Damage persists after off-roading ban in Reiter Foothills

GOLD BAR — The Reiter Foothills may be off limits, but officials worry that hasn’t stopped some off-road riders.

Since the 10,000-acre forest in east Snohomish County closed for renovation, rangers say some off-road riders headed further east, damaging federally protected soil where no Jeep has been before.

Mud holes and tracks from four-wheelers have been spotted away from Reiter Foothills in the pristine Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest lands off U.S. 2.

“The forest is a fragile ecosystem,” said Barbara Busse, a ranger at the Skykomish District. “It tears the land apart.”

An officer patrolling the area first noticed the marks a few weeks ago. It’s hard to say how much damage has been done, Busse said.

That’s in violation of the first rule of off-road riding — staying on the trail, said Angela Holm from the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association.

“We don’t condone any kind of action of that sort,” she said. “We do what we can by educating anybody we see in the area about what we do and don’t do in four-wheel-driving.”

The group has eight regions throughout the Pacific Northwest with hundreds of members. The Reiter Foothills is one of two major riding areas in the region that encompasses much of Western Washington, Holm said. The other one is Walker Valley in Skagit County.

Outdoor enthusiasts over the past 35 years or so have created a loose network of trails in the Reiter Foothills. The land is managed by the state Department of Natural Resources. Officials are concerned those trails have strained the land and streams.

“Before we knew it, there were 50 miles of trails in Reiter,” said Mark Mauren, assistant division manager with the department. Nobody told the off-road enthusiasts they couldn’t ride there, so ride they did. Now, the state is working with local groups to remedy the situation.

“We are not blaming the off-road community. What we are doing now is playing catch-up,” Mauren said.

The state finally found some money and on Nov. 2 closed the area for renovation. Officials knew they risked some off-road riders taking matters into their own hands, but the closure was a necessary — and temporary — measure.

Responsible off-road riders take care of the land, Holm said. Not everyone is responsible, though: Someone recently tore down a fence the group installed in the Reiter Foothills area.

Mauren said the state would work with U.S. Forest Service to arrange special patrols of the area.

Officials plan to develop new trails in the Reiter Foothills and to divide the area into sections for vehicles, horses, hikers and mountain bikes. They eventually want to set up bathrooms and campgrounds.

Foot traffic is allowed during the project.

Officials plan to reopen the area in parts, Mauren said. If everything goes right, the first sections may open in the spring or summer of next year.

“If you develop a facility through a public process, and it looks new, and it’s maintained, then people respect that,” Mauren said.

Katya Yefimova: 425-339-3452, kyefimova@heraldnet.com.

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