Local outdoor groups part of Loup area plan
A project that proposes building 30 miles of new recreational trails on U.S. Forest Service land in the North Summit-Loup Loup area is open to public comment through Dec. 18.
The North Summit Trail Project has been developed by the Forest Service in collaboration with the Methow Valley Chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance (EMBA), and with the cooperation of Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen and the Loup Loup Ski Education Foundation, said Rosemary Seifried, project lead for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
The proposed new trails will be designed primarily for summertime horseback riding and mountain biking, and will also provide opportunities for hikers and Nordic skiers, said Seifried.
The trail system would provide connections to the new North Summit Horse Camp, the Loup Loup Ski Area, and about 12.5 miles of existing Forest Service trails. “The Loup Loup parking area would become a base for accessing the new trails,” Seifried said.
The proposed project has been endorsed by the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative, which represents organizations and individuals interested in local trail development and maintenance.
A proposal for a North Summit trail system was developed in 2014 as a joint project between the Forest service and EMBA, and received a $46,900 planning grant in 2016 from the Washington Recreation Conservation Office (RCO). The grant included $5,700 in matching funds such as volunteer labor and EMBA staff time, Seifried said.
The project has been delayed by wildfires that affected the valley and by changes in staff at the Forest Service, Seifried said. The RCO funding for project planning will expire next year, and the planning phase is expected to be completed by June 2021.
EMBA has been involved in all aspects of the project, including the funding proposal to RCO, trail layout and surveys, and an agreement with the Forest Service to assist in contracting out necessary archaeological surveys for the planning work, Seifried said.
“Funding for the development phase would be sought after the planning is complete, and could happen in phases as funding is secured,” Seifried said. Construction and subsequent maintenance of trails would be done by EMBA volunteers and employees, in partnership with Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen, under the supervision of Methow Valley Ranger District staff, she said.
“EMBA currently performs routine logout and maintenance on the existing Forest Service system trails in the area including Lightning Creek, Middle Fork Beaver, Bear Mountain and other trails, and Backcountry Horsemen performs logout and maintenance on countless other trails within the district,” Seifried said.
“The new trails would be planned and constructed according to Forest Service designs and standards and current Best Management Practices in sustainable trail building to protect natural resources and reduce the need for heavy maintenance,” according to a letter sent by the ranger district last week to interested parties. The letter included maps of the proposed new trail system.
“Completing this project would allow the North Summit Loup Loup area to be a destination for multiple groups of recreationalists, including multi-skill levels of mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers and winter non-motorized users,” the Forest Service said. The project will also “improve access to recreational activities for communities east of Loup Loup Pass.”
“I kind of cringe at the word ‘destination,’ but the reality is that we are a destination. So how do we do a better job and make sure the people that do come here have the best experience?” said Joe Brown, president of the Methow chapter of EMBA, and a member of the statewide EMBA board of directors.
Brown, who has been involved in planning for the North Summit trails project for more than six years, said his organization learned a lot while leading a project to build 25 miles of new mountain bike trails on Forest Service land at Sun Mountain over the past few years. The bike trails to be developed in the North Summit area will “a little bit more raw, less developed” than those at Sun Mountain, which “were conceived to handle a higher volume of people, a lot more use,” Brown said.
Providing recreational opportunities to residents living in the Okanogan Valley and areas east of Loup Loup is an important objective of the project, Brown said. “Residents of Okanogan don’t have access to the trail networks we [in the Methow Valley] do. Reaching out to that side is a huge driver in this project. We’ve had conversations with mountain bike and equestrian and business communities to make sure they know about it and support the development along the way.”
Variety of trails
Of the proposed new trails detailed in the Forest Service letter, 14 would be designated as primarily for mountain bikes, 5 primarily for horseback riding, and 19 as multi-use, including 5 that are existing Nordic trails. Brown said EMBA will take the lead on constructing the bike trails and multi-use trails, and the Backcountry Horsemen will take the lead on equestrian trails.
Brown estimated the cost of trail construction would be at least $300,000, and would be funded through a combination of grants and donations. As with the Sun Mountain trail project, he said, EMBA would “involve the community as much as possible on the volunteer side of things.”
Trail construction projects on Forest Service lands are “categorically excluded” from requiring an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement under Forest Service regulations. Technical studies will be conducted before district staff prepares a Categorical Exclusion document and a decision memo, which will include analyses of potential effects of the project on the environment.
“There are approximately 30 miles of trail planned, much of which will be new construction, although some sections of trail already exist, some are in use as existing system Nordic trails, and some will be on closed [Forest Service] roads,” Seifried said.
“All trail construction and maintenance involves ground and vegetation disturbance at some level. The environmental review is part of the ongoing planning process and will be disclosed in the project decision memo, which should be complete sometime next spring.”
As part of the review, Seifried said, resource specialists will evaluate the proposal for impacts to sensitive vegetation, wildlife, soils, aquatic resources and cultural resources.
“Based on early initial feedback from resource specialists, the current set of proposed trails has been planned to avoid areas of sensitive plants as well as riparian areas. Further specialist review will continue to refine the final trail layout,” Seifried said.
Much of the project site has already been surveyed under the South Summit II Forest and Fuels Environmental Assessment that was completed in 2015, and the area is managed for timber and range, she said.
Existing trails in the area that would be tied into the proposed new system include Lightning Creek #425 (6.5 miles); Middle Fork Beaver #406 (3.5 miles) and Bear Mountain #442 (2.5 miles). Existing Nordic trails in the project area will continue to be groomed as before, Seifried said. Additional grooming for fat biking in winter has not been considered to date, but could be considered as part of the planning process “if there was strong public interest and partner support,” she said.
The new trails will connect with the new North Summit Horse Camp, a project of the Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen, which has provided labor and donations, and secured an RCO grant. Six campsites have been completed and an additional six campsites are expected to be added next year, as well as a picnic shelter and toilets, Seifried said.
The Forest Service is accepting comments on the North Summit Trail Project until Dec. 18. Electronic comments can be submitted to Seifried at email@example.com. Letters should be addressed to Rosemary Seifried, Methow Valley Ranger District, 24 W. Chewuch Road, Winthrop, WA 98862. They can be hand-delivered at that address Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.