What should be done about trail damage on Mt. Emily Recreation Area?

That question dominated most of the discussion and the public comment period Wednesday at the Union County MERA Advisory Committee’s regular meeting.

Trail damage on MERA became a hot topic in recent weeks after five trails — MERA Loop, Whoopsy Doo, Ricochet, Skills and Lower Hotshot trails — sustained what was termed as “significant damage” from four horses in late April.

“There are 6- to 9-inch-deep holes in some of those trails, and there are 2.4 miles of (damage),” said Bart Barlow, who is on the Blue Mountain Singletrack Trails Club Board of Directors and the MERA Advisory Committee.

The cost to repair the damage, according to Barlow, is in excess of $5,000.

“You have to understand that when we put that kind of effort into something for everyone to enjoy, it really hurts when we go up there and the trails are damaged and people are just blowing us off,” said Barlow, who added he’s volunteered about 400 hours a year building trails on MERA. “All we want out of this is a resolution.”

In the days following the initial reports of the damage, emails circulated of a proposal to temporarily keep horses off the trails on MERA, which are currently designated as multi-use.

But that and other similar concerns were likely assuaged when members of the MERA Advisory Committee expressed their intent to keep the recreation area open to all, which was how the trail system was originally designed.

“One thing we have to keep in mind is seven, eight years ago, there was a good debate over whether we should have separate trails or multi-use (trails),” said Lance Colburn, hiking representative and committee chair. “We went the multi-use route at the time.”

Many in the standing-room-only crowd Wednesday voiced their support for keeping MERA open to the entire public and not condemning a segment of MERA’s users because of the actions of a handful of riders, especially if they were new to MERA or weren’t aware of the damage they were doing to the trails.

Tracy Reed, who has ridden on MERA with her own children and 4-H students, expressed her concern of losing the option to ride there.

“My kids have grown up riding there. There are easy, safe trails for the children (and) they’re close by,” she said. “It just breaks my heart, the thought that we might not be able to enjoy that, and I can’t share that time with the kids.”

Those in attendance expressed varying opinions on the damage. One person said she was “distressed” by it, but another stated it is “not beyond normal.”

Regarding potential incidents of harassment by other users, Carleen Murchison asked what riders should do if they are told by another user that they can’t be on MERA.

“That’s not right, for one person in one group to go up and dictate (that) you can’t ride up there,” she said.

MERA Coordinator Sean Chambers said that to force one group of users off of MERA or split them into a segregated area, an idea that was voted down two years ago, was “not a realistic solution.”

“We want it to work for all of us,” Chambers said. “We can’t be pointing fingers and accusing a whole user group on account of four horses. I don’t think that’s a reason to hit the panic button. It’s early in the season. Let’s talk about it. Let’s expand education. Let’s work together.”

Ideas of possible solutions included exploring how to better build trails, possibly building bypasses and readdressing trail closure protocol. A motion was put forward by Barlow to form a subcommittee to develop a plan for how to reduce trail damage, though it was tabled until a later date.

Building stronger trails was countered with the fact that it would cost more money and would be a challenge to move needed machinery in. But Mike Burton, a resource conservationist with 30 years of experience in soil stability, said doing so would alleviate many of the problems.

Burton said due to the type of soils on the face of MERA, many of the trails are weak, especially because the
current trails weren’t compacted when they were built.

“Those soils can be compacted to where they are stable,” Burton said.

Burton offered to join the committee to help find a solution to strengthen the trails.

“Build them correctly to begin with, and you will not have this continuous interaction,” he said. “Let’s build the trails so that they meet specifications so that all users can use them.”