Brian Murdock, the Moab Ranger District’s recreational trails manager, looks over a map of the proposed trail changes to the La Sal Mountains’ non-motorized trail system. [Travis Holtby/ Moab Sun News]

The Moab/Monticello Ranger Districts plan to come out with its final plan on changes to the non-motorized trail system in the La Sal Mountains within the next few months. The hope is that the upcoming plan will provide a clear map for the management and development of the mountains’ trails for years to come. And many stakeholders have been vocal about the changes that they would like to see.

“Over the last seven years or so we were piecemealing and adding one trail at a time. We wanted to sit down and say ‘what should the trail system actually look like up there?’ and involve all the users and all the public,” said Brian Murdock, the Moab Ranger District’s recreational/trails manager, who his overseeing the project.

In recent years there has been an increasing number of people going to the La Sal Mountains to use the trails for recreation. Since there is no designation as to what trails can be used for what form of non-motorized recreation, a range of activities have been colliding on the trails.

These conflicts have predominately arisen between downhill mountain bikers and uphill hikers and horseback riders, said Sandy Freethey, the Trail Mix committee chair.

“My perception is that a lot of bikers have come to the area and, over the years, have done all of the desert stuff. So they seem to want to do some activities outside of the desert so they go up to the mountains,” said Lynn Jackson, the vice chair of the Grand County Council and the liaison with Trail Mix. “Over the last few years that has resulted in some conflicts.”

Many of the trails that people are using were created -and in some cases are still used- by livestock and big game. Because of this, erosion and encounters with livestock have become an issue. Hunters also worry that the increasing number of visitors are scaring away the wild life, Murdock said.

With the current trail system not meeting the demands of its users, the ranger district decided a comprehensive plan was necessary.

The Moab/Monticello Ranger Districts talked with different groups of users – from hikers, to mountain bikers, to hunters to horseback riders – to get their input on what they would like to see. When the information was compiled, the ranger district presented a Proposed Action plan for the La Sal Mountains.

The Proposed Action gives two alternatives for the non-motorized trail system.

Alternative No. 1 keeps 60 of the 63.5 miles that are currently in the trail system. It redesignates 13.8 miles as off limits to bikers, but opens up 14.1 additional miles to all non-motorized uses. It also limits mountain bike access to Burro Pass and Moonlight Meadows, while adding miles of trail for hiking and horseback riding. Alternative No. 1 also prohibits access to La Sal Pass for commercial shuttles.

Some of the comments the ranger district received said that Geyser Pass had become over-commercialized. So even though there are not many commercial shuttles that make drops at La Sal Pass, the ranger district decided to prohibit it so that it doesn’t end up like Geyser Pass, Murdock said.

Alternative No. 2 in the Proposed Action is to leave everything as it is.

When the Proposed Action was released the ranger district asked the public for comments, and they got them. 43 comments were submitted from individuals, organizations, businesses and government officials.

“We want this process to be as transparent and as easy to be involved in as possible. That process of public involvement in decision-making is really important,” Murdock said.

The comments ranged from wanting even more trails than those proposed to wanting to reduce the number of existing trails in order to mitigate the impact on wildlife. Many who advocated more trails focused on the need for new trails to help bring more people to the area and thus expand Moab’s economy.

In response to the comments that they received, the Moab/Monticello Ranger District came up with two additional alternatives.

Alternative No. 3 is the most aggressive expansion of the trail system. It would not eliminate, or place any use designation, on the existing trails. It would add a whopping 50.5 miles of new trails to the current system, 38.5 of which would be open to all non-motorized traffic.

Under Alternative No. 3 Carpenter Basin’s status would change to open it up to motorcycle use on a seasonal basis. La Sal Pass would remain open to commercial shuttles.

Alternative No. 4 goes in the opposite direction, restricting use of the trails to minimize social conflicts and to ensure the protection of wildlife and watersheds.

Under Alternative No. 4 approximately 52 miles of the existing system would be kept. 5.8 miles would be cut from the Deep Creek Trail and the Bachelor Basin Trail. 25.2 of the remaining miles would be closed to mountain bikes, as would a portion of the popular Hell’s Canyon Trail.

This plan would add a total of 6 miles of new trails to the system, all of which would be closed to mountain bikes. Burro Pass and Moonlight Meadows would also be closed seasonally until July 1. Carpenter Basin would remain closed to motorcycles and La Sal Pass would be closed to commercial shuttles.

But the ranger district seems to be in the unenviable position where no plan it chooses will please everyone.

Allowing mountain bikers to maintain access to all of the trails will upset hikers and horseback riders. And though restricting mountain bike access may please hikers and horseback riders, it won’t make mountain bikers happy, said Freethey of Trail Mix.

“Our business perspective is that there’s not enough trails,” said Matt Hebberd, the co-owner of Rim Tours, a local mountain bike tour operator.

The possible loss of access to the popular Hell’s Canyon Trail is also a big concern for mountain bike enthusiasts.

“Hell’s Canyon Trail is a unique trail and we think it is important to keep it open to bikes,” Mark Sevenoff, of Western Spirit Cycling, said. “It is a challenging down hill trail that meets a need and we don’t have any other trails like it in the county.”

Hunters claim that the increase in non-motorized trail use in the La Sals has led to deer and elk herds diminishing rapidly over recent years. Bikers in particular are now coming through hunting grounds that hunters used to have all to themselves, said Gene Ciarus, the chair of the Grand County Council, who has received several complaints from hunters.

“(The hunters) were not saying that bikers shouldn’t be able to use the land too, just that they shouldn’t be up there during the calving, breeding and hunting seasons,” Ciarus said. “That the forest service basically has to control or limit some bicyclists in every area.”

Ranchers, who have been using the La Sals as grazing grounds for the last century, are also noticing the impact of recreational trail users, said Joe Taylor, a life-long rancher and property owner in the La Sals. The cattle are easily startled by bikers, and since many of the bikers use cattle trails, it can make controlling the livestock quite difficult.

However, Taylor believes that educating cyclist on how to act around cattle, and creating more bike trails to keep them off the cattle trails, would go a long way towards solving the problem.

Environmental groups are worried about the negative impact additional trails could have on the areas wild life and waterways.

“The problem is if you put more trails in, and particularly if those trails get marketed, then they greatly increase traffic in the La Sals. That does have a serious impact on wildlife,” said Laurel Hagen, the director of Canyonlands Watershed Council.

“A lot of the proposed trails go through waterways and wet meadows or very close to springs, so that makes them extremely prone to erosion, especially in June and July when people like to ride bikes up there,” Hagen said. “What happens is that erosion then increases sediment levels in creeks which makes lakes sediment up a lot higher.”

Negotiations are still under way and comments are still being accepted. However, Murdock encourages anyone who wishes to voice an opinion to hurry, as they hope to decide on the final plan in the next few weeks. And if there are no delays, implementation should begin by late summer or early fall.

The final decision on what will happen to La Sal Mountains’ non-motorized trail system does not necessarily have to be based solely on one of the four alternatives. It may include elements from several of them, wrote Michael Diem, the district ranger for Moab/Monticello Ranger Districts, in the Moab Non-Motorized Trails Project Public Comment Summary.

“There is only so much of the pie and the more people that want it you are forced to make these kinds of management decisions. You do your best to balance it,” said Jackson, of the Grand County Council, who faced similar challenges in his career at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “Often the result of those kinds of situations is that everybody doesn’t get everything that they want.”