Coming out of summer 2020, it was clear that something had to change and change quickly for the local outdoors.
Unattended campfires, overcrowding, and a landfill’s worth of trash and other waste made for a frustrating and, at times hazardous, experience.
The Sheet checked in with Mammoth Trails Coordinator Joel Rathje to discuss the state of the Mammoth Lakes trail system so far this summer and what, if anything, may be proving effective in handling the new normal.
Rathje, fresh off of a day spent working with local volunteers, said that, overall, there’s a noticeable difference so far between June 2020 and June 2021.
“Steady as we go comes to mind,” Rathje said, “I don’t feel the sense of urgency that we felt last summer.”
By no means is behavior perfect: Rathje said he’s had reports of people biking at high speeds, e-bikes on trails where they’re not permitted, and some residual trash.
“We are seeing messes here and there but it seems clean,” he reported, “We do have people out in the community keeping things clean.”
He referenced staff deployment at high-traffic trailheads/areas as a key factor in mitigating trash and trail misuse.
Rathje said of his own experience working outdoors this summer, “It seems pretty neat and tidy this season … I’m pretty pleased.”
Recognizing the need for constant vigilance on the trails without taxing town staff to its limits, Rathje decided to try something (relatively) new.
This summer marks the first year of an adopt-a-trail program, in which individuals, businesses, or entities, assume responsibility for keeping a specific trail/facility/lake area clean.
“This particular program seems to be very popular,” Rathje said, “People are excited to get out and really partner with us and contribute, both monetarily and with labor.”
Ramping up the town’s host program, run by Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access (MLPTA), has also produced positive results.
Rathje also said that he’s been installing updated signage at trailheads and parking lots in an effort to further educate the public on proper recreational behavior.
In addition to updating Covid-19 related information, the new signs share information for enjoying the outdoors and directions to additional educational resources.
Beyond the increased personnel presence and increased signage, Rathje said that the general feeling on the trails is a major departure from summer 2020.
Last summer, he said, unattended campfires were a notable common occurence. He related instances of pulling up to day-use sites to find fires still smoking or actively burning with no attendant in sight.
He also said that, on occasion, he’d get to a campsite and find used diapers for both infants and adults, along with used toilet paper.
“We were logging all kinds of crazy messes and I’m just not seeing that this time,” Rathje said.
As for particulars on what’s different:
“Everybody feels a sense of how dry it is,” he said, referencing the ongoing drought, “Everyone’s on edge about fire danger.”
“There were no reports regarding fires this week,” he continued, “Everybody’s so tuned into this.”
In the event that an illegal campfire is spotted, Rathje said that those reports should be going to dispatch, not to him.
“It doesn’t feel as chaotic,” he said of the trails, “It just doesn’t.”
Visitors, he said, are “mostly respectful with the occasional yahoo.”
“We’ve got a presence and we’ve got someone there to take a photo [of bad behavior] and a citizenry that really cares.”
One of the issues that Rathje faces is limited space: the Town of Mammoth Lakes oversees a limited amount of non-motorized multi-use trails.
Most of the trails in the area, he said, are located on federal lands and/or wilderness areas, many of which require a permit for overnight use.
As a result, he has to get creative with promoting spots within the town’s trails system so as to keep any one trail or location from becoming overcrowded.
Some spots, he said, get overlooked in favor of the Lakes Basin, and can provide a similar outdoor experience without the crush of humanity.
The full list of the town’s trail system can be found at mammothtrails.org/trails.
Also available on the Trails System website is information about proper methods of recreation, e-bike usage in town/on trails, and links to additional local resources.
Rathje related that the trail days programs have been very successful in developing a solid volunteer community.
Said Rathje, succinctly, of his day spent with working with volunteers: “I had a good day.”