Thursday, September 21, 2006

The “Social Trail” Problem: Myth or Reality?

Note: This post was written at an earlier stage in the ongoing public debate over Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks policies. While somewhat dated, the post still raises important issues which are still relevant.

To: Participants in the OSMP Visitor Planning Process

From: Guy Burgess

Subject: The “Social Trail” Problem

Date: May 5, 2004

The area in which I believe that I could make the greatest contribution to ongoing Visitor Plan deliberations is with respect to the “social trail” problem. I thought that the best place to start would be by doing a realistic and current assessment of the scope of the problem. To do this I took the social trail map embodied in the current draft Visitor Plan and set out, with my digital camera, to document the current status of the social trails marked on the map. This information together with the experience of having hiked extensively in this area since the late 1960's has enabled me to create a current and accurate map social trail use in the area. (See attachment.) My principal conclusion is that the current situation is vastly better than that implied by the clearly outdated map contained in the draft plan.

The construction of new climber access trails, the closure of many undesirable social trails, and changing attitudes of the vast majority of park visitors have resulted in the effective abandonment of a great many of the marked trails. In virtually all cases the scars are well on the road to recovery. These trails are marked in gray on the map.

It's interesting to note that the trails that are taking the longest to recover are those that were deliberately constructed and involved the significant recontouring of the land. This fact suggests that future trail planners should realign existing, serviceable trails only when there are clear environmental or visitor enjoyment benefits. In the past trail realignments have created networks of braided trail corridors which mar the land for decades. Unconstructed paths, even those with substantial erosion problems, seem to heal much more quickly when abandoned. For example, it's now hard to find the steep and highly eroded social trail it used to connect Gregory Canyon with Crown Rock. (This social trail was replaced a few years ago by the new switchback trail). I can show you constructed trails that are still clearly visible even though they have been abandoned for decades.

A great many of the social trails marked on the map almost certainly resulted from the lost rock climber effect. In the absence of clearly marked descent routes, climbers on steep and vulnerable terrain create a braided and destructive patchwork of routes. The construction of clearly marked access trails eliminates this problem by channeling traffic into a single corridor. Construction of the First Flatiron, Crown Rock, and Amphitheater access trails has virtually eliminated the social trail problem in these areas. Something as simple as cairned, climber access routes in the areas west of the Amphitheater, on the north side of the First Flatiron, and on the south side of the Second Flatiron could eliminate the remaining problems at very little cost. Remember climbers don't need expensive and environmentally destructive switchbacks. They are used to hiking steep trails. Cairns suggesting the best route combined with some simple educational materials are all that's needed. My map indicates a number of areas in which such consolidated access routes are needed. (Blue lines in brown areas.)

No comments: