Spring time in Colorado, and all around the nation, is much anticipated. When is my favorite trail going to open for the season? Which trails are open now? These are two popular questions that everyone asks. While it can be fun to get out and play in the mud, it is also something that can cause a great deal of damage to our trail systems.
While mud is something that nearly everyone associates with OHV and especially 4x4 use, it is something to pay close attention to. Some of the damage that can be caused by muddy trails include, quick degradation of the surrounding ecosystem, degradation of the trail itself, and more pollutants making their way into waterways. These are all things that each and every one of us should be conscious of, in the OHV Community. These are also the reasons that a lot of anti-motorized groups use, to try and get our trails closed down. We all know, we do not need to give them any more ammunition to use against us.
Springtime brings with it the annual snow melt from the higher elevations, which increases the amount of water flowing down the rivers and streams, as well as many areas that are normally dry over the warmer months. When the decision is made to go out and play in the mud, deep ruts or trenches can be formed, causing multiple consequences:
- Natural drainage is blocked and/or diverted: When traveling through mud, the ruts you create can and do cause the water to be diverted into areas it may have not originally traveled too. This can create problems by flooding areas that are not used to excessive water, drown plant life and widen the trail itself. This is generally not an issue if the use is limited, however when multiple vehicles travel through the same area the damage can become excessive quick.
- Surrounding vegetation is covered in muddy water: While most think that it is only water with a little bit of dirt, and plants need that to live anyway, it is actually much more than that. Think of it this way; what would happen to you if mud and water was in your mouth and nose? You would not be able to breath or at minimum have trouble doing so. Plants and vegetation use their leaves and outer surfaces to absorb CO2, and when they are plastered with dirt it becomes nearly impossible for the plant to breath and survive.
- Mud and silt is introduced into the watershed and surrounding areas: Yes the trail and surrounding areas are composed of dirt, but they are also covered with vegetation. When new dirt and silt (fine sediment) are introduced on top of existing growth areas it creates multiple issues; the new surface does not have vegetation to slow the runoff of watershed, and food for wildlife is reduced. In some cases if enough fine sediment is covering the surrounding area no vegetation is able to grow, as the type of soil does not support plant life. This is a double-edged sword, as not only does it reduce the amount of vegetation in the area, it also increases the amount and speed of runoff as there is nothing to slow it down. With increased runoff there is also the increased likelihood of damage caused from the runoff.
- Water flow can be increased: When ruts are created on a muddy trail, the amount of water flow can and does increase on the trail. Under normal undamaged circumstances the water will generally run across the trail in its natural path, but ruts change this. Not only does the water flow have the potential to increase in speed due to being essentially unobstructed, it also can be greatly increased into one specific area rather than being spread out or directed as it originally was.
The US Forest Service, BLM and all land managing agencies, take all of these items into consideration when determining the opening date for a trail or area among many others. However, for some reason many people find this to be infringing on our right to access public lands, and that simply is not the case all of the time. There is a balance needed between what is accessible and what should remain closed temporarily/seasonally to prevent these areas from receiving irreversible damage, if we want areas to remain open. We as a community need to do our part to ensure that the areas we love remain open, and this can only be done through compromise and acceptance that some areas need seasonal closures to maintain the integrity of not only the trail system itself, but the surrounding areas and wildlife.