It’s a simple concept that continues to elude some of the Treasure Valley’s outdoors enthusiasts — much to the chagrin of trail managers.
If a trail is marked closed, don’t use it.
If a trail is muddy, don’t use it.
If a trail is icy, either walk atop the ice or turn around.
By ignoring those recommendations, hikers, bikers and runners are causing immense damage to the popular Boise Foothills trail system that requires money and man hours to repair.
“There are four of us that get out a lot,” said David Gordon, who manages the Ridge to Rivers trail system, “and we’re all just coming in shaking our heads going: ‘Holy cow. The trails are getting hammered everywhere.’ ”
Winter use always creates problems for Ridge to Rivers but the issue is heightened this winter because of the mild temperatures. There’s so little snow in the mountains that Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area has been closed since Monday and hasn’t opened fully yet. Closer to the Valley floor, trails are either muddy or icy as the last remnants of our Christmas snowstorm melt.
“People that enjoy the outdoors in Boise this winter are having a very, very difficult time, and I put myself in that category,” said Gordon, an avid downhill and skate skier. “You can’t ski, you can’t really go out and mountain bike or trail run or hike under the conditions we’re experiencing now. It’s hard to get that fix.”
That is contributing, Gordon says, to the rash of people using — and damaging — muddy trails. He’s particularly disappointed in the damage to the popular Table Rock trails, where three trailhead gates indicate that the trails are open, closed, closed after 10 a.m., or closed after noon.
“If people had abided by that, they’d look good,” Gordon said. “It’s very, very clear people are ignoring the closures. They look every bit as bad as they ever have, sadly.”
Ridge to Rivers posted a notice Monday to its Facebook page, which provides daily trail conditions, with a plea for users to treat the trails with care. The post attracted 221 reactions and 318 shares — but more than a few comments came from people who think the trails should be available in any condition.
The No. 1 problem with what Gordon generously called “poorly timed use” is that users step off the trails to avoid mud and ice. That widens the trails.
“It just becomes a cancer,” he said. “Our trail gets wider and wider. As a trail gets wider, it becomes more prone to erosion. You’ve got a lot more open surface area. The more surface area that is exposed without any root structure, the higher the likelihood you have of erosion on your trails and the more difficult it is to maintain those. It costs us more to maintain them as they get wider and we lose the singletrack character of the trail system.”
In addition, drainage features such as water bars can get flattened by use on soft days. That also increases erosion.
Gordon said trail workers see the widening created by winter and spring use through measurements taken in the summer.
“Winter is probably the worst,” he said. “The one saving grace with the spring is they tend to dry out quicker.”
Rainy days like Tuesday usually aren’t a problem, Gordon said, because people stay indoors. It’s the sunny day that follows.
“Those are the days we really hold our breath,” he said.
The only way Gordon and his crew can combat the problem is through education — and some users still don’t realize that mud is a problem. Those who moved from western Washington or Oregon are accustomed to playing in the mud. They don’t realize that because of the soil and vegetation here, that type of use is destructive.
But there’s also a group of users, as indicated by the Facebook post and the rampant use of muddy trails, who aren’t interested in any restrictions. They walk and ride past closed signs in the Foothills and on the Greenbelt.
“It’s astounding,” Gordon said. “… There’s nothing we can do beyond educating. That’s our only tool. We don’t really come across in a confrontational manner, no matter how frustrated we are. And you can’t help but be frustrated when it’s your profession. We try to come across in a friendly manner and try to educate people. Most of the time that works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. They don’t want to hear it.
“If we’re going to try to maintain the system in the long run, for the next generation and the generation after that, people now have to take responsibility to stay off the trails if it’s too muddy. It seems simple enough.”