Oregonian: Timberline proposes to add trails for mountain bikers

If the Timberline ski area's plans go through, next summer mountain bikers will be able to bomb down miles of new trails on Mount Hood, load their bikes onto the Jeff Flood Express chairlift and ride again.

Timberline's proposal, which the U.S. Forest Service opened for public comment this week, also includes a mountain biking "skills park" near the Wy'East Day Lodge with jumps, boardwalks, see-saws and ramps.

The downhill biking project is raising concerns among some environmental groups, who say eight acres of sensitive alpine terrain near the historic Timberline Lodge is the wrong place for bikes, making it the latest proposal to test the proper balance of activities on the busy mountain.

To win approval, the plan requires an environmental review and an endorsement from the Mount Hood National Forest.

Zigzag District Ranger Bill Westbrook  said the Timberline project could help reduce unauthorized mountain biking areas and stunt sites popping up in the forest as demand for mountain biking increases. It also makes sense to add mountain biking trails in an area that's already developed and managed, he said.

"But we have the same (environmental) concerns," Westbrook said. "We're going to take a hard look at this."

The project's 15 miles of trails would cover much of Mount Hood's lower ski slopes below the tree line, with the bikers pedaling along ski runs and through nearby forest patches from July through October. Timberline's high elevation summer ski program on the Magic Mile and Palmer lifts would not be affected.

Timberline would install bike carriers on the Jeff Flood chairlift, its newest lift at 4 years old. RLK and Company, the resort's longtime operator, says the trails would have a full-time maintenance crew.

Mt. Hood Skibowl and the Willamette Pass Resort east of Eugene also have mountain biking with lifts; Skibowl operates two lifts for bikes and 40 miles of trails.

Steve Kruse,  Timberline's general manager of mountain operations, said the mountain bike facilities would draw new customers, help the resort capture summer skiers and snowboarders in the afternoon -- there were 2,000 at the resort Thursday -- reduce layoffs in the fall and help hedge against decreased snow if global warming projections pan out.

Timberline brought in Gravity Logic, a consulting firm that helped create the Whistler (B.C.) Mountain Bike Park, considered the industry gold standard. The expectation among mountain bikers is that the Timberline facility would be "world class," featuring both single-track and stunt-filled trails and accommodating all skill levels, from beginner to advanced, said Tom Archer,  president of the Northwest Trails Alliance.

Access is generally good for mountain bikers in the Mount Hood National Forest, Archer said, but the cross-country routes aren't the same as a chairlift that gives riders easy access to managed trails with jumps, berms and other challenges.

"This is a different type of experience and it presents different challenges for the rider," Archer said. "There's a lot of demand for this and there really isn't enough of it in the area."

Friends of Mount Hood and Bark, an environmental group that is a watchdog of Mount Hood developments, said their concerns include the effect on soils, disturbing a peaceful area in summertime and increasing erosion into nearby Still Creek, which hosts endangered wild coho and steelhead.

Lori Ann Burd,  a Bark staff attorney, said the Forest Service should instead concentrate on developing trails for mountain bikers who want longer day trips. She called the downhill biking proposed by Timberline "a niche extreme activity."

Kruse said the design includes features to reduce erosion, including sediment traps and large, rolling speed bumps to slow bikers down and reduce braking and skidding that stirs up dirt.

The Forest Service expects to complete its review plan by December. If it finds problems, the agency could shoot down Timberline's proposal or require modifications to reduce the environmental impact. Timberline hopes to open seven of the 11 planned trails late next summer.

The Forest Service is accepting public comments through July 30.

By Scott Learn, The Oregonian