By: Jennifer Burns, Camille Cox and Kevin Adams. Photo credits: SRRTF
“Looking at the history provides an understanding of the “big leaps” that have been made in successful recreation management in the red rock ecosystem. I think the keys are: effective public education and involvement, decision makers lining up in partnership, experienced leaders with big picture vision who are willing to take risks, delegate and push the vision forward.” – Jennifer Burns, Director SRRTF
The Forest Service has the double challenge of conserving a sensitive and unique ecosystem, while providing National Forest access for nearly 3 million trail users annually.
In the late 80’s/early 90’s, the Forest Service fell behind the juggernaut of tourism and forest recreation use. Unmanaged recreation and an inadequate trail system spawned a web of eroded and damaging “user-created” routes and ad hoc, unsafe parking areas. Uncontrolled camping, tree cutting and off-road driving also contributed to soil and vegetation damage in areas that are prized for their scenic beauty. High profile land trades caught the public’s attention.
Local Interests Address Challenges Around 1995, a summit of local stakeholders (Sedona Forum) focused on these challenges and set the stage for a new management approach. The Friends of the Forest (FOF) was created as a volunteer engine, and a new District management perspective) set the stage for Forest Plan Amendment in 1998. That new policy prioritized day-use activities: it prohibited camping in areas surrounding Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek, prohibited off-road driving in the 160,000 acres considered the “red rock ecosystem”, and called for an extensive trail system to provide access to the wonders of the Red Rocks. There was a near complete prohibition on land swaps, a shift in protocols with commercial tours, and “contemplative” benefits were recognized and appreciated for the first time.
Capacity, Maintenance and Sustainability
Unfortunately, trail related maintenance funding remained chronically short and demand for trail mileage outpaced planning for additional trails. Several illegal trail builders were brought to court during this time. A mountain bike closure order (to cross-country travel) was applied to sensitive areas where illegal trail building continued. These actions, along with a targeted public education campaign, convinced many locals that the time had come for proper planning for sustainable trails.
The Forest Service suffered limited capacity to conduct much needed trail maintenance or address even a fraction of the growing deferred “heavy” trail maintenance. District funding and staffing were in a growth mode, but gains suffered from hiring hurdles and poor public comprehension of need. The trail system was “falling apart” as impacts and use exploded.
How much trail is enough? Continued Forest Service support resulted in significant new mileage to the official trail system – reducing the gap between demand and supply. This rapid trail development, however, compounded the problem of limited maintenance capacity and triggered the question: how much trail is enough? Particularly from a hydrology and wildlife perspective, the future amount and location of trails became a cumulative effect question. More trail master planning was needed.
The Master Plan for the Red Rock Trail System In 2013, the District received a grant that funded a professional facilitator for a master plan effort. Monthly meetings brought together the public, who had interests in trails, with the Forest Service, who manages the trails. This process boosted public understanding of the unique and fragile ecosystem of the Red Rock landscape, and informed the equally important task of gathering public ideas for future development.
During the process, local residents could see the impact of Forest Service funding limits and pursued a “sustainable recreation initiative” – a new policy directing that “trails should not be built if they cannot be maintained”.
Local Residents Take the Challenge A small group of Sedona area residents decided to take significant action. They noted the economic and health benefits of the local trails to residents of Sedona and the Verde Valley. They comprehended the Forest Service limitations regarding the pace of trail development and cost of maintenance, appreciating that trail development would continue to be severely limited unless the public stepped up to help in a substantial way. This group formed the Sedona Red Rock Trail Fund (SRRTF), a 501(c)3 non-profit in November 2013. Since then, the SRRTF has raised over $2.7M for trail maintenance and enhancements.
What now? The trail master planning session of 2013-14 prioritized 12 mini-landscapes within the bigger Red Rock ecosystem that share similar social and environmental features. Many of those landscapes have been completed (e.g., Western Gateway) and several are on the horizon to be addressed in future columns. You can learn more about the SRRTF at https://redrocktrailfund.org/.