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Plans afoot for upgrade of northern Ariz. trails

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. Mountain bikers, horseback riders, rock climbers and hikers take note a whole new look is coming to your favorite backyard playgrounds.

The U.S. Forest Service is moving forward on a grand vision for the Mount Elden/Dry Lake Hills area, one of the most popular recreation hubs in northern Arizona.

In the coming years, as many as 23 miles of new trails will be built and some current trails will be eliminated or moved. Most of the new areas will be open to all outdoors lovers, but the vision includes a little something special for everyone.

The plan, more than a decade in the making, emphasizes exclusive use of certain areas. Those include a system of horseback riding trails near Little Elden Spring, a rock-climbing area west of Mount Elden, a formalized hang glider Launchpad near the radio tower, and the first sanctioned downhill mountain biking trails.

"We all wish this stuff wasn't so complicated that it took 10 years, but we're excited that it's going through in such a comprehensive fashion," said Anthony Quintile of the Flagstaff Biking Organization.

A public meeting is scheduled Monday in Flagstaff. Comments on the proposal will be accepted through Nov. 30.

For Josh Langdon of Flagstaff Gravity Riders and other downhill mountain bike riders, the plan has been a long time coming. Only a handful of illegally built and poorly designed trails for downhill riders exist near Mount Elden. The Forest Service will demolish the old "social trails" and relocate them. Some existing social trails might stay.

"It's always been a plan of mine to see this become legit," Langdon said. "It's a dream come true. We're going to be able to build sustainable, long-term trails and make them really fun."

Langdon, 38, has been riding mountain bikes since he was 10 years old. He's been bombing down Mount Elden for the last decade. He said many of the social trails grew out of a frustration with the lack of downhill paths and the length of time it takes to get new trails approved.

The social trails carry names like Lost Burrito, BLT and Prom Night. They are fun, but they follow paths that increase erosion and cross environmentally sensitive sections of forest, he said.

Once the plan is completed, most of them will be gone. The total number of downhill mountain biking trails will be less, but the quality will improve, Langdon said. He sees a day when Mount Elden is home to downhill terrain for a variety of user groups, ranging from expert to parents and their kids.

"Our goal is sustainability within the trail system," said Brian Poturalski, project leader for the Coconino National Forest.

He said the mountain bike trails are far from the only ones built without intense planning.

There are historic wagon and automobile roads, as well as those built by sheep and cattle herders that reach back more than 100 years. Roads and trails that are too steep or cut through sensitive wildlife and archaeological areas will be relocated. Other trails will be improved to enhance the user experience, either to make for better hiking or to improve interpretive experiences.

In all, the area has six trailheads to access 14 formal trails.

"Nothing is set in stone. These are just proposals at this time," says Mike Elson, who oversees the Flagstaff Ranger District. "The next phase will be utilizing the feedback to narrow down several alternatives."

A recent study by Northern Arizona University and the Friends of Northern Arizona Forests found that Flagstaff's trails are being used by a broad section of society for a wide array of uses. The users evenly are split between men and women, and the three age groups between 26 and 55 hit the trail in equal numbers. The study also showed that the vast majority of people in the Mount Elden/ Dry Lake Hills are hail from Coconino County.

Most also have a positive view of the state of the trails and the access to them. Only a few reported having negative interactions.

For the U.S. Forest Service, just being able to take a comprehensive look at forest planning is an unusual thing. Recreation plans are rare.

Poturalski himself wanted to address the issues across the forest but was able to take on only planning thanks to a recent grant. The financial component will be the biggest hurdle in implementing the plan once approved.

Most of the work will be done by volunteers, either from the user groups themselves or by dedicated trail groups. The major proposals will take significant funding for quality trails.

"I just want to see Flagstaff be everything it can be as a mountain town," Langdon said. "This is a recreational community. People love to be outside and we should be there with all the other mountain towns as far as progressive sports go."

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