Growing pains inside Lacamas Lake Park?

Local historian Roger Wendlick talked to sixth-graders about the history of fur trade in the Columbia River Gorge. Here, they tried out a horn, a tool of the trade used during Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.

Jim Hart is on a mission to find hacked-up ferns inside Lacamas Lake Regional Park.

It’s drizzling and the trail is a bit muddy, but Hart, an avid hiker and lifelong Camas-Washougal resident who raised four children here, isn’t fazed. Coffee mug in hand and raincoat on, Hart strides through a field of overgrown grass to find a small trailhead in the park’s farthest northeastern corner.

For the first few yards, the trail is a narrow band of dirt winding its way through a lush landscape of sword and bracken ferns. But about 100 feet into the hike, the trail opens up and Hart points to ferns on either side of the trail that have recently been mowed down by some sort of weed whacker.

Hart puts his coffee cup down and pulls a measuring tape from his pocket. He measures from the middle of the trail to a fern off one side.

“It’s nine feet from the trail!” Hart exclaims, shaking his head. “Why did they need to cut it back so far?”

Continuing on, Hart points out a jump carved into the trail for mountain bikers. He wonders aloud if the volunteers who help maintain this trail within Clark County-owned park land have cut down the ferns because they want to widen the trail and go faster to clear that jump.

“It looks like they’re trying to turn this into a road,” Hart says, measuring a point in the trail where it is nearly 12 feet wide thanks to the cut-down ferns. “This is public land. They shouldn’t be able to do this.”

Camas Parks and Recreation Commission member Sean Vergillo is the man behind the fern trimming that troubled Hart.

A longtime Camas resident, mountain biker and organizer of the volunteer-powered Lacamas Trails Advocacy Group, which helps maintain miles of publicly owned trails within the Camas-Washougal area, Vergillo says he understands why Hart is upset, but wants to assure the Camas native — as well as other Lacamas Lake Park users — that the mountain bikers are not trying to widen anything or destroy the ferns along the area known as “Red Tape Trail.”

In fact, Vergillo says, bikers usually like their trails to be as narrow as possible.

“In general, that’s one reason we’re out there,” Vergillo says. “We like twisty, tight curves.”

But when it comes to maintaining a shared-use trail like the Red Tape Trail, Vergillo is more concerned with safety than anything else.

“Virtually all riders prefer narrow, single-track trails,” Vergillo says. “The reason for the deep trimming is visibility, safety.”

Although Hart has his doubts, and points out that you can clearly see over the knee-high ferns that line the beginning of the trail, Vergillo maintains that it is often difficult to see hikers walking uphill when bikers — even if they’re riding at reasonable speeds — are coming downhill. Cutting the ferns on either side of the winding trail helps bikers see hikers and vice versa, Vergillo says.

What’s more, Vergillo adds, the ferns that line trails like the Red Tape are grow back fast, and the volunteer group doesn’t have enough members or time to keep up with the regrowth.

Vergillo points to another, similar trail he cut back last week: “This section of the trail was trimmed back nearly as far last spring.”

Within a year, the ferns had come back and were just as lush as they’d been pre-trimming, Vergillo says the volunteer group doesn’t “have the volunteer power to re-trim sections of trail multiple times each year” and that “ferns and other ground cover vegetation grow incredibly fast.”

Hart says he’s been using the Lacamas Lake trails his entire life and that he worries the ferns, which add so much green to an increasingly urban area, will eventually perish after one too many cutbacks.

Finding a middle ground for park users can be difficult, especially considering that the park has so many more visitors now than it did even five years ago, Vergillo says.

“The way Camas has grown, and with so many new people in the area, we’ve lost a lot of (rural)trails to (housing developments) and that’s pushed people into the park,” Vergillo says. “With everyone condensed onto those trails, my biggest concern is safety.”

The issues are more complicated with shared-use trails like the Red Tape Trail, but Vergillo says Hart is one of very few people who have voiced complaints about how the volunteer group maintains the trails inside the park.

“If we don’t trim the trails, somebody is going to get hurt,” Vergillo says. “If we had a bunch of people to trim the trails, maybe we wouldn’t have to cut back so far … but when I’m out there, I’m thinking as if I’m a walker going up with a biker coming down. It’s (trimmed) totally for visibility purposes.”

Ed Fischer, owner of the Camas Bike and Sport shop, says he rode the Red Tape Trail a few days after Vergillo trimmed the ferns and didn’t notice any overcutting.

“It looks great,” Fischer says of the trail. “I would have never known unless someone told me it was trimmed … and all of it will grow back like it does every year after it is trimmed in this fashion.”

Bike-only trails discussed

Hart worries that the volunteers are taking too many liberties with their county-approved mandate to maintain trails inside publicly owned lands.

But the volunteer group’s maintenance efforts come on the heels of the county’s Lacamas Park Trail Alignment Study, which gave county staff the ability to review trails that weren’t considered “official,” but rather had been carved out and utilized by Lacamas Park hikers, joggers and bikers.

Volunteer groups like Vergillo’s wanted to make sure that these unauthorized trails were being cared for, but knew the county couldn’t afford to do the maintenance.

The trail alignment process was designed to identify the user-built trails and get an agreement in place with volunteer maintenance groups to make sure hikers, joggers and bikers weren’t wandering off-trail.

“Existing unauthorized trails have not always respected sensitive ecological regulations and cannot be maintained by county parks staff under their current budget limitations,” the study’s authors state in the project’s overview literature. “Some trail groups have volunteered to help maintain and re-align existing trails to offset the shortfall of county labor forces.”

The Post-Record ran a story in April 2016 on the volunteer trail maintenance group and Karen Llewellyn, Clark County Public Works Volunteer Program coordinator, said then that the county depended on people like Vergillo to help maintain the shared-use trails within Lacamas Lake Park: “We have a very limited budget for trail work and maintenance at Lacamas Regional Park … the volunteer work that the advocacy group completes is critical for keeping the trails in good condition for the public to enjoy. ”

Vergillo agrees that his group of volunteers wants nothing more than to help maintain the Camas park trails for all users, but says the issue of having segregated, bike-only trails has come up before. The Red Tape Trail, which was built about five years ago with bicyclists in mind, is one that Vergillo wouldn’t mind seeing as a designated bike-only trail.

There are already trails within the park that are meant for walkers and joggers, Vergillo says, so having a bike trail might help alleviate concerns like Hart’s as the number of park users continues to grow.

“The Red Tape Trail is unique,” Vergillo says. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Red Tape be a one-way bike trail. We’ve talked about it before. I’m not pushing for that right now, but there are trails out there that bikers are not allowed on, so maybe we need to add bicycle-specific trails down the road. ”

Until then, Vergillo says, he hopes Hart and other park users won’t worry about the mountain bikers wanting to widen trails or destroy plant life.

“I live in Camas and I love the park and its trail system,” Vergillo says. “I really am concerned about what people do out there … but my biggest concern is always safety.”

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