Downhill mountain bikers in Spokane have been on a decade-long roller coaster of mostly uphill battles in carving their signature into Beacon Hill.
The latest challenges include private development plans on a portion of their higher-elevation routes and a disc golf course stretching across several lower-elevation trails at Camp Sekani, managed by Spokane Parks and Recreation.
In the mid-2000s, the Fat Tire Trail Riders club focused on the area – a mixture of city and private land – as a ripe field for developing a thought-out trail system, including routes for specially equipped downhill specialists.
The area already was laced with unplanned trails made by pioneering mountain bikers, motorcyclists, marauding four-wheel drive enthusiasts and a steady clientele of junk dumpers.
The Fat Tire group broke away from the pack of riders who had been making unauthorized trails regardless of land-use rules or ownership.
“The key was to work with land managers and other groups and get it all legal,” said Peter Jantz, the most recent president of the loose-knit club, which has changed its name to Evergreen East.
Momentum has been hard to maintain. The Fat Tire club worked with city parks and a National Park Service grant to write a Beacon Hill Trails System concept plan released in 2009. The plan was a product of three years of effort that included other recreation groups, Avista and private landowners adjoining the city land.
Property owners supported the plan because formal trails would channel rampant trespassing onto approved trails. Efforts to close access points to motorized vehicles and remove junked car bodies and other heaps of garbage won plenty of support from neighbors.
Mountain bikers, notably downhillers, had finally found a home. The Fat Tire club researched and published the Beacon Hill Trails map that year.
The Beacon Hill Project sought to bring the trail system “above board” as a community asset, Mike Aho, former city parks outdoor program manager, said at the time.
The unofficial trail system on Beacon Hill was already heavily used and well-known in the ‘90s, “but it had been a free-for-all,” Jantz said.
The effort in the 2000s sought to get the hill formally recognized as a community recreation resource, said Aho, who recently moved to Idaho.
Indeed, the trail system today includes about 30 miles of trails and existing roads connected to adjoining neighborhoods. It links five parks and includes a dirt jump park developed over the past three years.
Jump park designers Tyler Salvage and Skye Schillhammer used grants to rent heavy equipment needed to work with dirt hauled in by contractors. They created features that can launch skilled riders 30 feet in the air.
Despite their efforts, the cyclists were set back in 2009 when their proposal to secure key parcels of private land were not accepted by the Spokane County Conservation Futures Program.
“That really let the air out of it, so to speak, for me and the rest of the folks who were helping out,” said Penny Schwyn, a former club officer.
As the Fat Tire club began melting away, the economy tanked, the city parks operating budget was in jeopardy, and the Beacon Hill Project and its visions for an outdoor recreation center and other amenities evaporated.
But Jantz, caretaker at Camp Sekani since 2008, helped keep a core of cyclists on track to develop downhill riding routes for a niche of specialists. About 200 riders participated in the annual Double Down Hoe Down event in March based out of Camp Sekani.
Jantz and about 10 cyclists have reincarnated the Fat Tire club into Evergreen East, a chapter of the Seattle-based Evergreen Mountain Bike Association.
“We had a pretty good turnout of more than 20 people at our last trail workday,” he said, noting that another is set for Saturday.
The failure of the Conservation Futures proposal is hanging over the trail system this year. A housing development planned for some of that private property would close key trails at the top of the downhill course.
“We’re doing what we can do to reroute those trails,” said Jantz, noting the basalt rock outcroppings that give the area its rugged beauty make rerouting difficult.
Another bump in the trail emerged this year with a city-authorized disc golf course, which crosses some portions of the volunteer-built downhill cycling trails.
A limited parking area is more crowded and in some areas, the golfers are throwing their discs into the path of cyclists.
“Dogs, especially off leash, can be a safety issue with the bikes,” Jantz said. “A lot of the disc golfers bring their pets. Even though dogs are supposed to be on leash in this park, a lot of them aren’t.”
Leroy Eadie, city Parks and Recreation director, said he’s been “trying to maximize different and minimize potential conflicts” in the parks within the confines of a tight budget.
“Disc golfers were looking for somewhere to expand,” he said, noting that disc golf groups are good partners because they’re needs are minimal and they buy and install the course equipment and coordinate improvements with park staff.
The city has authorized three courses at Sekani, Downriver and High Bridge.
Eadie acknowledged that signage regarding rules and etiquette is needed at Sekani. “Combining user groups at parks is necessary because demand for recreation space is great,” he said.
“We’re also trying to set aside enough capital dollars to build a restroom at Sekani,” he said.
Parking is an issue because of the terrain and slope, he said.
“It will cost money and I don’t have it,” he said, noting that he recently cut $1.1 million to reduce the 2013 budget to about $17.5 million, mostly by eliminating positions.
“The future for mountain bikers is up in the air, but we’ll keep working on the success we’ve had, building positive relationships and rerouting trails to make it work as best we can,” Jantz said.
He said cyclists are looking into improving trail networks at other Beacon Hill areas near Esmeralda and above Shield Park.
“And we want to develop an easier trail with lesser grade so beginners can climb for elevation. We have a lot of plans.”