‘Riders are just destroying the area’; Local cyclists say education may help preserve trail systems

Stock photo of Bearclaw Poppy Trail, St. George, Utah, Jan. 23, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Although the majority of mountain bike enthusiasts respect the trails they ride, a small minority do not.

Recently, the city of St. George moved the access point to the Bearclaw Poppy Trail, a popular mountain bike and hiking trail near Bloomington Country Club.

Within feet of the trailhead, the desert is crisscrossed with tire tracks from riders that have blazed their own path.

St. George resident Steve Barker said this cavalier attitude has disastrous effects on the land.

“The sheer number of bikers we have now coming into the area is staggering,” Barker said. “Some people who come here to ride seem not to care about the environment. Some Bearclaw riders are just destroying the area by riding anywhere they want, which causes a lot of harm.”

Bearclaw is located within a fragile and ecologically sensitive area.

The trail rolls through clay soils that provide the perfect ecological environment for the Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy, a federally listed endangered species, to grow.

Washington County is the only location in the world where this plant can be found. Mountain bikers and hikers must stay on the designated trail, which is closed to motor vehicles.

Mountain bike enthusiasts love riding the Bearclaw Poppy Trail. St. George, Utah, Jan. 23, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

One of the reasons the area is ecologically sensitive is its cryptobiotic soil where the Bearclaw Poppy grows.

Cryptobiotic soil is a slow-growing community of organisms that colonize bare soil in arid places and is crucial to the health of the desert. The organisms form a crust that once damaged takes decades to recover.

“There should be a single track going up the trail and a single track coming down, but now the single track is six-foot-wide,” Barker said. “There are trails all through the cryptobiotic soil which completely destroys it.”

The Bearclaw Poppy Trail is one of St. George’s extensive trail system offerings that provide approximately 100 miles of walking, bicycling and hiking paths throughout the city.

Bearclaw has been featured in several national magazines.

Education may make a difference, said Jay Bartlett, a mechanic at Bicycles Unlimited.

“Bike shops do a good job of educating people, and there is no shortage of educational material online that always talks about the importance of staying on the trail, but for people who don’t pay attention, I am not sure what is the answer.”

Better signage may also protect trail integrity, but this is problematic at Bearclaw, Bartlett said. The trail, he said, has so many braids and ribbons of tracks off the established trail that signage would be impossible.

Bearclaw is considered a beginner’s trail, attracting the novice rider who may not know proper bicycle etiquette.

However, Bartlett said the majority of the local mountain bike community follows the rules, and in all probability, it is the visitors to the area causing the damage.

Bartlett’s hope is that the people who ride off the trail don’t know any better rather than callously disregarding doing what is right.

Mountain bike riders set off on Bearclaw Poppy Trail during a ribbon-cutting event that celebrated relocating access to the trail. St. George, Utah, Jan. 23, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“Most of the locals and experienced riders know not to leave the trail,” Bartlett said. “But, it always amazes me when one person cuts across, and then for some reason, the next person thinks that it’s okay to do also. It’s one set of tracks. It’s obviously not a trail at that point, but it just keeps getting followed and wider.”

Bartlett added that causing trail damage is not exclusive to mountain bikers. Hikers also play a role.

“Hikers love trails,” Bartlett said. “If they see a trail, they are going to follow it. Nobody is without blame.”

Trail damage is also not exclusive to Bearclaw. Most of the city trails have suffered some level of injury from inappropriate actions.

“Some of it is lack of patience,” Bartlet said. “Some people get into the flow and get into a mindset of going fast, and they don’t want to stop. All of our trails have a bit of this problem.”

Mother Nature can also play a roll in trail degradation.

According to the International Mountian Bicycling Association, which established a set of rules in 1988, riders are urged to not ride on muddy trails because it will cause rutting on the path. Once rutting begins, it could take years, if ever, to level out. In Wyoming, sections of the Emigrant Trail can still be seen even after settlers, heading west, rutted the trail during the mid to late 1800s.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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