Nearly every time Ben Benjamin goes running in the hills above Ashland, he sees more signs of mountain bikers &

a new trail, shortcuts between trails, jumps and other structures built for tricks.

He's been running here since 1975, but has grown increasingly concerned about the erosion and safety hazards created by the influx of bikes.

"Five years ago, everything seemed pretty nice, but the mind-set of the young mountain biker is to create new routes, and for them it's probably fun and more challenging, but what it's doing to the land is horrendous," he said. "I'm afraid if there's not attention made to this, it's just going to get increasingly huge."

The trails have lured a growing number of mountain bikers, leading to a boom in unauthorized trails, which can cause much more environmental damage than officially sanctioned routes.

Illegal or "user-created" trails appeared in Ashland in the late 1990s, said Steve Johnson, who works for the U.S. Forest Service as a recreation specialist in the Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District. When a series of new trails, including Toothpick, Caterpillar and an extension of the Bull Gap Trail, were built in 2000, the problem died down and several user-created trails were closed.

"Things seemed to be OK for a few years," he said. "In the last couple of years, they've just proliferated."

Johnson said he is aware of at least 15 different illegal trails on both land managed by the forest service and the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department.

The total distance of the illegal trails is much less than that of the authorized trails, and although all trails can create safety hazards and erosion if not properly maintained, the illegal trails cause the most damage, he said.

Illegal trails usually do not have built-in water control devices to divert water away from the trails, which can cause deep ruts after just a few heavy rains. Additional erosion introduces more sediment into streams and threatens the quality of the water supply, he said.

Those who construct the illegal trails can face fines in the hundreds of dollars, and if the trails are clearly marked as illegal, bikers caught riding on them can also be ticketed.

Most bikers do not fall into that category, however.

"We're only concerned with what I think is a minority of the overall mountain bike community," Johnson said. "There are a lot of very responsible mountain bikers."

The forest service is meeting with groups that use the trail system to determine whether to build more trails or to legalize some of the existing user-created trails by adding them to the map, Johnson said.

Any changes would necessitate more volunteers to maintain the trail system. Johnson is the only person paid to maintain the Siskiyou Mountain Ranger District, with 230,000 acres of forest and 200 miles of trails.

Leslie Simpson, 24, who started mountain biking two years ago, said her friends would be willing to help build new trails &

and they already help maintain existing trails. New legal trails would help slow construction of the illegal variety, she said.

"In Ashland it seems to be the general consensus with mountain bikers that there are not enough trails, and it would be nice if more legal trails would be developed," she said. "There are really not enough legal ones, and the legal ones there are are full of hikers and dogs and people on horseback. Nobody wants to have a run-in with a hiker."

Bill Roussel, who launched the mountain biking shuttle service Ashland Mountain Adventures this spring, said he recommends his clients use only the authorized trails, but with the increased number of bikers, the unauthorized trails can be a tempting way to escape the crowds.

He is involved in trail maintenance and building volunteer days and would like to continue conversations with hikers and runners to negotiate use of the trails for increased safety. That could include using the trails on alternate days as a last resort.

He also suggested that trails be widened to allow for more users to share the trails, just like increased car traffic leads to wider roads.

The strategy seems to be working for the city of Ashland, which has steadily built new connector trails between the 25 miles of trails on the 500 acres of forest the city manages. They have not seen as much illegal use as the forest service, said Jeff McFarland, the forestry and trails division manager for the parks department. He helps coordinate more than 500 volunteer hours per year from bikers and hikers and tries to keep the lines of communication open between all user groups, but it is still a challenge to keep everyone satisfied.

"We are trying to protect the land and allow appropriate recreational uses at the same time," he said. "It's a challenge to make it a win-win situation for all of the users and property owners."

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