Between early January and mid-February, Pacific Union College (PUC) cleared smaller trees and underbrush on the forested part of the ridgeline next to the Angwin college. The fire mitigation effort created a large amount of organic debris and impacted short sections of about 15 biking trails descending from the ridgeline.
On Feb. 10, some 40 people, children, teens and adults, showed up on the first work day to restore the single-track trails impacted by the clearing. Heading up the clean-up efforts are members of the Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance (REMBA), a nonprofit composed of 350 mountain bikers from Lake, Napa, and Sonoma counties, and the St. Helena Thunderbirds, a local team of teens training in mountain bike racing.
Every second Sunday, REMBA and the Thunderbirds members meet at the PUC Forest to clear debris, rebuild the trails, and share lunch afterwards. Community members are welcome to help.
The cleared area on the 2.7-mile ridgeline ranges from the Helmer & Sons construction company site on Howell Mountain Road to the north to Las Posadas State Forest on Las Posadas Road to the south.
Peter Lecourt, PUC’s forest manager, said the firebreak is intended to protect PUC, Angwin, and surrounding areas. “This area did not burn in the past fires. We want to protect it in future fire seasons,” he said.
Lecourt added the ridgeline is the best location for a “shaded fuel break” in the mountainous conifer and Douglas fir forest.
“Fires love to burn uphill … because of how heat rises. When fires reach the top of a hill, they naturally lose momentum. That’s where an effort to stop the forward momentum of a fire can best be made. This is why the ridgeline was a good location to clear smaller trees and bush, aka do ‘forest thinning.’ REMBA and the Thunderbirds are moving debris from the thinning work off the trails, restoring connectors between the trails and Ridge Road, and rebuilding the trails where needed,” said Lecourt.
Lecourt said PUC timed the clearing to occur during the winter but before March 1, which is the start of spotted owl nesting season.
“The chainsaws and masticators, large machines that shred vegetation, can cause sparks, so you can’t operate them safely during the summer. But we can’t do the work in the spring because we don’t want to make a lot of noise. (That) can disrupt the nesting season of the spotted owls. Things went smoothly. The rain was the main factor that made the thinning take more time than expected,” said Lecourt.
Lecourt said the thinning did not negatively affect spotted owl habitats. The birds nest in larger trees which were not affected by the forest thinning. “When our forests get too thick with underbrush, it can impede the owl’s ability to hunt. (This) is bad for the spotted owls,” said Lecourt.
Debbie Bloomquist, executive director of REMBA, said her organization provides the tools for the maintenance.
“We have hoes, weedeaters, chainsaws, wheelbarrows, rock bars, buckets to remove rocks, and McLeods, a widened hoe that has a rake on the other side. We bring everything in a trailer and provide lunch after the work.”
Bloomquist said REMBA encourages all of its members to engage in trail maintenance on a regular basis in areas in which they ride. “We have many riders who use trails in the tri-county area. Trail maintenance allows riders and members of the community to see the whole of our sport rather than just mountain bikers using the trails,” said Bloomquist.
She added trail maintenance teaches kids ownership over entitlement. “The kids are our future advocates. They really need and enjoy learning what it takes to make a trail work in the community,” said Bloomquist.
Briana Forgie, assistant coach and team director for the St. Helena Thunderbirds, said the group is participating because this trail network is the one where the team rides most often. In addition, giving back to the trails is an important part of the team’s philosophy.
“We also ride on Oat Hill Mine Road and in (the) Moore Creek area. But the kids are very attached to these trails (in the PUC forest). We’ve had a great turnout from our members and they’ve come out with positive attitudes. It’s been a great way to foster a sense of community,” said Forgie.
The Thunderbirds is a local affiliate of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), a national nonprofit which organizes interscholastic mountain biking teams for student-athletes. The Thunderbirds have 19 members who range from 13 to 17 years old. All of the members hail from Angwin, St. Helena and Calistoga. Most of the Thunderbirds are older riders who attend St. Helena High School. The group’s name is a nod to the school’s former mascot, which preceded the Saints.
Mazzy Jones, a freshman rider from the Thunderbirds, said she likes participating in the effort because she sees it as a good opportunity to give back to the forest. “It does so much for us. It gives us a safe, beautiful place to ride, so this is our repayment,” said Jones.
The group helped spread out big piles of stumps, branches, woodchips, and upturned soil on the ground.
“(That way, if) a fire were to come through, it wouldn’t catch on. We also want to clear away the debris to remake the trails that got covered up by all of the work that was done,” said Jones.
Carter Dahline, a sophomore rider from the team, said it made her happy “to see how everyone showed up to pitch in and work on our local trails. We are really lucky to have such great trails to ride up here in Angwin.”
Brandon Forgie, a sophomore rider and Briana Forgie’s son, said trail restoration has taught him more ways of working with others, including leaders from different organizations.
“This process shines light on the mountain biking community and how it gives back to the forests. I look forward to seeing the trails cleaned up so that they are neat and clean as we can make them,” he said.