The Future Seems Bright for the North Fork Trail
By Cailey Nickerson
As trail users, we don’t often question the ownership of our favorite spots. On a hike or ride, we might come across a little slice of paradise free of human vestige and can’t help but feel a sense of private ownership. “This is mine,” we think, even though somewhere in the back of our minds, reason reminds us we are all too wrong. Residents of Whatcom County, quickly becoming a mountain bike mecca for Washington State, have recently been forced to face this reality.
On April 2, 2012, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) started a project to deconstruct unauthorized structures built on trails near Deming’s North Fork trailhead — most specifically Slide Mountain, a popular mountain biking trail near Bellingham. Though used for several years by locals, since April all trails in the North Fork area have been closed off to motorized and human powered vehicles after the DNR discovered illegally built trails and features on the state-managed land.
While the area is controlled by DNR, volunteers of local biking groups Whatcom Trails Co-Op (WTC) and Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA) have been avid about promoting trail maintenance in the North Fork area. Matthew Shelton, a volunteer with WTC, estimates the group logged about 20,000 hours of work this past year alone.
“Building and maintaining the North Fork trails has been great not only for biking but for getting the community together," Shelton says "[North Fork] has become sort of the bastard child of mountain bikers. People feel entitled.”
According to a WTC newsletter on the issue, it was rumored that the closures stemmed from a complaint by an individual in a motorized-user-vehicle group. That person protested that if motorized vehicles were not allowed on the North Fork trails, then all unauthorized trails should be closed. In attempt to keep the North Fork open and better understand why the state chose to close the area, WTC and EMBA held a meeting with the DNR Region and Division staff and its recreation manager on March 23.
At the meeting, the DNR blamed closure not on the complainer, but the discovery of unauthorized structures, such as bridges, and trail building in the area while staff were surveying the land for timber harvest — Timber revenue from state trust lands provides revenue for many public institutuions in Washington. Though WTC and EMBA offered to take down any structures that posed an environmental threat, building of any kind on state-owned land requires a permit, which means the trails were built illegally and thus could not be deemed by the state as safe to use.
During the meeting, Whatcom Trails Co-Op argued that illegal mountain biking on North Fork is a result of the need for places to recreate in the area. They maintained that while structures may have been built without permits, they were constructed away from logging sites and with keen awareness to environmental impact.
According to Diana Lofflin, the Washington State DNR recreation communication manager, unauthorized trail building may cause environmental degradation and pose liability issues. Whether the trails and structures were safe was thus irrelevant to the DNR’s reasons for closing them down.
“Bottom line, trails on private and state land cannot be built without the landowner’s permission,” says Lofflin.
On March 30 DNR issued a news release stating that, “Without careful planning and developing, these trails pose a risk to public safety and the environmental health of the area. And without proper engineering design, liability coverage, and maintenance, DNR cannot ensure the public’s safety.”
While the DNR cannot endorse trails built without a permit on state-owned land, the potential resurrection of mountain biking at North Fork shows promise. Whatcom County Council member Sam Crawford drafted a proposal back in April, urging DNR to reconsider their decision to close the North Fork. The resolution on the draft sent to DNR, which received unanimous "yeas" from the council, urged the state to find places on the North Fork for mountain bikers to recreate where “... it is environmentally protective and compatible with other forest uses.” DNR, it seems, has similar wishes.
In September, both Lofflin and Shelton separately expressed hopeful expectations about the DNR, Whatcom Trails Co-Op and local bike clubs working together to build and maintain trails. Lofflin says reopening the North Fork is a possibility as long as trails do not disrupt the natural ecosystem and are away from logging sites. Accessibility is dependent on volunteers willing to maintain trails and funding from the state legislature. DNR is currently issuing grant applications to improve recreation on state land.
Apparently, positive attitudes and hopeful expectations are starting to pay off. In late October, DNR did a walk-through of North Fork trails to review the safety and environmental impact of mountain biking on the land. Shelton says they could find no issues with recreating on the trails. Accessibility is a likely possibility in 2013 as long as the state legislature incorporates funding for DNR recreation into their budget. The Whatcom Trails Co-Op website, whatcomtrails.com/forum, urges those in the community to write letters of persuasion to grant reviewers. As Shelton puts it, “Supporting this stuff goes a long way.”