ST. GEORGE — On a bright but chilly February morning, Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association president Kevin Christopherson and Dixie National Forest-Pine Valley District Ranger Nick Glidden examine maps spread out on the lowered tailgate of a white U.S. Forest Service truck.
The two men also consult GPS coordinates as they study the topographical maps of an area off the Cottonwood Springs Road – sometimes known as the “old dump road” or Turkey Farm Road – where it crosses into the Dixie National Forest boundary.
A long day lies ahead as they set out to start flagging a portion of what Christopherson tells St. George News could potentially be a “world-class” downhill mountain bike trail, traversing nearly 30 miles and incorporating a stacked loop design in the lower sections.
In addition to the downhill trail, the design will likely include a competitive course where the National Interscholastic Cycling Association league can hold high school mountain biking and other cycling races.
‘This is something we’ve been wanting for awhile’
Both Christopherson and Glidden have a vested interest in protecting the environment, as well as providing access to enjoy public lands, and it was obvious that they were positively giddy as they imagined and marked the potential path with little pink flags.
But it was also easy to see they still have a tight grip on the reins – and reality. After all, the trail is only in the infancy stage of what will likely be a long and arduous journey.
“This is so conceptual at this point,” Glidden said. “We are beyond the seed but not yet necessarily sprouting or providing fruit.”
Conceptually, the trail has been in the works for a very long time, Christopherson said. The nonprofit Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association, whose stated goal is to build, maintain and ride mountain bike trails in Southern Utah, has been eyeing the creation of this type of trail in Washington County for years.
“There are two trail types we’re lacking,” Christopherson said.
He said that although the county is blessed with hundreds of miles of great mountain biking trails – many of which the trails association can take credit for building or maintaining – there are really no high-altitude trails where riders can escape the heat of the late spring or early fall. Nor are there any true gravity/downhill trails.
“This is something we’ve been wanting for awhile,” Christopherson said, adding that they hadn’t been able to get the ball rolling on the project until recently.
Or more specifically, until Glidden entered the picture.
When Glidden came on the scene as the new district ranger for the Pine Valley Ranger District, he was approached by numerous organizations and citizens – mountain bikers and OHV riders among them – who said they saw potential for recreation within that area of the national forest but didn’t currently have access to it.
So Glidden organized a public scoping meeting where interested parties were able to express their recreation needs and desires and draw lines on a map of where they wanted trails to be located.
“Those things often end up looking like a bowl of spaghetti when they’re done,” Christopherson said.
As the Forest Service works toward opening more recreation opportunities, Glidden said they look at what the existing condition is and what the desired condition is. The gap between the two conditions is what the Forest Service and others propose to bring together.
For instance, with mountain biking, the current condition in the Pine Valley Ranger District is zero. There are no mountain bike specific trails on that area of national forest land, Glidden said.
But that is not the desired condition for many mountain bike enthusiasts, including the trails association and other industry stakeholders.
Glidden said three primary areas of focus in the Pine Valley district were identified at the public meeting by all of the constituents in attendance: land surrounding the community of Pine Valley, the Browse area and the area off the Cottonwood Springs Road where the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association proposes to build.
If you build it, they will ride
The national forest area where the trails association plans to build the downhill trail sits just above Bureau of Land Management land that houses two trails the nonprofit group has recently repaired and renovated: Ice House and Broken Mesa. It is the group’s desire to eventually create a tie-in to these trails from the work-in-progress downhill trail, which would extend the ride even longer, Christopherson said.
In addition to the trails association, mountain bike shop owners and trail builders at Over The Edge Sports in Hurricane have also expressed a desire to build trail in the Pine Valley Ranger District.
Over The Edge owner Quentin Morisette and his wife and expert trail builder, DJ, are currently working toward building trails in the Browse area of the district, which would also offer riders the higher altitude experience that is currently lacking in Washington County.
“It’s alpine and it’s very different views,” Quentin Morisette said. “The neat thing about the options for Browse is getting that elevation.”
But before shovels ever go in the dirt anywhere, there is a lot of preparation that has to take place.
As Glidden and Christopherson hiked through the forest flagging the trail’s potential path, they scrutinized every rise and fall of the landscape to be sure the trail will have minimal environmental impact and be sustainable once built.
“We mutually agree that sustainable trails are the only trails that we are going to be building,” Glidden said.
With that in mind, volunteers from the trails association, often accompanied by Forest Service rangers, will flag an area Glidden called a “corridor,” a narrowly focused concept of where the trail will go. What that means is that the trail should run within approximately 33 yards of where the flags are staked, Glidden said.
Once the flagging is complete, the Forest Service can take that information, that line on the ground, with them into the environmental assessment process.
All federal action where there is a proposed change to the ground or where they are putting federal dollars into the ground must go through processes set forth by the National Environmental Protection Act, Glidden said, adding they will do an environmental and archaeological assessment. There will also be additional opportunity for the public to comment on the trail.
Part of the procedure is to make sure the rangers are managing the land appropriately and representing what the public needs and wants while balancing the resource and environmental needs of the land.
Glidden said they won’t build a trail that will easily erode away, nor will they build the trail through sensitive soils, habitats or archaeology sites that might exist in the area.
As they survey the proposed corridor, they will walk every mile of the trail’s path to help determine the final layout so that once it is done, they have something to take back to the public and see if the proposed action is meeting the needs, Glidden said.
Christopherson said very few people realize how much effort, time and money goes into a “good bike trail.” He said a modern bike trail would cost between $5,000-$10,000 per mile if they were to contract it out.
“Nobody has that kind of a checkbook,” he said.
That is where the efforts and expertise of the trails association and other volunteer groups come in. Flagging the corridor will represent hundreds of volunteer hours, and that is before they ever pin flag the actual line or start cutting the trail.
But is it worth it?
When it comes to a question of why they are doing this, Christopherson said that for starters, it’s fun. But more than that, for the Forest Service, it will help fulfill one of their missions.
When both Glidden and Christopherson talk about the design of the trail, they emphasize the importance of making it enjoyable for as many people as possible.
“A successful trail will allow for a whole lot of people of varying skills,” Glidden said.
With that in mind, the concept of the trail would cater to riders of nearly all abilities by creating what are known as A-lines and B-lines – trails that have both difficult and easier options – as well as the stacked loops, which would gradually get more difficult the higher the loop.
Each of the loops would tie into a portion of the downhill section, allowing riders to experience the faster gravity sections within their skill level.
Both Glidden and Christopherson said the trail would be usable for less experienced riders while still entertaining skilled and professional mountain bikers, many of whom have made Southern Utah their home and will likely give their input on the trail’s design when it is further along in the process.
“Most, if not all of the mountain bike community, will love this trail,” Glidden said.
Additionally, the concept for the lower loop has good potential for use as a cross-country course, which could serve the needs of several race groups, particularly school mountain bike teams that race under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association league.
In Washington County, the school mountain bike teams recently lost their race course to a residential development, Christopherson said, and a replacement that meets the requirements of the sport’s governing league has not yet been found.
Glidden said providing space for the school teams to race would go a long way toward fulfilling one of the missions of the Forest Service: to get more kids off their screens and into the woods.
Glidden touted the growing popularity of mountain biking as a school sport and expressed his excitement for the potential the trail has to serve young mountain bikers.
“How great is it that public lands (could) support these kids being healthy and getting out and riding bikes and building their own communities of people?” Glidden said.
More trails also means the potential for more money flowing into the tourism economy.
The economic impact of tourism as a whole in Washington County is approximately $600 million annually, said Leslie Fonger, destination development manager for the Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office.
While Fonger didn’t have the exact figure for mountain biking’s contribution, she did say it was a significant portion of the $600 million, adding that there are currently about 327 miles of mountain biking trails in Washington County.
“We know that our spectacular scenery and the ability to get out and enjoy that scenery is a central draw of tourism in our area,” she said. “We reach out to adventure seekers, including mountain bikers, within our advertising campaigns.”
Several large-scale mountain biking events, including the Red Bull Rampage, True Grit Epic endurance race and Hurricane Mountain Bike Festival, are already held on public lands in the county.
But where the forest service is concerned, Glidden said that historically they have been seen as contributing to the local economy through timber and grazing. However, the Pine Valley Ranger District is not a timber district.
“Our commodity is recreation,” he said. “There is an interest from a tourism standpoint to have the Forest Service provide more commodity and support local communities.”
Potential for new trails for mountain bikers, trail runners, hikers and OHV users is one opportunity the Forest Service has to support the economy and provide more recreation opportunities for residents and tourists alike.
And trail access in the Forest Service’s higher elevations where there are significantly cooler summer temperatures will serve to lengthen the riding season in Washington County, which typically loses riders to neighboring counties or even states in the blistering summer.
Morisette said that keeping people in the area longer is a “better return on investment from a dollars-and-cents perspective.”
But he said it goes beyond the dollars and cents. Having more trails is a boost to a community’s overall quality of life.
Christopherson and Glidden certainly agree. Otherwise, why else would they be tromping for miles through the forest on that bright but chilly February morning, if not to imagine the ride it is going to be if – hopefully when – the trail is built?
But for now, they will continue to tie little pink flags with cautious optimism and work toward the next step of the lengthy yet worthwhile project.
“It could potentially be world class,” Christopherson said. “Potentially.”
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