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Kurt Nelson

Kurt Nelson is a district ranger on the Sawtooth national forest. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.

Kurt Nelson

How did the wild fire of 2007 lead to even more amazing trails in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area?
About four years ago almost to the day, we had a 48,000 acre wildfire called the Castle Rock fire, and in this Adams Gulch here it was completely black. It was charred down to the bare minimal soil with very few live trees in spots. That presented a challenge. Part of it was people were really concerned about their favorite drainages and trail systems, like Adams Gulch. "What do you mean you"re going to allow Adams Gulch to burn? How could you do that?"

So it was kind of an education process of trying to develop an awareness of the role of fire in ecosystems and saying, "hey this will be fine in a year. After a growing season you'll start to see willows sprouting, aspens, young vegetation coming in." We inventoried all of our trails within the burn area. I think there were around 85 miles of trails that were impacted, and then we came up with a plan for restoration – not just trails but where we needed to put some type of soil protection on these fragile watersheds to try to keep the soils from sliding into the creeks.

"The Forest Service is an evolving agency, and its mission is to protect resources, to save them for future generations. As society evolves . . . agencies have to step up and try to meet those needs."
- Kurt Nelson

So the first year we spent quite a bit of money and we had crews – prison crews and we had the northwest youth corps which has been very active over the last four years on trail restoration, rebuilding and realignment. We were able to get some funding through grants and then also through our post fire restoration funds to where we rebuilt in this drainage. Eve's Gulch trail which was about three miles, was a complete rebuild. We built another 17 miles in Red Warrior and Warfield over the last two years; and then we have spent a fair amount of money in realigning trails throughout the burn areas where water is moving soil and causing trail damage. So that has been an ongoing process for the last four years.

What has been the reaction?
I would say an incredible amount of support from the community in seeing how we responded both during the fire and then post-fire, in putting the treatments in where we felt they were most needed to try to maintain not only the trail system but the water sheds in good condition.

Yeah, we had a super response from the community. We have a very strong trails community of all different user groups here. There was the Big Wood Backcountry Trails, which is still in existence, and a newly-formed group called the Wood River Bike Coalition, so all these folks are interacting. They respect one another, and they want to see their trails maintained with lots of volunteer time, lots of active involvement. And my phone is readily accessible to people in the community, and they let me know what they think.

Mountain bikers ride downhill on a trail.

Some people may be surprised that the Forest Service has spent so much energy on trails. How does this square with the mission of the Forest Service?
The Forest Service is an evolving agency, and its mission is to protect resources, to save them for future generations. As society evolves and kind of what their desires and needs are from public lands, agencies have to step up and try to meet those needs. In this particular community, this particular area, recreation is a huge factor in making this economy run, whether it's winter or summer.

The focus is still on the protection of the natural resources, but as society changes, our needs, wants and desires from public lands change; and so what we're seeing is a huge developing growth in the recreation area; and part of that here in the Wood River Valley is expressed with great mountain biking trails, great hiking trails, great trails for horseback riding. That seems to be the niche for this particular area.

I think the Forest Service of maybe the '70s and '80s has changed dramatically, and so the leadership of the Forest Service recognizes these changes are needed and necessary. It's how do we get there, and how do we develop partnerships and bring communities along with what our mission is? That's how I see it over my years.

Partnerships have been integral. Partnerships are huge anymore in whatever we do, especially in recreation, but also in watershed restoration, all across the board. It's how do we work together to come to some common goals, common desires for outcomes, and then look at each other and see who's got the resources to make it happen.

"Each community or area is a little different, and that's the beauty of the Forest Service; it is a diverse agency, and it's not top-down in terms of how we approach issues on the ground."
- Kurt Nelson

Obviously the Forest Service does not have an unlimited budget, and so we look to our partners with the state, Idaho Parks and Recreation grants for trail programs, we look to matching from private and other non-profits.

Each community or area is a little different, and that's the beauty of the Forest Service; it is a diverse agency, and it's not top-down in terms of how we approach issues on the ground; and that's where collaboration here may mean trails, the winter sport scene, a lot of those recreation activities. In some other parts of Idaho, it may be, how do we do stewardship on forests and have stewardship projects where we harvest wood and maintain communities intact in those areas.

What about those mountain bike trails called flow trails? Isn't that a bit extreme for the Forest Service?
That was actually my first thought when we were first approached with the idea of flow trail. It's something that was kind of out of the box thinking for us within the Forest Service, but working with our local community of users, they wanted to see a little bit more and they have been to different areas in the country where flow trails were being established; and so it was like, "okay, let's explore it"; and so that's how we really arrived at it; and we brought other cooperators in to take a look at it who had some experience in building flow trails, and that's the genesis of how we built the first flow trail in this area on national forest.

Kurt Nelson

Concurrently, the Bureau of Land Management in the south part of the valley was interested in building flow trails on their area, so we actually used the crew that was working on BLM and brought them up to work with us to work on this flow trail here. And based upon the people who are using it, they think it's a fabulous asset to the trail system.

How do you define a flow trail?
You're using gravity and natural contours of the terrain, similar to a giant slalom run on a ski area. It has bank curves, it's got areas where you can lose the speed as it goes up but then you can maintain it. It's kind of designed for the expert rider to be able to do the entire trail without braking. It's still on a downhill descent. It's not for the faint of heart if you're doing that! It's a new type of trail. It doesn't erode to any great degree, and the whole idea is to use the centrifugal force of your bike to flow through the terrain features that are built into the trail.

Did you get any pushback?
Just a little bit. In terms of the total number of miles of trails, here in the Ketchum District we have around 350 miles of trails. This particular one is about 1.3 miles long, so it's not a huge percentage of our trails. It's just providing a different experience in a specific location.

So you build these, and maybe kids won't bother the forest in other places?
That's part of the idea. There's a fair amount of bootlegging of trails that have gone on in different parts of the Rocky Mountain west, and part of that is evolving and keeping pace with the technology and the changing social needs. And so some of the younger trail riders have felt the need to have these more aggressive type trails, and they built them on their own, which doesn't sit well with land managers. And so, it's kind of like, how do we channel that energy and make a win-win for folks and do it in locations that actually fit?

A tricky question, but do you ever see the state managing some of these federally controlled public lands?
That is a tricky question, but I think there is opportunity for stewardship projects working with the state on federal lands. I look just in our back yard with the bark beetle, which following the Castle Rock fire was a fairly big event, and we're still experiencing bark beetle outbreaks and lots of mortality.

So we entered into a collaborative working relationship with the state of Idaho and their forestry division to work with local individual land owners to provide pheromones to individuals to protect their trees and work on adjacent state lands. Those are ongoing activities, and sometimes we kind of overlook those, and if there was an opportunity from a stewardship standpoint to develop a timber sale for thinning from below or some type of a silvaculture treatment, I don't see why it wouldn't happen under existing federal ownership.