Respect the research: Social trails, dumping, vandalism impacts projects at Fraser Experimental Forest
When hikers and bikers explore the Arapaho National Forest surrounding Byers Peak, they may not realize their path can cross through one of the most unique sites in the state.
The Fraser Experimental Forest is one of 13 outdoor research laboratories in the country. It comprises 23,000 acres that are home to hundreds of research projects, studying everything from the photosynthesis of a single plant to the broader relationships between management practices and impacts on the ecosystem.
Situated on public land near popular attractions, such as Byers Peak and St. Louis Creek, the experimental forest is seeing more recreators than ever, but all that traffic is leading to concerns about the effects more use might have on the research projects happening on site.
“Just because a field looks like a field doesn’t mean that there isn’t long-term research going on in that area,” said Banning Starr, site manager. “We’ve been really lucky to be here for 80 plus years and never really had problems like this.”
This year alone, Starr said, there has been an increase in illegal dumping, social trail building and a general disregard for posted restrictions.
The site was vandalized earlier this year when two gates at the Byers Peak trailhead and Byers Creek campground were ripped out and several locks across the property were cut or damaged. Replacing the damaged property cost thousands of dollars.
Currently, Starr is working with the Forest Service’s Sulphur Ranger District to try to educate recreators about the restrictions around the site and the importance of protecting the research.
“I think it’s important given that this is public land that it’s open to the public,” Starr said. “We like to ask that people follow the rules, regulations and restrictions and the goal behind that is just to protect that long-term data set.”
As part of a larger effort to improve trail connectivity in the Fraser Valley, Forest Service rangers will be maintaining the existing trails in the experimental forest and decommissioning social trails around the area.
Aside from potentially hindering research, social trails also pull time and resources away from maintaining or improving system trails.
The scope of the work is detailed in the Trails Smart Sizing project, which aims to improve trail experiences and reduce conflicts. While most of the work would be on trails surrounding the forest, the site would ultimately be positively impacted.
“In the experimental forest, the trails (set up) preserve all of the experiments and snow data collection they’ve got going on,” said Maire Sullivan, special projects coordinator for the Headwaters Trails Alliance, which helped to coordinate the Trails Smart Sizing project. “Our philosophy with Trails Smart Sizing is if the existing trails are fun and desirable, then people will stay on those as opposed to trying to create their own.”
Maintaining the user experience is also why the Headwaters Trails Alliance promotes the “leave no trace” trail ethics to all recreators and on its social media.
“Part of the reason we’re all getting out there is, not just to have fun with whatever your preferred outdoor activity is, but to be out there and … experience the peace and joy and be in touch with as much of the naturalness as we can,” Sullivan said.
When it comes to dumping, Starr said, the experimental forest has signs up warning visitors that dumping is illegal. It doesn’t seem to stop people from leaving household appliances, yard waste and old construction materials at trailheads and along the remote forest roads, though.
If caught, illegal dumpers face a fine up to $5,000 and/or six months in federal prison, according to the Forest Service.
“This is your land and it’s my land, but now it’s your tax dollars and my tax dollars that are going to go towards cleaning up that mess,” Starr said.
IMPORTANCE OF PRESERVATION
Established in 1937, the Fraser Experimental Forest is home to some of the most extensive ecological data on the Fraser Valley. The original goal of the site was to study how forest management practices impact water yield or runoff.
Researchers on site collect data on temperatures, wind speeds and directions, precipitation, snowpack, relative humidity, water quality and stream height and temperatures using stream gauges and weather stations as well as other specialty equipment. Some of the sites have been collecting data for 80 years.
“My main duty is to continue the 80 years of data that have been collected here,” Starr said. “It’s super impressive because that’s what we consider a long-term ecological record.”
Other than long-term datasets, hundreds of other research projects exist on the land. One of the newest is a project out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab that hopes to harness satellite technology to capture images of snowpack in an area and accurately determine the amount of runoff that area can expect.
Starr is also working on projects with potential local impacts, such as studying the water quality in the area of last year’s Sugarloaf Fire and developing a use study for the area surrounding the experimental forest.
Ultimately, the research gathered in the experimental forest informs forest management and helps identify trends, Starr explained.
“A lot of the work we do is to help managers in the Forest Service utilize our science to make on the ground management decisions,” he said. “I think there is added value in the long-term data sets we have here and … the history and the scientific publications that come out of the data sets we have.”
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