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Private Land, Public Access
Bellingham timberland trail demonstrates what it takes to make public access work
By Clayton PeTree
Owners and managers of timberland deal with a multitude of choices when managing their property. An important decision is whether to allow general public access to the property.
It can be difficult for the general public to understand where public land and access ends and private land begins. Truth be known, sometimes the public doesn’t much care. Hunting, fishing, hiking, running, and cycling typically compete for access with some uses being incompatible with others.
The public is hungry for access to forest land. Restrictions by Federal and State governments force public land and trail users to search for new places to recreate. For example, a 2010 court ruling in Montana restricted cyclists from using hundreds of miles of mountain trails they previously had access to, sending those users elsewhere for places to ride. All too often, restrictions lead to poorly built, illegal trails that, when found, must be removed, costing public or private landowners time and money.
In some places, however, private timberland owners have forged agreements with cyclists to allow the building and use of trails by the responsible public. The harvest and growing cycle on timberland is lengthy enough that trails constructed after a harvest can be built and used for decades at a time. Near Bellingham, Wash., a private-public partnership has been in place for quite some time now, showing that such arrangements can, and do, work to the benefit of both the public and landowner.
Bellingham has a long logging and sawmilling history. Nearly every area around Bellingham has been logged at one point, including Galbraith Mountains located adjacent to the city. The portion with a recreational use agreement is zoned for commercial forestry and includes 3,215 acres with over 45 miles of single-track trails.
The zoning is important, especially in Washington State, because state-mandated resource land preservation means it is very unlikely the land will be used for anything besides timber harvest in the long or short term.
When the Bellingham-based Trillium corporation acquired the property in 2001, they quickly discovered an existing trail network and had to decide what to do about it. Mountain bikers, horse riders, and motorcycle riders had all built and maintained ‘rogue’ trails on Galbraith since the 1980s.
Jon Syre of Trillium, a mountain biker himself, explains that Trillium decided it would be much easier and safer to work with the public already using the trails and make sure all of the trails were built and maintained safely rather than try to stop people from using them.
As a result of that decision, Trillium and the local mountain bike group worked together to form a legal agreement allowing recreational use and for all trails to be built, upgraded, and maintained according to the International Mountain Biking Association trail building guidelines.
Syre says a critical component of the decision to allow public access was the Washington State Recreational Use Immunity Act that limits the liability of landowners who open their property to the public for recreation, which eases his firm’s liability concerns greatly. Another important factor is the agreement can be terminated by the land owner if necessary.
Working with the user groups, a decision was made to prohibit motorized vehicles and hunting, due to the constant presence of cyclists, hikers, and runners.
Existing trails were evaluated. Redundant trails, or those that might contribute to erosion, were closed, and unauthorized stunt structures built to poor quality standards were removed. An agreement was forged regarding closure procedures when forest maintenance or harvest was taking place.
The success of the agreement led the City of Bellingham to acquire an easement through a new housing development and to purchase an adjacent parcel of land to help preserve trail access to Galbraith Mountain. Whatcom County has also acquired a parcel next to the city property that preserves access further. Today, cyclists, hikers, joggers, and others use these and other points to access the property.
The use agreement requires that all trails be pre-approved by the land manager and that trails adhere to the International Mountain Bike Association’s trail standards guide. This means the landowners meet with the trail stewards each year and approve a trail plan. Property owners are able to communicate where they are planning to do work so a new trail won’t be built somewhere on the mountain only to be closed or damaged later the same year.
On designated days, the agreement allows limited vehicle use, but for the most part, five gallon buckets, hand tools carried in, and a lot of personal motivation are employed to build and maintain trails.
Small scale machinery is also sometimes allowed by arrangement. The use of machines allows trail builders to move a lot more dirt around to create multiple bermed corners, safer tabletop jumps, and better water management systems so the trails stay in better shape through the very wet Pacific Northwest winters. The ‘machine-built’ trails still require significant hand labor to shape and buff out.
Eric Brown, a local trail builder, points out that routing of trails is affected not only by the lay of the land, but also by tree location. Rogue trails can sometimes damage thousands of dollars worth of fiber. Professional trail builders must, Eric says, take the property owner into consideration. Removing or harming trees that have decades of care put into them would be costly to the ownership and is avoided at all cost.
Transfer of Ownership
In 2010, access to the property was in question when ownership of the land transferred to another Northwest Washington based company. Because of the cooperative stewardship by the previous ownership and the local mountain biking club, it was possible for the new landowner to review the previous agreement, inspect the trail system, and continue to allow access the entire 90 days the area was under review regarding its future.
The manager of the property says that a big part of the decision to continue allowing recreational use of the private timber property was the amount of hard work by everybody who was involved; trails are well marked, the area is kept clean, and there are map kiosks in several locations.
There has been little harvest activity on the property over the past 5 years, but recently the property owner began thinning and logging of about 215 acres. Continued access to the mountain by the public will depend on how well trail users respect the use agreement, which may be revoked with 10 days notice.
With the high level of use the area receives, this could be challenging but everyone involved is confident that with the cooperation of the bicycle club, forest management and harvests can occur without very much hassle for recreational users or the landowner.
The mountain bike club is currently working on a trail master plan. From this master plan, projects can be approved by the landowner when appropriate. For example, there is a trail work plan under consideration while work is still being done on the master trail plan. This way the property owners can continue to work on their goal of sustainable forestry while allowing the public to continue to use the trails.
Most importantly, the general public must continue to work to ensure public access does not become a burden. The successful effort on Galbraith can be viewed as a template for other trail advocates and private landowners in creating an agreement in their area.
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