If we value the legacy of Wickenburg, then preserving its culture, history and habitat offers the hope that we can carry them forward to future generations in a way that is faithful to the past.
In Part 5 of this series, I attempt to articulate a vision statement which deals with an aspect of Wickenburg that virtually defines its beauty and attraction to residents and visitors alike. That is — scenic open space — and particularly the places where there are horse and hiking trails. As with my article in Part 4, “Conservation — Light Pollution vs. Dark Skies,” open space and the trails around Wickenburg are threatened and at risk of being lost — not only to future generations — but to you and me in our lifetime.
Figure 1, Horse Trail
Preservation of Trails and Habitat
We are supremely blessed to be in an area that possesses remarkably scenic lands, unique riparian areas, clean air, dark skies, rugged and historic terrain. These qualities are deeply valued by many Wickenburg residents and are undoubtedly important reasons why seasonal visitors come to our area.
It is conservatively estimated that there are more than 500 miles of horse and hiking trails within a distance of fifteen miles to the east of Wickenburg. If you think about it, that is an astounding number! By comparison, the entire metropolitan Phoenix area has 177 miles of foot and biking trails; with a working plan to add another 623 miles to interconnect the outer perimeter of the valley with central trails in future decades. To all intents and purposes, those efforts will involve the manufacturing of urban trails in their expanding metro area. Because the valley has already buried most of its land under asphalt and concrete, trail construction will include the use of such “scenic” habitats as canal banks, where hikers and bikers can safely travel until they reach another paved street. Some of the future perimeter trails may even afford hikers the opportunity to briefly ascend above the pollution that blankets the valley. More ambitious goals include eventual trail construction to places like Big Hell’s Gate; which would be the closest approach of this trail system to Wickenburg.
Without leadership from the Valley Forward organization, a private group with sponsorship from 250 corporations, cities and towns in the valley, there would be few, if any, trails in the valley today; much less a vision to create future interconnecting trails. In case you are wondering, our town is not a member of Valley Forward, so it has no voice in this group’s vision or future plans. It is much to their credit that Valley Forward is trying to restore something which has been lost; even if it will come at great expense and take decades to achieve.
In contrast to metro-Phoenix, we can claim the inheritance of a vast trail system that has been handed down to us from past generations. These trails — foot paths, historic stage coach roads and pack trails — are the legacy of Native Americans, pioneering miners, ranchers and unique individuals who have made efforts to preserve them. Some trails are truly ancient, while others date “only” to the 1860’s and later. To gain an appreciation of how extensive, but still undeveloped, the trail system is around Wickenburg, here are a few indicators:
- In his book Desert Hiking — Out Wickenburg Way, Dana Burden documented thirty-two trails, of which half are suitable for horses. I have little doubt that he knew of many more trails than he chose to include in his book. Nevertheless, his years of efforts left us an important legacy to which we are greatly indebted.
- Sixty-six horse trails, totaling approximately 495 miles, have now been either defined or documented (See Footnote 1) using GPS tracking tools. Most of these are east of town and some share common trail segments.
- Only a few horse trails have been defined to the south and west of Wickenburg. This includes the areas east, south and west of Vulture Peak. None have been formally documented to the standards required by various governmental agencies.
- Only a few of the hiking trails east of Wickenburg have been formally documented. Most still require extensive research, including clearing efforts and assessment.
- There are many horse and hiking trails leading north toward Congress, Yarnell, Wades Butte and Seal Mountain. Few of these have been documented to various government agency standards.
- Except for Vulture Peak, most of the hiking trails to the south and west of Wickenburg remain undocumented.
The exact number of horse and hiking trails is still unknown today, but is certain to far exceed 500 miles in combined length once all have been recorded. This claim is backed by research of old maps that show pack trails predating 1900 and by examining old aerial photos that reveal trail links between long abandoned mines, mills and settlements (See Footnote 2).
Why Are Trails Important to Wickenburg?
If you are a hiker or horse rider, you already know the answer — it is an important aspect of your quality of life. For everyone else, horse trail activity brings approximately $16 million to our local economy each year. There has been no comparable study of the impact that hikers may have.
But this cannot be the only yardstick for assessing the “value” of trails to our community. It is far more appropriate to say that open space and trails are integrally connected with all other factors that attract people to our area. If you can agree with that view, then these factors are equally vital contributors to our local economy. Perhaps one way to personally qualify these values is to answer the following questions:
- If current and future residential developers cut off all public access to open spaces and trails around Wickenburg, would you choose to live in or visit our town?
- As a resident of Wickenburg, if you “lost” access to existing trails, would you conclude that your quality of life had been degraded?
- If every horse or hiking trail that you used was filled with ATVs or dirt bikes, would you seek other places (away from Wickenburg) that provided greater safety and solitude for your activities?
Why Are Our Trails and Open Space at Risk?
Population Growth: Area residents may recall that Yavapai County mailed you a document titled “SR 89 Planning Study Wickenburg-Congress” in December 2007. Its purpose was to describe the characteristics of a future four-lane divided highway and readers were referred to a web site that contains the full study (See Reference 1). A rather sobering map depicts the projected geographic size of the population center defined as “Wickenburg-Congress” as it is likely to appear in 2050. See the oval area outlined in Figure 2.
Figure 2, 2050 Wickenburg Population Area
The projected resident population within the future Wickenburg town limits is forecast to be approximately 28,000 by the year 2050. During the same period, Congress’ population could increase to the range of 10,000; although census projections seem to be a bit imprecise. Meanwhile the state’s overall population will have increased to the range of 16 million (See Reference 2). The studies do not address increases of seasonal visitors to our area.
As land is acquired by developers to provide future homes and businesses in this population center, there is absolutely nothing to prevent the developer from closing off public access to trails that may pass through their land. Similarly, they could block access to trails on public land. Even if we could succeed in keeping trail access open to public use, the addition of eight million state residents (many of them on our southern border) will place an unimaginable strain on these trails if they remain in their current unregistered and unprotected condition.
Jurisdictional Issues: Wickenburg is surrounded by BLM and State Trust lands that are richly endowed with trails. The BLM will recognize a properly documented trail only if it is entirely located within their administrative area. If the trail originates in, or crosses State Trust or private land, it is not considered for trail registration — even though the trail may have existed in the area for 100 years or more. State Trust land is, to put it bluntly, a “land bank” for future developers. There is no guarantee that a trail on State land can be preserved in perpetuity and is, therefore, at risk. In any case, most of the trails in our vicinity are in Yavapai rather than Maricopa County and are of no interest to our Maricopa County officials.
Funding Issues: Budgetary restrictions severely limit the stewardship that is (or could be) provided by the BLM and State Trust Land agencies. County agencies — both Maricopa and Yavapai — are more focused on areas with higher population density where they are able to concentrate their limited resources in an effort to prevent or mitigate the destruction of recognized and “managed” trails.
Mixed Use Competition: Horse riders emphatically do not want to be on a horse trail that is frequented by ATVs or dirt bikes. Such encounters constitute real safety hazards to inexperienced riders and horses alike. OHV users don’t seem to understand this, or care. Unfortunately, many horse trails are attractive to OHV users because they are often in proximity to roads or washes; thus, they are easily accessible. Hikers tend to use trails that provide separation from horse and OHV activity. In other words, there is very limited competition between hikers and horses for the same space, but there is a persistent and ever increasing threat to horse trails from OHV use.
Figure 3, OHV Dust
When a traditional horse or hiking trail is forfeited to off road vehicles it means that hikers, horsemen and women have been forced to abandon a favored and long used area to seek trails that are both more remote and difficult for OHVs to find or use. It also means they have been pushed increasingly out to the geographic fringes beyond Wickenburg. If you press that issue far enough, you could force these individuals to places that generate revenue for other towns — to the permanent economic loss of Wickenburg.
Regulation and Enforcement: The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates that OHV use has more than tripled since 1998. Such heavy use has led to numerous illegal trails that damage the natural watershed, causes erosion, destroys vegetation, disrupts wildlife and cattle and increases dust pollution. Yet, in spite of these well recognized negatives, the state legislature has never passed a bill that would address these issues. Figure 4 shows the damage that has resulted from one of numerous illegal trails in our area.
Figure 4, Illegal Trail
State and BLM land managers will tell you that it can take up to 140 years for the desert to recover from OHV use — assuming that all OHV activity has been terminated. One BLM study on the effects of OHV activity states that “Once damaged or destroyed, it may take 300-500 years per inch for soil stabilizers to recover or return to their original state.” I am hard pressed to visualize how nature will self-recover from the thoughtless damage inflicted on this steep hillside. See Reference #3 for additional information.
What we are left with is an area surrounding Wickenburg that should be of extreme interest (economically and as a heritage) to all of us, but which has been largely ignored by all of the right people for reasons that are jurisdictional, regulatory or budgetary. This means that individuals who actually use these lands for recreational purposes are left to their own devices and intentions — whether as an act of good stewardship or in a destructive manner. Regardless of the disparate and conflicting governmental jurisdictions, Wickenburg has the greatest stake in the future of the land that surrounds us and we need to take a much more visible stand in favor of the survival, quality and use of trails in our area.
Vision for Trail Preservation
1. Foremost, if the current and future leadership of Wickenburg remains content to simply harvest the economic benefits of open space and trails around our town — as if it was an irrevocable birthright — then future successes in preserving horse and hiking trails will be exceedingly few and far between. It is far more likely that we will loose our legacy, including the legacy of trails left to us by Dana Burden. Instead, Wickenburg’s town government needs to demonstrate visible, active and durable leadership — not just to its own residents — but to county, state and federal agencies to show that it is serious in its intent to develop and preserve these priceless trails. Frankly, it doesn’t matter that most of them lie beyond current town borders. There is no local government better positioned to take a strong advocacy stance with other agencies than Wickenburg. It is certain that no other town stands to gain (or loose) more from the success or failure to preserve these trails.
You may not have known, but our town has a Trails Committee that is comprised of dedicated volunteers who work under the auspices of the Wickenburg Conservation Foundation (WCF). This group works with the BLM, Yavapai County, Prescott National Forest and other occasional agencies to document and register horse and hiking trails. There is a great sense of cooperation toward a common goal, but it is an exceedingly difficult effort due to conflicting inter-agency interests, legal requirements and lack of funding, etc.
The Trails Committee has recently succeeded in registering a horse trail on BLM land in Sophie’s Flat, east of town. See Figure 5. This trail connects to the larger trail system and is an important accomplishment. Much work remains before this trail system can be considered safe, including the installation of trail markers, maps and kiosks.
Insert Photo: Figure 5, Conflicted Horse Trail
You wouldn’t know it from the photograph above, but this is a designated horse trail. The ATV tracks would seem to indicate otherwise. During the process of registering the trail, BLM surveys showed that motorcycles (dirt bikes) had been using the route, so the trail was technically designated as “multi-use”; thereby permitting dirt bikes and horses on the same path. It could take additional months of regulatory effort to reclassify it as a single-use horse trail. In the meantime, ATV riders will continue to drive around the barricade and use it to the risk of horses and riders. From start to finish, the Sophie’s Flat Trail took six months of coordinated effort to complete the research, documentation and signage effort — and that was considered to be a fast-track project.
2. The Trails Committee needs more support from citizens and town government than it currently receives. Public education would help, but financial support of its efforts is also needed. The committee depends upon voluntary donations to pay for the cost of barricades, markers and kiosks.
3. Some of the towns and cities that participate in the Valley Forward program have (belatedly) begun to require developers to provide trail access to the dwindling open spaces that remain in their area. When you consider that Wickenburg’s legacy (at least from a public relations standpoint) is founded upon “open space”, we can do no less. It is vitally important that Wickenburg enact and enforce ordinances that will require developers to protect access to existing trails. This means that trails must be documented and posted before developers move in. It also means that the master trail plan needs to be incorporated into Wickenburg’s Master Plan.
4. Conflicting inter-agency definitions of trails need to be resolved so that the entire route of any trail is equally recognized and protected. When a historic pack trail or stage coach road was cut through the wilderness in 1860, this was territorial land. (Actually, it was Indian land.) The State Land Trust and BLM did not exist. At present, any trail that passes from BLM to State Trust jurisdiction or that crosses private land and then back to BLM again is not considered.
5. Arizona House Bill 2573 offers real hope that OHV users will be required to pay fees that will target habitat and trail damage as well as dust pollution. Bipartisan support is much stronger than last year and there are 40 sponsoring groups. The bill would also fund trail signage, impose fines against OHV users who disregard the safety of people or property, damage wildlife or riparian habitat, use roads or trails that are closed by a government agency or private property owner, and other very welcome measures.
6. Finally and perhaps most difficult, mixed use trails do not work. No horse rider or hiker wants to find themselves enveloped in a swirling cloud of dust from a passing group of ATVs or dirt bikes — particularly if the trail already prohibits the use of motor vehicles. One single ATV can cause riders and hikers to abandon a long used trail system. Wickenburg and other governmental agencies need to develop a rational trail system that provides and enforces separate trails for these highly disparate users. As Wickenburg increasingly annexes land to fuel its growth, it will find itself the legal steward of more trails over time, including those that are in a state of conflicted use. It had better have a plan to address these issues — and a means to carry it out.
7. OHV organizations must also be willing to work with the Trails Committee to help in the identification and documentation of legal OHV trails in our vicinity. These groups must be willing to underwrite the cost and effort of documentation, signage and kiosks in the same way that horse riders and hikers do.
- The terms “defined” and “documented” are not a play on words. Many trails have been recorded using GPS tools to provide reference information that satisfies the personal standards of a rider or hiker. Dana Burden recorded GPS data for all thirty-two trails in his book. The process that is required to meet the documentation standards of various governmental agencies — so that a trail can be officially recognized and protected — requires that a more stringent set of criteria be followed. The GPS track and waypoint data must be converted to different formats to meet inter-agency requirements. These efforts, though tedious, are but one of the many functions of the Wickenburg Trails Committee.
- Old mining district maps can provide clues to trail locations, but were not always documented to scale. The USGS 1902 “Congress” map is perhaps the earliest reliable resource for identifying pack trails and stage coach roads east and north of Wickenburg. Old aerial photos reveal trails that can date to the 1860’s and earlier. A route that was persistently used will be visible for many decades even though it has been long abandoned.
- For more information on this important planning document, go to http://www.co.yavapai.az.us/Content.aspx?id=27104 for the entire report. See also the report titled “Growth Impacts and Challenges — Arizona and the MAG Region”. Go to http://www.mag.maricopa.gov/detail.cms?item=5320 for this extensive report.
- State population estimates are derived from multiple sources based upon the latest 50 year projections. Wickenburg population estimates are essentially derived from the same sources.
- See http://www.fort.usgs.gov/products/publications/22021/22021.pdf. This 225 page study, published in 2007, details the impacts that OHV traffic has on our fragile desert environment. The article title is “Environmental Effects of Off-Highway Vehicles on Bureau of Land Management Lands: A Literature Synthesis, Annotated Bibliographies, Extensive Bibliographies, and Internet Resources.” Authors include Douglas S. Ouren, Christopher Haas, Cynthia P. Melcher, Susan C. Stewart, Phadrea D. Ponds, Natalie R. Sexton, Lucy Burris, Tammy Fancher, and Zachary H. Bowen. This report contains sixty-three annotated bibliographies and hundreds of source references on OHV impacts.
Last 5 posts by Allan Hall
- Wickenburg Hospitality Comes in Many Forms - December 15th, 2010
- Calliandra Eriophylla is Native to the Wickenburg Area - December 9th, 2010
- Goodbye, Old Bridge - November 29th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part III: Preserving the "Whispering Ranch" Mine - March 25th, 2010
- Abandoned Mines Part II: Protective Closures - March 10th, 2010