Local dirt and mountain bike clubs set sights on trail maintenance this summer.
By Phil Lindeman
The Bocco Mountain trail system north of Wolcott is a hotbed of motocross activity in Eagle County. With miles of four-wheel roads crisscrossed by singletrack,it’s packed with the sort of berms, routes and turns that make for some of the best natural riding in the area. It also means the system gets beat to a pulp each summer following hundreds of visits per month, but as local riders know, there’s hardly anywhere else to go.
Last Saturday afternoon, a group of 15 dirt bikers with Rocky Mountain Sport Riders, a local advocacy and volunteer organization for motorized sports, met at Bocco Mountain for a full day of trail work. They were joined by officials from the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the land and most of the other dirt bike-friendly trails in the county. As RMSR President Spencer Ball explains, the BLM is woefully understaffed and often relies on volunteer labor to maintain trails. Without groups like RMSR, local trail systems – some of which are nearly 50 years old – would be rutted beyond repair. After nearly eight hours of flattening acceleration bumps and removing overgrown shrubs, the dirt bikers had their reward: an hour or two of untarnished riding.
“We take a lot of pride in this area and make sure we really keep it in great condition,” says Ball, noting the trail system is one of only a handful in the county where dirt bikers are welcome. “There are literally thousands of miles of mapped singletrack in surrounding forests. In Eagle County, we just don’t have much that’s recognized and legal to ride.”
An unmapped issue
For decades, motorized vehicles had free range of nearly every road and trail in White River National Forest, the wilderness area that buttresses the BLM land and makes up the bulk of eastern Eagle County. Last March, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) completed a seven-year land management plan for White River, taking into account all types of travel across thousands of miles of roads and trails. For motocross riders, the plan’s biggest blow was the loss of unrecognized routes: The singletrack areas many riders had enjoyed for years were now illegal, leaving only about 300 miles of open dirt roads.
“The challenge we face is many of these routes, especially the two-wheel routes, weren’t inventoried,” says Paula Peterson, a recreation officer with the Eagle-Holy Cross District. “In many cases, they were designed and built over time, but in the cases of some, people were riding non-system routes.”
The Forest Service’s plan looked at dozens of factors – environmental impact, wildlife conservation, affordable maintenance and more – and the wealth of information led to a long-delayed conclusion that many motor sports enthusiasts found unfair. Today, the kind of narrow, adrenaline-pumping trails dirt bikers enjoy are largely restricted to BLM forests in the western portions of the county, along with a handful of trail systems near Eagle and Gypsum. The problem isn’t a lack of land: Ball claims White River has twice as much wilderness area as neighboring national forests like Arapahoe and Gunnison, but only a fraction of the accessibility for motorized vehicles.
“There are better ways to protect our public lands which don’t undermine our land managers and still allow mechanized access to our forests,” says Ball, referring to what he terms “ridiculous” wilderness-protection measures. “RMSR helps represent a large group of people in our community that have been under- and misrepresented.”
Caring for the sport’s future
The Forest Service management plan made RMSR’s mission more pressing. The group has been around since the late ‘90s, but has grown increasingly active in just two years. It was highly vocal against the state-sponsored “Hidden Gems” movement – a plan to block all motorized travel for nearly 236,000 acres of wilderness in Eagle, Pitkin and Summit counties – and boasts more than 50 members across the three counties. As Ball notes, the group is not antagonistic; rather, the members want to build relationships with the BLM and USFS.
Starting in 2010, the RMSR met with officials from both federal groups to find land-management solutions that worked for everyone. Since then, members have logged hundreds of volunteer hours on trail crews, and leaders like Ball have trained with the Basalt-based nonprofit Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers to learn trail-restoration skills.
“It was an effort to gain some respect and autonomy,” Ball says. “We now go out on these work days and confidently manage a crew with the right techniques, working in a way the Forest Service recognizes.”
Ball understands the RMSR mission is an uphill battle – he claims dirt bikers and ATV riders occasionally get a bad reputation in Eagle County, where hiking and mountain biking make up the majority of summertime recreation. He hopes that by partnering with federal officials, the group can protect access for dirt bikers far into the future. Collaboration with the BLM in Eagle and Wolcott has been fruitful, and they’ve already made headway with the Aspen-Sopris District to the south, where plans are in the works for a singletrack trail system linking Basalt to Gypsum.
Access for all
Around the same time the Forest Service released its management plan last year, a core group of local mountain bikers decided it was time to take a closer look at area trails. Like RMSR, they were worried constant use would lead to irreversible damage without a watchdog. The two largest groups, Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association and the Hardscrabble Trail Coalition, now have upwards of 500 combined members. Their mission is a bit different than RMSR – instead of fighting prejudice, they want to bolster Eagle County’s reputation as a biking Mecca on par with neighboring Fruita – but the spirit is similar.
“This is all about people going out and taking ownership of their local trails,” says Jamie Malin, a VVMBA board member and owner of The Kind bike shop in Edwards. “People want to get involved, but they don’t know how. There’s a lot of volunteer power in this valley, but if you have to work too hard to volunteer, many people would just rather go bike.”
VVMBA and HTC have both upped their efforts this summer, including meetings with the Forest Service, trail-maintenance training and a joint program with the Vail Recreation District. Dubbed the “Golden Pick Award,” the program encourages volunteering by rewarding teams of cyclists for working on area singletrack.
For all of these biking groups, motorized and not, joint collaboration is the natural next step. Peter Geyer, the VVMBA president, is also an avid motocross rider and will join RMSR this summer. He has already spoke with Ball several times about how the two groups – and two different biking cultures – can work together to keep area trails pristine and, most importantly, accessible.
“If groups like the Forest Service and BLM see we’re working together, that there isn’t a separation, it will be a huge benefit,” Geyer says. “A trail is as good as we make it, no matter what you ride.”