Trails reopen but hazards remain after Bighorn Fire north of Tucson

Arizona Daily Star (December 22, 2021) by

About 20 miles of trails — closed for more than a year due to damage from the 2020 Bighorn Fire — have reopened in the Santa Catalina mountains north of Tucson.

After Bighorn burned almost 120,000 acres between June 5 and July 23, 2020, the Forest Service closed the burn scar area to the public including almost 207 miles of trails. A combination of nonprofit group work, grant-funded conservation corps, and Forest Service staff work has steadily opened more trail sections over the past year.

The newest “closure order” issued Dec. 15 by the Coronado National Forest, actually opens most of the popular Arizona Trail Wilderness Bypass mountain bike trail system including Butterfly and the rest of Green Mountain Trail. Of that system, only Crystal Springs Trail remains closed; although volunteers and crews have been working on this trail, which should be usable soon. Brush Corral Trail, connecting Green Mountain Trail to the Redington Pass area, also is open.

Major ridge trails such as Samaniego, Sutherland and Canada del Oro remain closed although Red Ridge Trail, popular with mountain bikes, is open thanks to work from Tucson Off-Road Cycling Association (TORCA). TORCA has also done and obtained grant funding for work to reopen Green Mountain Trail including heavy rock reconstruction work to stabilize drainage crossings.

Priorities for reopening include Mount Lemmon and Esperero trails, said Adam Milnor, recreation staff officer for the Coronado National Forest. Other trails such as Romero Canyon above Romero Pools, which remains closed, would require totally rebuilding miles of washed-out gullies. It costs about $10,000 per mile to reestablish higher elevation trails, Milnor added.

The Forest Service was initially concerned about burned dead trees that might fall (“hazard trees”) and trails that could severely wash out in steep rocky terrain where stabilizing vegetation had burned off. Many hazard trees were removed, and a dry 2020 winter and spring did not produce flooding. However, this summer’s monsoon rains resulted in washouts and trail damage.

“The main hazard now is eroded hill slopes with little or no tread” such as side slope trails on upper Pima and Finger Rock canyons, said Charles “CJ” Woodward, Catalina district ranger. “These are highly erosive soils, and we have to completely rebuild the trails.”

Volunteer cleanup events work well on accessible trails like the first miles of canyon trails or trails right off Mount Lemmon Highway. Trails far out in backcountry like Cathedral Rock and Samaniego are a logistical challenge, according to Milnor. The area has little water, and it is difficult to support a crew on a ridge trail for several days.

Last March, major sections of Arizona Trail through the Catalinas were reopened: 18.5-mile Passage 11a, including West Fork Sabino and Wilderness of Rocks Trail, and 15.5-mile Passage 12 Oracle Ridge Trail. Before reopening, Arizona Trail Association volunteers documented all hazardous trees in the burn; an Arizona Conservation Corps (AZCC) crew hired by the Forest Service and certified sawyer volunteers cleared hazards so the trail could reopen for the 2021 thru-hiking season. Several volunteer events also helped restore parts of these trails.

Community affair

Trail rework has been a public-government effort. The Forest Service has invested about $100,000 to fund AZCC crews on Ventana, Butterfly, Green Mountain, Wilderness of Rocks and West Fork Sabino trails. TORCA secured grants for two more weeks of AZCC work on Green Mountain. Another AZCC crew worked on Crystal Springs.

National Forest Foundation’s Southern Arizona Forest Fund raised about $40,000 for Bighorn Fire restoration. This funded post-fire restoration work as part of an ongoing Earth Camp program with Tucson high school students, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum and AZCC. Students camped in Molino Basin and pulled highly flammable exotic buffelgrass, replanted native species, and did trail work in the burn area. AZCC crew members, all young adults, enjoyed being mentors to the high school students, said Rebecca Davidson, NFF Southwest Region director.

She said the remainder funded a contractor to document major trail damage and organize volunteer projects on Marshall Gulch, Brush Corrals and Romero Canyon trails.

Arizona Trail Association has hosted multiple volunteer events to clear downfall, reestablish trail tread, and improve drainage on Butterfly, Wilderness of Rocks, Oracle Ridge, West Fork of Sabino and Crystal Springs trails, Milnor said. Climbing Association of Southern Arizona has hosted volunteer events on Finger Rock and Brush Corral trails.

Now Forest Service officials seek public help planning the future trail system, Milnor said.

“Our trail system is a major community asset,” Milnor said. “A lot of people live in Southern Arizona for access to the mountains.”

Trail use is different than the past with more trail runners and mountain bikers.

“We have planned developed sites, interpretive sites and scenic byways on the (Mount Lemmon) highway, but we’ve had no real planning for the trail system,” Milnor added.

The trail comment process is informal, not under National Environmental Policy Act processes required for work with environmental impact.

“After we get the comments we will have a series of meetings, and perhaps focus groups with partners. We will let the feedback inform the rest of the process,” Milnor said.

The next step will be to create a conceptual map of a future desired trail system by midsummer.

Milnor foresees rerouting some trails, making new connections, improving trailheads and parking in some areas, and even choosing not to maintain certain trails.

“We will be referring to these comments for years to come,” Milnor said. He is the main contact for the project, and comments can be sent to him by email (adam.milnor@usda.gov).

Of comments submitted so far, some offer extremely specific knowledge and advice for certain areas, potential connections and modifications to reduce conflicts. Others are quite general.

Mountain bikers so far have offered the most comments, requesting more moderate and connector trails, downhill alternatives to reduce user conflicts, and nonmotorized trails utilizing or supplementing existing jeep road areas such as Redington Pass and Oracle Ridge.

Dog walkers would like more lower trails open for leashed dogs while others maintain no dogs should be allowed in the Catalinas. Commenters also called for a bigger Forest Service field staff and mention concerns beyond the scope of the trails system: garbage, unauthorized shooting, drones and rude hikers with poor trail etiquette.

“Reopen all the trails,” said one commenter. “A year of trail closure is unacceptable.”

Ranger Woodward said many recreationists now better understand the closures and even warn others of unsafe areas. His message to the public: “Be patient with us as we work to reopen the trails and try to balance all kinds of recreation users and interests.”

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