Trouble on the trails

Ron Burtz
Many Black Hills trails being used by increasingly large numbers of off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders were never designed for such heavy use. That alone would be enough to cause concerns about potential trail damage, but throw in the massive amount of rainfall this year and the resulting high water table and you have a perfect storm of trouble for Black Hills motorized use trails. 
There are over 700 miles of trails in the Black Hills National Forest set aside for use by motorized vehicles, according to U.S. Forest Service recreation tech Ben Schumacher of the Mystic Ranger District. Those trails can be recognized by their four-digit numbers such as “8228.” When other routes such as county roads are thrown into the mix, there are over 3,600 miles of trails designated for motorized use in the Black Hills. 
Schumacher said most of the dirt trails were blazed many years ago as logging or fire roads and therefore are not in the best locations for all-weather travel.
“When they were hauling timber, they wanted to drag logs downhill,” said Schumacher, “so they built roads toward the bottom of the drainage. If [hauling out logs] was all we ever did, it would probably be fine.”
However, with the proliferation of all-terrain vehicles in the last few years, those trails are now being pushed to their limits. Over the last several years, the number of permits issued by the Forest Service for riding its motorized trails has been steadily increasing, from 11,170 in 2013 to a high of 21,508 in 2017. (The number of permits sold dropped back to 19,371 last year, possibly as the result of a similarly wet year.)
With many Forest trails coinciding with natural drainage paths, a large number of puddles have developed along the trails leading to serious trail damage, especially if riders don’t observe proper procedure when encountering a mud hole in the trail. 
“The trail etiquette is slow down,” said Schumacher. “Go through it slowly, because if you hit it fast, it ends up compacting it and splashing it, so it just gets deeper.”
Schumacher also said, in spite of what some riders may think, going around the puddle only compounds the problem. 
“You’re supposed to stay on the trail,” he said. “Slow down and go through the puddle instead of going around it because then it just gets wider and wider and wider.” 
A photo published recently in the Chronicle shows a UTV stuck to its axles in the middle of a mud hole the size of a large swimming pool. 
Schumacher said riders who purposely seek out mud holes and splash through them are hurting the trails. He said he doesn’t get too upset when he sees an OHV with some mud splashed on it, since that’s hard to avoid in a year like this, but if he sees large chunks of sod clinging to the front and top of the vehicle, he assumes the rider did it on purpose. 
“There’s enough mud out there that you don’t have to go looking for it,” said Schumacher.
Some trails have been damaged so much this year, they have been shut down so they can dry out.  
“Box Elder Trail at Nemo has been open and closed several times,” said Beth Doten, Forest Service public affairs specialist. 
The latest road closure and restriction order issued by Forest supervisor Mark Van Every on Friday was accompanied by this statement: “Due to continued and extensive rain, the degradation of motorized and non-motorized trails and the Forest road system remains a serious concern for Forest officials.”
The statement added that the remote automatic weather station at Nemo recorded over six inches of rain so far this month, which is nearly twice the amount of precipitation from last year. The previous five-year average for precipitation at the station is 2.87 inches.
The latest order closed the entire length of road number 336.1l in the Hell Canyon Ranger District which includes Custer and the Southern Hills. That trail was closed due to damage. 
In addition, one non-motorized trail — Willow Creek Loop Trail No. 8 — was closed to horse traffic between the junction with Lost Cabin Trail No. 2 and the junction with Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9 North due to resource damage. 
There are also a dozen trails closed in their entirety in the Mystic and Northern Hills Ranger Districts where rains have been even more frequent and soils do not dry out as quickly. 
Severe penalties exist for those who ride on closed trails. Violation could result in up to a $5,000 fine and six months in jail. 
Schumacher urges riders to check  before heading out on the trail to learn the latest conditions and closures.  Another tip is to download the Avenza app for IOS or Android phones and tablets.
“We put our trail maps on the Avenza platform,” said Schumacher. Once pdf maps are downloaded to the device, the user doesn’t have to have cell phone coverage to use them. 
“Avenza uses GPS to track your location based on that map,” said Schumacher. “That’s the single best thing that we’ve got for mapping. It only shows the motor vehicle trails that are open for use, so if a trail isn’t on the map, it’s not open. Even if it looks amazing, it’s not a legal route.”
Schumacher said the abundant rainfall and late-season snowfall in May have also caused another headache for the crews who maintain the trail system: fallen trees and rocks. 
A rockslide in Boulder Canyon near Sturgis caused the closure of that road earlier this month and Forest-wide thousands of trees have toppled due to soggy soil conditions or after being weighed down by the heavy May snow. 
“It’s been a battle to stay ahead of it,” said Schumacher, adding that crews who maintain the trails have been running behind all year. 
Fortunately, there is an upside to the increase in motor vehicle travel on the Forest. Most of the money from the sale of permits, which cost $25 each, goes into a fund used to maintain the trails. 
“Ninety-five percent of the money from permits stays on the Forest for trail maintenance and improvements,” said Schumacher.


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