Car wheels on a muddy road, with apologies to Lucinda Williams and especially to the environment
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Just how much do you love that particular piece of landscape? Enough to leave it alone? For now, at least?
And what about those familiar roads and trails that lead you to favored outdoor places? Can you leave them alone, too? For now, at least?
Those are the questions that U.S. Forest Service officials in the Black Hills are asking of forest users, as spring-like weather draws people outdoors but soggy conditions in many areas leave trails and roads and pieces of landscape vulnerable to damage.
From vehicles or mountain bikes or even boots.
It’s something to think about — not just in the Black Hills but all across the state — as you make plans to shake off the doldrums of winter and head for the great outdoors.
Over East River, the waterfowl migration is in full swing. But snowy and mucky conditions dominate. So don't go tearing up section-line trails or farm-to-market roads just to get in some sight-seeing or bird watching.
Some public lands are closed, with good reason tied to flooding. But others might be open but vulnerable. Which is a great time for common sense among outdoors users.
That was the message this week from Black Hills National Forest officials who understand the the need, after a couple months of really lousy weather, to get outdoors and play.
“Everybody’s been cooped up, so showing restraint is pretty tough,” said Ben Schumacher, a recreation technician for trails at the Forest Service Mystic Ranger District office near Rapid City. “Everybody’s chomping at the bit to get out there.”
On some trails and roads, you can get out where you want to go, at least. On others, you can get part way there. But Schumacher said you have to be prepared for things to change quickly. Going from sunny stretches on rocky higher groud to shade at lower elevations can mean going from pretty dry terrain to slushy or snowy or icy or muddy
In a hurry.
And sometimes rather than turn back, people try plow through the bad stretches of trail, or go around them in the grass or on the shoulder, hoping there’s better travel ahead. That can lead to people getting stuck and also causing damage to the trail and adjoining ground.
Such damage means U.S. Forest Service crews must set aside or delay planned projects and trail improvements in order to fix trails and roads sections or spots torn up by unwise travel.
“The next couple of weeks things are going to be really soft,” Schumacher said. “It would be really nice if people could wait a while, just until things firm up.”
That’s true of off-road-vehicle trails and logging trails, smaller forest roads and even hiking trails. Boots and mountain bikes don’t do the kind of damage that motorized-vhicle tires do, but they can still hurt the smaller foot-and-biking trails, Schumacher said.
“Even with foot traffic, you get people sliding around on slopes and then maybe they walk just off the trail, which widens the trail,” he said. “It just makes things a mess.”
I did some thinking about that the other day here in Rapid City. I was up in the Skyline Drive nature area trying to find an early emerging pasque flower so I could offer a report to Lori Walsh, my friend and public-radio facilitator each Thursday morning on SDPB’s In the Moment.
But the trail system was a tough mix of ice and snow and mud and occasional dry ground.
I fell flat on my back going down a slope on ice and snow. But that wasn’t my biggest worry. I kept running into muddy areas on the way to previously productive pasque sites. I tried to stay off the mud and on the snow or dry vegetation nearby. But I started to leave tracks, in the mud. And I didn’t like it. So I left, as carefully as I could.
I also did some driving around this week on forest roads. But I didn’t wander very far. On most, it didn’t take long before I decided I was going to be damaging the roads by driving on. Unfortunately, others had driven on, and left deep ruts to show for it.
Even worse, there was off-road damage on either side of muddy stretches of road where people tried to avoid the rutted section.
I also checked out a section of the Centennial Trail that looked OK — not great, just OK — near the trailhead but soon got mucky and icy. I went back to the car.
And in many instances, you should, too.
If you do go out for a drive or a hike or a bike, be ready to make the wise choice, the resource-sensitive choice, and turn back if things get mucky.
Also, if you’re in the Black Hills National Forest, remember that some roads are closed by gates until mid-May to limit gas-powered commotion in areas where big-game has been wintering. Usually those gates are open by May 15. But four years ago, soggy conditions led the Forest Service to keep them closed a while longer, to produce the trails and the adjoining forest and meadows.
Not everyone respected that decision.
“We got some gate damage and people cutting fences, things like that,” Schumacher said.
There hasn’t been a decision yet on the gates this year. But it’s something to remember, in case soggy conditions continue. It’s something to respect, too.
Meanwhile, Schumacher says, it might be necessary to limit biking and hiking to hard-surfaced trails in town, and maybe doing some running or weight-lifting until the sun can do its woek on forest trails and roads.
‘It’s hard to be patient, I know,” Schumacher said. “I’m itching to get out there myself.”
Of course he is. Most of us are, too. We just need to do it with care, and respect.
And some care for the places we say we love.