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Jefferson County sticks with multiple-use trails approach

The County's Open Space Advisory Committee established a task force to study options and develop a new plan for managing trail user conflicts.

By Gary Sprung

Map of Colorado A Jefferson County, Colorado, has again declined to close parks to mountain bicycling to respond in response to user conflict problems. The county's open space parks system in the mountains just west of Denver provides about 100 miles of trails used by more than 600,000 people a year. Jefferson County ("JeffCo") has a multiple-use approach to trails and is for now sticking with it.

In September, the staff of the JeffCo Open Space Department submitted for public review a plan that would have altogether closed some parks to bike use, and closed others on a rotating basis. After significant negative response from the public, the County decided to create a committee to come up with better solutions.

The staff's plan came as a result of real problems out there which must be addressed. Stanton La Breche, JeffCo manager of park services, explained, "One lady, in her haste to get out of way of a mountain biker, broke her leg scrambling off the trail. Another lady said her friend's horse was run into and hit. The horse had some horse sense and did not hurt anyone. There were also reports of people getting clipped by handlebars. Some actually get run into, but I have not heard of someone run right over and sent to the hospital." La Breche acknowledged that most accidents involve a single bicyclist crashing. But he suspects that "there are a lot of people who have little mishaps but are not reporting to us." Also, some hikers say they have abandoned JeffCo parks due to heavy bicycling and gone to other lands, so they no longer have conflicts.

The main mountain bicycling advocacy group for the area agrees that there is a problem. Merk French, president of the IMBA-affiliated Trails Conservation Services club, noted that although in 1994 there were only 54 complaints about mountain biking, some of the incidents ended up with injury to other trail users. "I agree that one person injured is unacceptable," he told IMBA Trail News.

Cyclists have lauded JeffCo's approach to the problems. When County officials addressed the issue in 1991 and again in 1993, they chose non-closure actions. They increased education and information programs to advise people of proper etiquette on trails. As they developed new parks, they created separate-use trails. They installed new signs. They tried to get media attention to tell how people could better use trails.

La Breche feels this was partially successful, since complaints about mountain bicycling have remained steady, while use has greatly increased. However, this summer the staff began to feel that more needs to be done. Their plan released in September called for closing two parks which receive little mountain biking use. For the four to six parks which get heavy use, one would be closed each year on an alternating basis, so each park would be closed once every four to six years. Hikers would be directed to the appropriate parks.

The bicycling community of the Denver metro area rallied. Roughly 400 people-- 60% to 70% bicyclists-- attended a Sept. 14 public hearing. Of the 60 who spoke, most opposed closures. Some equestrians also opposed closures.

IMBA submitted formal comments. Executive Director Tim Blumenthal wrote, "Jefferson County has a stellar record of promoting all kinds of low-impact trail use and is nationally recognized for its imaginative approaches to reducing trail user conflict. Its emphasis on trail user education and communication between trail user groups is precisely the model that IMBA promotes everywhere. Education and communication should remain the backbone of JeffCo's strategy to improve the trail experience for all users. Don't make trail-user separation and trail restrictions the backbone of your management approach."

The significant press coverage of the controversy was good, Blumenthal suggested, because it educated bicyclists who were unaware of the problems. This creates an opportunity to get more cyclists involved in clubs and volunteerism. He strongly encouraged the County to institute a bicycle patrol program staffed by volunteers.

"Dispersing trail use-- not concentrating it-- is the key to reducing trail user conflicts and erosion. Any decision that includes closing Apex, White Ranch, Mount Falcon, etc. to bicycle use will concentrate mountain bikers in other parks and put more stress on those facilities," Blumenthal noted.

On September 27, 80 park users gathered at the nearby Bureau of Land Management office to discuss solutions. They reached consensus on nine suggested actions:

  • expand trail user education efforts
  • continue expansion of the open space park system
  • revise trail design and maintenance to encourage slower speeds
  • improve park signage
  • initiate a comparative trail rating system
  • on some trails direct cyclists to ride in a direction opposite from hikers and equestrians
  • identify certain trails appropriate for segregation of users
  • collect sound trail use survey data
  • promote better communications between users and open space management.

The County responded favorably. At a meeting Oct. 19 of the Open Space Advisory Committee, the County established a task force consisting of three hikers, three mountain bicyclists, three equestrians, three open space staff, and four Advisory Committee members. They will study options and develop a new plan for managing trail user conflicts.

However, there may be no solution to some problems, according to La Breche. "Hikers want a lot more solitude, peace and quiet, serenity when they go out to the parks." But the frequency of encounters with bicyclists disturbs that feeling. "Even though bikers are supposed to yield, hikers usually step aside. If you have to move out of the way 20 times, even a mountain biker handing out $10 bills and being extremely courteous would still be disruptive... We could educate until cows came home and not resolve some of these issues. Some complaints are from people who want parks to go back to the way they were 15 years ago when no one was on them." La Breche said.

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