Pinkbike has featured a bunch of stories about Sedona lately. There have been road trips, manufacturer and product trips & photo trips all of which had a common theme --- jawdropping scenery, gorgeous technical trails and beautiful sunny saturated colours. All guaranteed to make riders tired of winter drop everything and come to Sedona to ride their bikes.
Unfortunately no trail networks are without growing pains. It's important to note that Sedona's trail network is still alive and well. However, recently some key trails have been closed. There's no reason to think that more trails won't be in jeopardy. Trail advocates have been working with land managers to come up with solutions. Although the situation is in flux here's a snapshot of the current situation.
Video of Tomahawk - one trail closed by the Forest Service. Ironically a trail featured in many magazine articles before its closure and one that sadly, I never got a chance to ride
The Forest Service trail closure order
On March 21, 2013 the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest (I'll call them the FS or Forest Service to keep it simple) formalized an order that had been rumoured to be in the works for quite some time. On its face, the order can not be considered good for mountain biking. It prohibits riding on "unauthorized and unplanned" trails and restricts riders from "cross-country travel" - code words for limiting trail access. To mollify users, the order cites the more than 170 miles of official trails that remain open. The order also cites discussion and involvement of the Verde Valley Cyclists Coalition ("VVCC") and the International Mountain Bike Association ("IMBA") as local and national bike advocates in helping to mitigate trail closures.
The Forest Service Press release is phrased as a stand-still; a temporary restriction pending public consultation. The actual order (this is the key document, the PR is just fluff) makes it illegal to ride a bicycle in enumerated "restricted areas" (more on what trails are affected later). The order is in place until May 1, 2015. People who violate the order are deemed to commit a misdemeanor (this is a minor offense; less than a felony) punishable by a fine of no more than US $ 5,000 or 6 months of jail.
The Sedona Mountain Bike Club Petition
The Forest Service trail closure order failed to impress at least one key stakeholder who started a petition. The Sedona Mountain Bike Club petition is dated March 8, 2013 so it does not reference the actual FS trail closure order which was only publicly released 13 days later.
The petition's authors (petition text here) make no bones about their feelings towards the FS trail closure order. The main beef the SMBC has with the Forest Service is something that was quite pointedly neglected in the Forest Service pronouncement. Namely that there are a substantial number of hiking and equestrian trails that were also non-sanctioned and not built under appropriate approval processes. The FS acknowledges the existence of the unsanctioned hiking and equestrian trails but it is only the bike trails that are being targeted for closure.
I took the opportunity to speak to Dave C of the SMBC. He had this to add as background. The SMBC was formed about a year ago as an IMBA affiliated chapter club to focus on Sedona-related issues. The SMBC took the stance that they did because they wanted to point out the unfairness and discriminatory nature of the FS's position (see the SMBC's announcement re the trail closure here). The SMBC maintains that it remains committed to working with the Forest Service through the public process.
What's confusing to outside observers is that on one hand we have the VVCC and on the other hand we have the SMBC. Two different advocacy groups one of which is identified in the Forest Service press release as being consulted on trail closures (VVCC) and another which feels strongly enough about the discriminatory nature of the trail closures to have started a petition (SMBC). I talked to Lars R. of the VVCC to try to help understand the reasons for the different stances and to learn more about the VVCC.
The Verde Valley Cycling Coalition is older than the SMBC and since 2003 has been a cycling advocacy group targeting a wider geographic area than just the Sedona area. The VVCC has had meetings with the FS office and has been actively cooperating with the forest service officer responsible for Sedona trails. The VVCC's stance is that while they also do not agree with the discriminatory nature of the order they prefer to work with the Forest Service and accent the ongoing positive work. Accordingly they are electing to cooperate rather than condemn the Forest Service's order singling out biking trails.
IMBA has not been shy on the advocacy front when addressing Forest Service trail closures in the past (for example see this PR in re the Continental Divide trail closures backing the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance). However, IMBA has been quiescently passive on the Sedona front. In a Decline magazine article dated April 2013, Patrick Kell, IMBA's Regional director - South West representative pens the article "Sedona and the USFS" advocating a conciliatory cooperative tack singling out "rampant unregulated trailbuilding, mainly geared to advanced riders" as part of the problem.
This all sounds very well from a high-level perspective but digging a bit deeper I found a puzzling divide between IMBA and the SMBC; indeed a reluctance for IMBA even to acknowledge the SMBC. Firstly a statement from Mark Eller on behalf of IMBA distancing itself from the petition (when the only reference the petition makes to IMBA is to cite an IMBA study showing that erosion from hikers and equestrians is no more no less than erosion from bikers). Secondly there's many references from Patrick Kell disavowing SMBC's position and pushing for the same cooperation rather than condemnation tact followed by the VVCC (example here and in the statement below)
For the sake of allowing IMBA to have its say here's IMBA's full take on the Sedona situation in their own words without edits:
"IMBA does not agree with targeting just mountain bikers in this situation. In this case mountain bikers need to recognize that their unauthorized trailbuilding has become a significant issue for the Forest Service, we also see that other user groups are too creating non-system trails. Now that the Forest Order is in place we seek to work with the USFS and local advocates to review the areas in question and offer suggestions for sustainable trail alignments. If we can't offer the Forest Service an organized, reasonable alternative to a bunch of individuals building where they want, when they want, then we are likely to see these kind of responses — in fact, they may become more severe.
Regarding the SMBC petition, we see merit in the concept of petitions, and often use this tool. We would have been pleased to offer our input on this petition, had we been consulted. In it's current format, it does not provide a balanced view of the situation, as it does not acknowledge that 45 miles of non-system trails have recently been approved in the area, nor that other non-system trails are going through the review and approval process. We appreciate the work of the USFS in bringing these trails into the system and hope to work in the restricted areas soon to improve the current access and develop new access there."
So what the hell is going on here?
By this point one might well be excused for saying TL: DR and WTF? If you just want to ride your bikes on awesome desert trails, for the most part Sedona trails are alive and well. If you're interested in the nitty-gritty of the politics of trail advocacy read on.
So what is going on here? Be warned this is the interpretation and the opinion of an outsider coloured by many years of trailbuilding, trail advocacy and dealing with government agencies.
1. The unsanctioned trail builders pushed too hard
It goes something like this. The Forest Service's trail approval process moves at glacial pace. Local riders became increasingly impatient and dissatisfied with the FS's processes. Since approximately 2004 many trails have been added to the Sedona trail system; many of the advanced variety incorporating natural technical features (rock benches, step downs etc). These unsanctioned trails have become increasingly popular and the trailbuilders increasingly vocal and bold to the extent of printing maps, provocative Internet posts that villified the FS and popularizing the unsanctioned trail networks. Even more recently the number of unsanctioned trails mushroomed.
If it can be said (with poetic license) that the FS's (in)action and incapability to sanction trails or develop trail policy was a festering wound, that some of the unsanctioned trailbuilders poked that festering wound again and again and again. If the trailbuilders wanted a reaction, they got what they asked for and then some.
2. The US Forest Service had no idea what to do in the past. Hopefully they can come up with meaningful policy for the future
By their own admission, in the past, the FS in Sedona had been behind the times on mountain-biking having little idea of needs/access. The sanctioned trails were geared to hikers/equestrians. Mountain-bikers as the johnny-come-lately group were ignored and their needs for trails unattended. Essentially FS trails that were built in the past didn't satisfy users so users built their own trails.
We come now to the present. The FS is looking for a solution and closes down a fair chunk of the trail system (some locals have estimated up to 25% of known trails would be lost). There is an undercurrent of mistrust among some local bikers and the Forest Service . When one hears that the FS invited bikers to a planning meeting on March 21, 2013 the ostensible purpose of which was to discuss mutually beneficial cooperation and possible trail closures and then, the very same day, announced trail closures, it is not too hard to understand the communities' disappointment and suspicion that the Forest Service was paying lip service to the theme of public consultation and already had made a decision to close trails.
There is still question about the impact of the closure of the unsanctioned trails. These trails appear to be the bulk of the advanced Sedona trails. Trails which are closed and which may be deactivated (the FS deactivates by falling trees and placing rocks on to trails) include Special Ed, Pyramid, Under the Radar, Bike Path, Under under the Radar, Sketch, Transept, Windsurfer, Stay High & Cakewalk). Trails that have been deactivated and now do not exist include Damifino, Damned if I do, Killer Bee, Brew Pub and Tomahawk.
Having said that, not all is bad. Well-known unsanctioned trails such as Hangover, Chuckwagon, Mescale and Highline (over 45 miles) have been adopted into the sanctioned system. The Forest Service responded to lobbying efforts of the VVCC and IMBA and brought trails such as Western Civilization and Last Frontier out of the "closed" category and back to the light of day. Subject to botanical and archaeological studies "no-mans land" trails not adopted into the sanctioned trail network might become sanctioned (Hogs Heaven, High on the Hog)
So it seems that maybe the Forest Service of the here and now was unfairly tarred with the brush of the Forest Service of the past. There is hope that the Forest Service will get with the times and respond to the needs of a growing recreational community. But to get to that point we turn now to the question of who is the community?
3. Can we get our acts together guys?
To say that the mountain bike advocacy situation in Sedona is confusing is an understatement. The Forest Service almost certainly just wants to speak to one group who can speak for mountain bikers. IMBA and the VVCC don't seem to trust the SMBC and the feeling is reciprocated.
This situation is not workable. Who does the VVCC represent? Everyone but pissed off builders of unsanctioned trails? Who does the SMBC represent? Builders and riders of unsanctioned trails? I'm just guessing here and an outsider at best. The bottom line is that the mountain bike community has to be on the same page if they are to be heard and from this outsiders point of view, that ain't the case.
Times have definitely changed. In 2010 we optimistically said"...unlike in Moab where riders are currently being ticketed by the BLM for riding new trails, trail builders are working with the Forest Service in Sedona to have the network adopted." Since then Moab riders and local government have opened miles and miles of singletrack and brought many non-sanctioned trails into the light of day. Moab riders (INCLUDING sanctioned and unsanctioned trailbuilders) have been brought into the fold. Moab agencies conducted comprehensive studies and conducted meaningful processes to get buy-in from the riding community.
On the other hand in Sedona, the situation is in flux (hopefully this is just a hiccup as Lars R of the VVCC says). The Forest Service is trying to figure out a gameplan and appears to be, finally, trying to make sense of the mountainbiking communities needs/wants. The mountainbiking community is trying to figure out how to respond and how to speak with a unified voice.
What can a rider do? First and foremost, there are still a lot of trails in Sedona to ride. You can continue to visit and enjoy Sedona trails (twist our rubber arms!). You can continue to patronize local Sedona businesses.
You can also comment in this article to indicate your willingness and interest in riding Sedona trails (please do so politely!). As a sidenote it is my experience that government organizations are interested in feedback. In particular feedback from people from all walks of life and from all over the world are very interesting. Again --- please be polite!
You can also provide comments to the Coconino National Forest Service Office which is responsible for the planning and enforcement processes as they relate to Sedona trails. You can comment by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by web-page. Their contact page is here. If you agree that mountainbikers are being discriminated and singled-out as a user group by the Forest Service order you can also sign the SMBC petiton.
Good luck to Sedona bikers. Sedona's a great place to visit. We're all pulling for you!