalled it by adding obstructions and covering it, making it un-bikeable. The Environmental Services Department then started getting emails from forest users asking why the trail had been “decommissioned.” But having been created entirely outside public process, it had never been commissioned.

According to citizen and mountain biker Bill Lydgate, who attended the meeting, the new trail has been in place since at least this summer.

As to why the builders didn’t work with the forest committee and city on getting it established, he speculated that “they didn’t want to wallow in red tape and possibly were encouraged by the adoption by the city of the previous ‘pirate’ section of 13. That section is anecdotally called Lower 13 and is iconic. The pirate Lower 13 trail also has great flow and goes through a redwood snag. The city subsequently invested time and materials in improving drainage.”

Lydgate said the individuals who built the trail are regarded as “folk heroes” in the mountain bike community.

But Andre and the forest committee regard the trailbuilders as vandals who have damaged public property and created a host of other problems. An Arcata Police Department investigation is underway, Andre said.

Mountain biking advocates at the meeting, some of them members of the Redwood Coast Mountain Bike Association, defended the new trail. One said it fixed a “dysfunction junction” at the intersection of the Lower 13 trail and Trail 12, and that “logistically, it makes a lot of sense.”

Bike Association Vice Chair Sean Tetrault said the new trail is a result of demand for new trails not being met. He said single-track, that is, narrow and bike-optimized trails such as the new one, draw off bikers from multi-use trails and reduce user conflicts, just as the Arcata Skate Park helped give skaters a place to do their thing, reducing destructive skating in public places.

“You can create a pressure valve, and hopefully see less conflict,” Tetrault said.

But forest committee members calmly roared back at the assembled cyclists with frank and dead serious admonitions.

“It sort of pisses me off,” said normally soft-spoken fish biologist Dennis Halligan. He said illegal trails sometimes cause erosion and loss of habitat, and asked that the advocates go through the public process. “We’re asking user groups to police themselves and their community,” he said. The city has numerous user groups whose needs it tries to meet and reconcile, Halligan said, and continued cooperation is “incumbent on maintaining good will. Stand up and go through the process.”

Hydrologist Danny Hagans said the forest committee embraces suggestions, but has to fit new forest features in with everything else that’s happening out there. “We’ve always been open to suggestions, but we have to do environmental review,” Hagans said. “The forest is compromised already. It’s public property, and there are lots of pressures for more use.”

Andre said he and the forest committee are always interested in suggestions, but is mindful of cumulative impacts. “That’s the essence of a community-owned forest,” he said, adding that the committee would “focus on proposals that don’t fragment it more.”

Fragmentation by criss-crossing the forest with excessive trails, he said, reduces habitat values and impedes wildlife recovery in the forest.

Lydgate suggested that, with the separate Jacoby Creek Forest’s robust habitat values, perhaps the Community Forest’s emphasis on wildlife could be reduced in order to allow more trails. He noted multiple benefits of the new trail as described in a petition (see below) that has gained more than 100 signatures. He said some of the mountain bikers are “ticked off” at the new trail’s removal.

Andre acknowledged that “it may have merit” and that “it wasn’t the worst place for a trail,” but that long-term planning has to be done. Trails require maintenance, and that has to be factored into budgets.

Later, Andre went into more detail about problems associated with unauthorized trail building. One is city liability for accidents and injuries on pirate trails. “The way to kill future mountain bike trailbuilding is to have someone get hurt on a trail not built to professional standards,” he said. “Trails without signs lead to confusion, too.”

Another is environmental impact, and not just on wildlife. That results from “gouging” trails through areas which have been replanted, as happened in this case – newly planted conifers, Andre said, were “trashed” during the trail’s construction.

Having enthusiasts carve new trail extensions “willy nilly” has a chilling effect on adjacent landowners who are always mindful of privacy and property values, and whose cooperation is essential to forest improvement and expansion. “Trespass trails onto the ACF [Arcata Community Forest] and illicit trail building within the ACF  negatively impacts our ongoing discussions with adjacent private landowners and land managers to create more riding opportunities in and around Arcata,” Andre said.

The illegal trails set back other improvements, Andre asserted. “To decommission a trail takes away from building new trails,” he said, because city and volunteer work parties have to be drawn away from planned projects to fix the damage. “It subtracts,” he said. “It doesn’t help.”

He likened the new trail to the kind of “free-for-all” trailbuilding that has gone on for years in the Forsyth property, which has created widespread erosion and habitat degradation there. The Sunny Brae Tract, he noted, “was a maze of trespass trails when the city acquired it in November 2006, with considerable forest understory and watershed impacts apparent.”

Andre said Arcata Police are investigating the illegal trail and that his department will help, possibly with use of wildlife cameras to capture images of the “folk hero” perpetrators. But he doubts that will be necessary.  “Somebody is going to tell us who it is,” he said. “We get a lot of information on activities out there.” Those responsible, he said, will be identified and possibly banned from the Community Forest for five years.

[Update: Andre later said that his mention of the five-year ban was a joke, and that the city has no legal mechanism to ban anyone from the forest. – Ed.]

He said illegal trailbuilding is no different than people “installing statues on the Plaza” without going through a public process. “I don’t know of any park or national forest that would tolerate that,” he said.

The incursion is also regrettable, Andre said, in that it creates division between the city and the mountain bike community. “We don’t want a confrontation with a user group that’s been a big ally, and have a battle over stupid things like this,” he said.


Andre said the committee isn’t a red tape bureaucracy. “It’s not like it’s some remote, Washington, DC process,” he said. “We’re all about creating opportunities for fun.”

Added Andre, “We are adding single track flow trail to the steep ART [Arcata Ridge Trail] section of rocked road north of the ACF boundary to make it easier to climb, more fun to descend and less potential for conflicts between user groups.”

The ‘Adopt Lower Trail 13’ petition

The following is the petition promoted by mountain bike enthusiasts:

Please adopt into the city trail network the un-sanctioned portion of Trail 13 in the Community Forest that the city recently decommissioned. This section of trail has the potential to enhance the recreational experience in the Community Forest and is an asset to the trail system. Here are five reasons to adopt this section of trail:

• Connectivity: This section of trail naturally augments the Ridge Trail by providing a high quality single-track alternative to the existing forest roads.

• Low environmental impact: There are no drainage, stream crossing or wetland issues. Impacts to the environment are minimal as it traverses through a recently harvested unit. The trail is located in a portion of the forest that is already influenced by roads, so has minimal impact on forest integrity and habitat fragmentation.

• Improves safety: Sinuous single-track trails naturally control bike speed when compared to riding on haul roads, especially in this case where the single-track trail bypasses the awkward intersection of roads 12 & 8. Every mountain bike on the single-track alternative is one less bike on the forest road, reducing the potential for conflict between user groups.

• Flow: This trail follows the backbone of the ridge that divides Janes and Jolly Giant creeks and tracks the ground topography. This trail segment has natural flow.

• Low long-term maintenance costs: This segment of trail does not need to be rocked and can have a natural surface. Labor costs may be defrayed by community volunteer work days.

The Forsyth addition. City of Arcata graphic

The Forsyth addition. City of Arcata graphic

Positive developments

Last week's FMC meeting was delayed more than a quarter-hour as members and citizens waited for the arrival of Chair Michael Furniss. His tardiness and the need to clear Council Chamber by 8:30 a.m. mean that important agenda items weren't processed. Those included setting meeting dates to revise the Forest Management Plan and setting a date to conduct a site inspection of the recent forest harvest.

Some quick catch-up on some ongoing forest matters:

• The forest is expanding. The city is adding 20 acres as part of the $240,000 Lima Property acquisition, paid for entirely with grants. Another three-plus acres which will remain privately held has been rezoned as residential, allowing the owner to develop it for housing.

The city considers this a good bargain, since it both protects a significant chunk of forestland which otherwise could have been developed, while allowing creation of housing, which Arcata always needs, on a smaller area.

• Two acres of the privately owned, 58.5-acre Forsyth Property located east of Humboldt State University are also being added, with 50 acres more to follow in a two-step process. The $65,000 initial purchase “buys time” to acquire the rest, according to Andre. He said there is potential for one or two miles of new trail in Forsyth.

Andre said that Forsyth acquisition is “stretching” the budget, since a costly survey and appraisal must be done on the remaining acreage before it can be acquired. The effort was helped substantially by a $10,000 donation to Arcata Forest Fund, made by citizen Alex Stillman.

The Forsyth and Lima properties and Stillman’s donation all appear on this week’s Arcata City Council Consent Calendar agenda, where they may be formally accepted.

• The $180,000 Jolly Giant Dam project is about 75 percent finished. A large new pipe has been installed 15 feet below the dam’s crest to safely handle as much as a 500-year storm event.

The old spillway on the south side of the dam will be lined with “shotcrete,” a substance sprayed at high velocity onto surfaces to stabilize slopes. That work will have to wait until next year, when things dry up.

The old Arcata Water Co. dam used to hold back a reservoir that provided the city’s water supply. Along with improved safety by reducing the chance of a dam overflow or failure, the upgrades also reduce the amount of federal paperwork the dam will require.

The new C&K Johnson bridge. Courtesy City of Arcata

The new C&K Johnson bridge. Courtesy City of Arcata

• The four-mile Arcata Ridge Trail is becoming more complete with every passing month. Last week, a brand new bridge was placed near where it will be permanently installed over Jolly Giant Creek near Fickle Hill Road. The $12,500, 20-foot steel bridge, made by Arcata’s C&K Johnson Industries, is similar to another one placed over a tributary of Janes Creek near West End Road two years ago, but it’s a foot wider.

The new bridge will be installed this winter. That will leave the Ridge Trail’s tricky Fickle Hill crossing as the final gap to be closed. Andre said the city is working with the county on details of the crossing, as it lies within Humboldt County jurisdiction.

• The Fickle Hill crossing will be created concurrently with a new trailhead at the terminus of Beverly Drive, at the exact location where a resident recently shot and killed a bear.

To connect the new portal, a connective path will be built beginning on the Ridge Trail and working down toward Beverly Drive. Andre said it wouldn’t make sense to start on that street and work up, with a “trail to nowhere” that would leave those who trekked up it stranded halfway. Once the top portion has been created, the city will then work up from Beverly Drive to complete the linkage.

• A difficult crossing over Beith Creek in the Sunny Brae Tract was recently overhauled, creating a hiking-optimized path across the creek. But its steep, narrow route is not so friendly to equestrians and bicyclists in places, and those users have asked for further improvements. Andre said that is in the works as a long-term project, but will have to wait until other major projects are complete and the Forest Fund is back in “equilibrium.”

“We really want an open forest,” he said. “That’s on the list.” Another route lower down the creek might be installed for horses and bikes. Meanwhile, a sign might be installed at the present crossing urging users to lead their horses and walk their bikes.

• The new northern entrance to the Arcata Ridge Trail on West End Road will be dedicated sometime in December.

• This year’s 400,000 board-foot Arcata Community Forest harvest was recently completed, refilling the Forest Fund to help Arcata’s woodlands sustainably pay for their management and expansion. A post-harvest inspection of the logging site by committee members is likely to be held in November, weather permitting.

Some objections to the harvest and Arcata’s overall forest management policies cropped up while the logging was underway, but as in past years, the protesters failed to follow through with any meaningful participation. No one advocating change in Arcata’s forest harvest practices turned up at last week’s meeting of the committee.

The Forest Management Committee meets the second Thursday of each month at 7 a.m. at Arcata City Hall.



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