Reflections on Yacolt Burn 4x4 Trails

Spring 2015 marked the opening of the first ever DNR designated 4x4 trails in Southwest Washington. It was 8 years in the making and cost over a quarter million dollars. While something was accomplished, the sense I received from non-pnw4wda users was that it didn’t meet the minimum needs of the greater 4x4 community.


What are some of the issues with Yacolt ORV area?

  • Lack of diverse public involvement
  • Pacific Cascade region’s misunderstanding of 4x4s
  • Process from user-built to DNR managed trails
  • Multiple Use theory
  • Heavy Equipment instead of Volunteers
  • Reliance on timber sales and logging roads
  • Time Line

First: The Good

Pistons Wild 4x4 group spent 6000+ hours and over $90,000 in upfront cash (before being reimbursed by DNR) to build the trails at Yacolt Burn. Pacific 4wd Association (PNW4WDA) Region 3 gave another $5000 to get the trails open. It takes a special type of dedication to put forth that effort, and without their hard work, we wouldn’t be where we are today with DNR in Southwest Washington.

Volunteers helping get the trails open by May 2nd.

While I may think they could have been more direct about getting better trails (what Scott has been doing at Rieter), I wasn’t here for 7 years and the troubles they were getting with any trail seems to be more difficult in the Pacific Cascade region vs anywhere else in the state. So I understand why they wanted to get something on the ground first.

Why not use contractors for building the trail?

I’ve heard this question come up time and time again. Road and WCC crews are able to punch in trail faster than what our volunteers. We also see that they could have done it cheaper, when comparing this to Reiter’s cost per mile for trail (excluding obstacles) in 2015. If DNR is not going to change its building standards, this is a legitimate argument. Volunteers are not able to build trails faster or cheaper than contractors with current requirements.

But I’d argue thats not the fault of volunteers. We need a better building process so that we can make volunteers more efficient. More about this later.

Pacific Cascade (PC) Region’s approach to motorized recreation

Strained would be saying it kindly, in regards to the relationship between DNR and motorized volunteers.

In the beginning I had hope, after two successful meetings, it seemed like things were looking up in regards to the region. However, as the spring waned, I realized I was mistaken.

In eight years, Crystal Crowder (Piston’s Wild) and Mike Ames (Jones Creek Trail Riders Association) have worked with a myriad of staff, from the ‘do whatever you want’ to the downright hostile (close everything). But in those 8 years, they haven’t met the region manager for the landscape (06/01/2015). There doesn’t appear to be pressure from upper management to deliver trails (regardless of quality), and there is very little incentive in the job description of the employees on the ground to provide the right type of trails for the users they’re supposed to serve in a timely matter.

When put to the challenge, boots on the ground lack the experience to build and manage motorized trails correctly. Here are some specific examples.

Seasonal Closures

The decision to close recreational trails is based several factors: the geology/soils of the trail area, the trails, rain fall, the amount of use, and maintenance including cost and resources. We have found that winter closures have been very helpful in maintaining the quality of the trails and balancing the maintenance and cost and ensuring that resource protection (water quality) is occurring.

— Mary McDonald, State Lands Assistant, Asset Management

However, the science does not back her statement. First, rainfall totals are very similar to that of Walker Valley and Reiter (below). Elbe has slightly less annual rainfall.

DNR Recreation areas overlaid with annual rainfall totals.

GIS, permits for the new 4x4 trails, and on the ground soil samples, don’t support the closure. An analysis of two other ORV areas, show very similar soil grades as Yacolt.

USDA GIS Web Soil Survey, the same tool DNR uses for its suitability reports and permit requests.

The only supporting evidence for suitability is soils near the Jones Creek trail-head. But closing the entire landscape because of ~200 acres of potentially wet soil is a bit extreme.

Walker Valley has a similar issue, and is open year round. In 2010 environmentalists put Walker Valley under the spot light.

DNR is aware that several of the photos shared with us by Mr.
Lider, while illustrating some impacts to trails, may in fact not be
causing damage to public resources like streams. We are also aware that
several of the areas identified may have real resource damage. While we
are committed to providing recreational opportunities, we are also
committed to those opportunities being environmentally sustainable. — Peter Goldmark, CPL Public Lands 06/29/2010

Efforts by volunteers, along with the department of ecology, identified the actual problem spots and repaired them. While some trails were temporarily closed, the ORV area was never shut down.

In 2002, Walker Valley was headed for seasonal closure. But the efforts of volunteers stopped that from happening, and in December, only 2 months after the initial closure, the CPL announced its reopening. We should do the same for Yacolt.

Open year round, Walker valley is about half and half for water suitability, according to the Hydrologic Soil Group data.
Work Parties happen year-round at Walker Valley, and is mostly open for the winter.

Elbe foothills, which is known for its mud, is best suited for the wet, according to the data. Only pockets of unsuitable soils exist. These are mitigated by placement of trails and volunteers maintaining the system.

The data simply doesn’t support a full on closure of Yacolt during the winter months. Nor do the trail conditions on the ground.

Trail Design

  • DNR consulted with a landscape architect who essentially copy/paste from the Reiter plan with a few adjustments. They failed to consult and/or listen to the recreation groups, creating Class IV+ USFS equivalent trails in a primitive setting. This isn’t a PC specific issue, this spans new construction on DNR land in regards to motorized recreation.
Comparison between the Reiter and Yacolt Plans.
  • The lead recreation forester has no degrees or experience with trail building, design, or even road building. In-slopes and Out-slopes are not defined. Berms exist on the sides of the trail making it the low point for water flow.
This 15% grade has no water bars and is not side sloped correctly. Water will eventually work its way down the left side of this photo.
  • At the same time, decision makers in the region have little experience with other 4x4 systems in other DNR regions or adjacent (ODF) land. They didn’t tour the other areas until late into the process. When they did, they did not invite recreationalists to show them which trails at TSF have good user experience and which don’t. This leads to a misunderstanding about the desired trail experience all users want.
  • Reiter is working on trails 4 days a week during the winter and summer months. Yacolt stopped construction from November until mid March.

However, there is some hope: Ryan Schreiner was hired late last year to manage recreation in the PC Region. His previous post was Southwest District Trail Leader of the Washington Trails Association.

“the volunteer program is great for anyone and students are more than welcome to join. I started out as a volunteer. Now I work here and I love it.”
- Ryan Schreiner regarding working at WTA

Lack of public involvement

Planning Meetings

Many other regions hold group specific monthly focus group meetings to organize work parties and receive detailed feedback. Yacolt is a bit different. There is an every-other-month meeting for all recreation groups, motorized and non-motorized. These are high level, relatively pointless meetings. Actual decisions are made elsewhere. This lack of openness makes it very hard for new groups to get involved.

6, 2 hour meetings is not enough to plan and manage a trail system.

Work Parties

User groups had to initiate, organize, and operate work parties. PC DNR rarely sets up work parties on their own, and doesn’t schedule regular work parties, unlike the Northwest and South Puget Sound regions.

Piston’s Wild was up there on a Monday, coordinating rock and deliveries. Google Earth caught the action! Whats missing? DNR Red trucks.

At Walker Valley there are monthly work parties. Planning for these parties happen at the meeting beforehand. Reiter has monthly work parties. Elbe usually has monthly work parties (sometimes less in the winter). If there is consistency, people show up. If people show up, trails get maintained. If trails get maintained, they stay open. If they stay open, more users come to help out. Then those users bring their diverse ideas, making for a better trail system all around.

User Needs

Defining User Groups/Classifications

For those outside of the Motorized community, there are probably two main groups: ATVs and Motorcycles. Within the motorized community, you see ATVs, Motorcycles, and 4x4. But within the 4x4 community there is quite a spread of technical skill and need.

The only obstacle that was allowed to be built was flat & rectangular, which makes it look hard but its actually quite easy. Now for some classes of vehicles, this obstacle is just fine. We just want more, and we want some harder obstacles.

Yacolt Rock Pile, horizontal and rectangular. Can be done in 2WD.

Below are some examples of man made and natural obstacles using rock at other DNR ORV landscapes.

Typical rock pile at Reiter for a Yellow trail (35" tires). Notice how the rocks are nearly half the size of the buggy. Man made obstacles have to be this large to provide challenge.
Natural occurring rock at Reiter for extreme, well built 4x4s.
Naturally occurring rock at Walker Valley, provides a challenge for mildly built 4x4s

Trails are being built like roads

The first four trails are being built like roads. Even the gatekeepers provide little challenge for 4x4 vehicles.

The standard says 12" obstacles, but then says “suitable for a vehicle in 4-wheel drive with a rear locker.” At 12" most trucks in 2WD will be able to overcome such obstacles. Despite there being several areas that could have been more difficult, there are no challenges on the C-1 or C-2 trails.

C1 Trail is a narrow logging road, and in some cases, an actual old logging road.

Building intermediate trails

Lets be clear: I’m not arguing for extreme trails. Instead, I would like to see a diverse trail system, with various opportunities, and at least some that go by DNR’s definition: “Requires 4wd and a rear locker to complete the trail”

  • Mild rock and log obstacles across the trail without bypasses
  • Gatekeeper/filter that requires 4wd and a locker
  • Water bars that are effective for runoff and provide a more primitive trail experience.
  • Off-camber sections
  • Tight turns
  • Steep (> 20%) inclines/declines
At Nicolai Mountain and Elbe the rocks are placed strategically to give hard lines for vehicles w/ 35" tires looking for a challenge.

User-built to DNR managed trails

We need to change the idea that user-built trails, or user converted orphaned roads are all bad. Trails that are slated to be incorporated into the plan should not just be allowed today, but encouraged.

Analysis of the current trail system. Of the roughly 3 miles of trail, only 1.3 miles are not logging roads.

The C-2 trail is the first orphaned road to be partially adopted to a new trail. But instead of opening the new section and abandoning the unsustainable section, they closed the whole trail first. There was a run-off issue that was slowly working its way towards the logging road. But it wasn’t a dire situation, and should have been adaptively managed and re-routed.

Phase 2 is supposed to incorporate even more user-built trail and orphaned roads. But instead of closing down these trails first in the forest, we should encourage people to use these trails that are planned to be incorporated to keep them off of trails that DNR doesn’t plan to use. 17 miles of environmentally sustainable, user-built trail, were found at Reiter. There is no reason why we cannot start evaluating similar trails at Yacolt. While we wait to open up sustainable user-built trails, users are recreating on potentially unsustainable trails instead.

Waterfall vs Adaptive project management

Yacolt underwent a similar planning process as Reiter. The result has been a hardened path through the woods. For example, C1 was connected on both sides June 15th. However, until May 2nd 2015, no vehicle traffic was allowed on it.

Taken July 2014, C-1 and C-2 was drivable. It could have been soft opened to test the soil.

Even with the hardening of the trail, DNR could, and should have opened it up July 1st. This would have allowed DNR to see the trail progression and make changes while it still had grant money. It would have also freed up time to start working on C-3 and C-4 trails.

Until Reiter, no trails were built entirely with excavators. Its a waste of time and runs counter to the idea of primitive 4x4 trails. Like Reiter, Yacolt is being built entirely from excavators. This means wide 8–10ft road beds, cleared tress, and any obstacles are man-built. The trail as it stands can be ran in 2wd by any vehicle with 6" of clearance and shorter than 20'.

New 4x4 Trail at Nicolai Mountain. Trail design focuses on strategic placement rather than rock. Agile method allows volunteers to harden areas that could lead to excessive erosion.

Volunteers should be primarily using their vehicles, chain saws, hand tools, and weed-whackers to establish trail. And this is what happens at other areas around the state and in Oregon.

When trails are built with vehicles and hand-tools, it allows nature to take them back, avoiding forest floor conversion. It also allows managers to redirect and abandon trails easier if they no longer are suitable. Why spend so much money on a trail when you don’t know its eventual outcome?

Walker Valley had a trail that was hardened over and over again in an attempt to keep the trail open. Eventually mother nature won when a washout obliterated the trail. Its not the appearance that matters, its the placement.

Hardening a trail at Walker Valley. It later closed in 2013 due to a washout. The original trail placement was bad.

Multiple Use = Not a 4x4 trail

ATVs, Motorcycles, UTVs, and 4x4s all have different trail and tread requirements, as noted in the USFS trail standards guide. Unfortunately, DNR historically makes 4x4 trail the least common denominator. Not only are all other uses allowed, but must be designed for. This means that the 4x4 trails, cannot be made harder.

This lesson has been learned at Reiter. There, not only are 4x4 trails designed for 4x4s only, but also designated as such. No ATVs or Motorcycles are allowed on the 4x4 trails.

The new trails policy also helps clarify that trails can have PMOs that include designation of a particular use, which will help improve the 4x4 user experience.

Heavy Equipment instead of vehicles

Lack of Volunteers

When using heavy equipment exclusively, it limits the amount of work that can be done simultaneously by volunteers. This reduces the overall need, and drives volunteers away.

Because vehicles where banned from use during construction, all volunteers could do was hand grub or operate machinery. There were a few tasks around culverts and small rock placement, but not enough to get people excited to come work.

A Single Excavator built most of the trail. These rocks were brought in and placed with excavators.

At Elbe and Walker, vehicles are used extensively in hauling and spreading rock, creating new routes, and winching in trees to close off old ones. At Walker, heavy equipment compliments vehicle use, used for specific spots. Elbe has its own dedicated mini, owned by DNR, and used by volunteers who are certified equipment operators. This builds trails faster and uses less resources, costing less money.

Buggy running a trail at Walker Valley, delivering rock to a DNR rented excavator operated by a certified volunteer.
Logs are an effective way to water bar and define trail Rigs can also move them, which is much cheaper than heavy equipment. This trail at Reiter was ‘closed’ and still under construction.

Heavy equipment required removing large obstacles and water bars, then rebuilding them. Disturbed soil, even re-compacted, is not as good as naturally compacted soil.

Image to the left has water bars that would require 4wd to traverse. Image to right is after water bars were largely flattened.

While I support the use of heavy equipment in specific areas, especially large rock placement, generally speaking they should be avoided for 4x4 areas. We’re specifically looking for a natural experience, and this really is best when using vehicles and hand/power tools.

The initial cost to build this trail is low, and resources can be used to build up specific areas that need rock.

Timber Sales and Logging Roads

Harvest trails vs wooded areas

There are some advantages to building in harvested areas. There are no trees to disturb. Another harvest won’t happen in another 50 years. Some potential views. But there are also downsides; lack of a tightly defined trail, more water run-off/erosion, experience is not as beautiful. I personally like both, and hope that Yacolt will have more of a mixture of landscape.

Trees at Elbe are high marked in Red for a timber sale. Despite the soil compaction here, there is no delivery to streams and the affect to the ecosystem is localized to the trail only (where we don’t want trees growing anyway!)

When building trail within a wooded area, the easier it is to build, the sooner the area will get logged. If we can create trails 1+ year before harvest and mark the stumps/trees, it will be easier to re-establish the trail after harvest.

(Logging) Roads to Trails

Humps and Bumps walker valley. Essentially a narrow logging road.

One of the more serious issues is converting logging roads to trails. The they aren’t rustic enough.

Roads also require all obstacles to be created. This increases cost and time. I support roads however for trunk and easier trails. But not all trails should be built on old roads and grades.

There is one benefit to using roads — stream crossings. It is cheaper to use existing roads or take over roads instead of building new bridges. And while its expensive to bring rock in, Reiter shows some successful strategies on building a difficult trail even on existing logging roads.

Timeline and Funding

Planning at Yacolt started before Reiter, but less has been accomplished since then. With 8 years of planning and over quarter million dollars spent, there was 3 miles of 4x4 trail added and 1.5 miles of new ATV trail.

  • 2007: Planning process started for Yacolt Burn Rec plan
  • 2009 July: Planning process complete, plan goes to SEPA
  • 2009 Fall: Hopeful to open up user-built trails to legitimate use
  • 2010 August: DNR adopts the Yacolt Burn Rec Plan
  • 2012: Things come to a halt.
The SEPA process is complete, public and agency comments have been responded to and we have received our final determination notice. The last piece of red tape we are waiting for is permits from Clark County. Originally, we were not going to need to go through the county, but since the Reiter area project raised such an uproar with the public, we were forced to pursue yet another layer of approval prior to moving forward with our project in the Yacolt Burn.
  • 2013 Feb: DNR Receives a lawsuit from Gifford Pinchot Task Force on the behalf of a landowner who doesn’t want to see motorized recreation near her house.
  • 2014 Spring: Lawsuit is settled and phase 1 ORV trails begin construction.
  • 2014 November: C-1 and C-2 trails complete. C-3 and C-4 not done yet.
  • 2015 Spring: Completion of C-3 and C-4 trails.
  • 2016+: With current policies, this is the earliest any new 4x4 trail can be established.

What can be done to fix this?

Establish trails with users winter / spring 2016

This map shows a trail system that could be easily completed by the end of summer 2016. A good portion of the trail already exist, making these relatively easy to build.

Flat, clear. It wouldn’t take much work to make this an interim parking lot.

A large bulldozer would be able to grade the abandoned road and reclaim rock for a temporary parking area. While its understood a grading permit would be required, the Clark County Permit office says this is relatively simple and quick to get.

Alternatively, since this area is planned to be a parking lot anyway, DNR could store its rock here for road maintenance and once the rock is used up, it’d become a de-facto parking area. This strategy has been used by other regions because it falls within forest practices guidelines and solves the problem of a temporary parking area.

Other Improvements

Scout and plan for more trails using the Mountain View (C1) trail as the trunk trail. There already is an abandoned section of road that could provide for some additional challenge. There is a leave tree section that could provide a tight and twisty area for vehicles. Have users establish the trail naturally, instead of constructing it.

Want to see the full proposal? Check it out.

Write to DNR

Tell them you want more public input on the Yacolt. Attend the every-other-month TAG meetings. Coordinate a group of friends to volunteer on a section of trail.

Share your comments and the blog with DNR:

Commissioner Goldmark: cpl@dnr.wa.gov
Lenny Young, Department Supervisor: lenny.young@dnr.wa.gov
Eric Wisch, Region Manager: eric.wisch@dnr.wa.gov
Mary McDonald, Assistant Region Manager: mary.mcdonald@dnr.wa.gov
Rex Hapala, Recreation District Manager rex.hapala@dnr.wa.gov