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Illegal motocross trails wreak havoc on Canyonlands preserve

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

City officials are ready to tackle illegal trails in Emma Long Park, but it won’t be easy, despite the fact that the trails are threatening the habitat of a bird recognized by the National Audubon Society as one of the most at-risk species in North America.


Emma Long Park is one of the seven Balcones Canyonlands Preserve tracts managed by the Austin Water Utility and the Parks and Recreation Department. The park supports some of the best habitat for the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.


But, explains Austin Water Utility’s Sherri Kuhl, informal trails created by visitors to the park are threatening that habitat.


Existing trails were grandfathered in when the BCCP permit was issued in 1996, and other trails were permitted under the 2009 Balcones trail master plan. Steep trails and jumps make the park popular with advanced motocross riders and mountain bikers, but the terrain also is prone to erosion and trails that are difficult to maintain.


Visitors to the park have created other illegal trails. Some are simply workarounds for parts of the trail which may not have been kept up properly, or relatively small shortcuts between sanctioned trails. While these will be closed, they are not the main problem.


Kuhl said the biggest concern is a large trail along Connors Creek.


“It’s basically all an unauthorized trail that goes down the middle of that creek that’s unsustainable,” said Kuhl. “It’s not a good place for a trail to be.”


Kuhl showed a picture of the unauthorized trail, which is currently an eroded and dusty bed, with little or no groundcover. Creek beds, like the one at Connors Creek usually are home to plants, leaves and other groundcover.


Kuhl explained that the Golden-cheeked warbler spends quite a bit of time on the ground, collecting juniper bark nest material and feathers. She also noted that fledglings that are not yet able to fly very well are made especially vulnerable by depleted, busy creek beds.


“It looks awful,” said Environmental Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell.


The Parks and Recreation Department has a grant to mitigate erosion on the trail and block off the unauthorized portions. Kuhl said that the water utility hoped to work with the motocross and mountain bike community to show them the trail is not sustainable.


“Actually, getting the trails obliterated and getting people to not use them is challenging. It can be really difficult to get them to a point – to brush them up or to put in additional vegetation, to replant them, and to try and get people to not use them. One of the mechanisms I think will be important for that will be to have the support of that community so that they’ll try to steer people to the authorized trails,” said Kuhl.


She also noted that at this point, people may not even realize that they are on unauthorized trails, because signage is inadequate.


Board Member Robin Gary recognized the large volunteer base at the BCCP, but said it would be “a trick” to figure out how to reach the diffuse motocross community.


“It’s a challenge, I can tell right now it’s a challenge,” said Maxwell. “I just hope that you all can get a lot of cooperation from people, because I don’t know how you can do it otherwise.”


Board Member Bob Anderson took a hard line on the project.


“I think you’re probably going to have to close those areas down,” said Anderson. “There’s no way you can get a handle on that until you close them down… The balance is, they’re breaking the rules, so we need to enforce the rules. To enforce the rules in a remote area, you’ve got to close it down.”

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