Welcome to Outside History

This four-part series is the PLHC’s collaborative initiative with Rocky Mountain High School. Under the guidance of their teachers at RMHS, each of these blogs was written by a current high school student and edited by PLHC staff. From the complex history and present-day implications of Native land tenure in Hawaii to the management of popular local trails at the Maxwell Natural area in Fort Collins, these blogs confront public lands issues in all kinds of places, inviting readers to consider the ways public lands bridge the present with the past, whether through the oddball bit of historic legal arcana dating from the Bill of Rights or the age-old sight of a night sky brimming with stars.

What to Expect

In the forthcoming pieces, authors Belle Wilson, Maya Brown-Clark, Luke Linstedt, and Thomas Dunnington examine the ways history shapes present-day challenges on public lands. Understanding these histories, they suggest, empowers everyday citizens to understand public lands and ensure they are managed for the benefit of all. Their pieces argue that regardless of which agency or body exercises formal decision-making authority, the responsibility for maintaining public lands, safeguarding and telling their stories, is shared among all people at all scales—local, regional, national, and international. Their work illustrates how historical evidence and narrative enlivens public discourse about the value and purpose of public lands of all kinds.

Our Mission

We are proud to present these young historians’ work as part of the PLHC’s commitment to its mission. The PLHC believes that recovering histories of difference on public lands facilitates the preservation of cultural and natural resources, informs public dialogue, and is the basis for the development of shared public lands values. To promote justice and democracy, the PLHC reveals, tells, and disseminates complex histories of public lands in partnership with public lands agencies, communities, students, and the public. This series supports our engagement with diverse communities and stakeholders, especially future generations of public lands supporters and stewards.

We hope you enjoy and learn as much from these talented authors’ work as we have!

-Ariel Schnee, PLHC Program Manager


Maxwell natural area trail used by local mountain bikers, horseback riders, hikers, and trail runners.
                                             Maxwell Loop Mountain Bike Trail, photo courtesy of MTBproject.com

Local Trail Overuse at Maxwell Natural Area

Deteriorating trails are easy to spot. Eroded, steep-sided, sunken gullies with sandy or muddy bottoms are not what anyone out for a hike or ride wants to encounter. Overused trails are not just less fun to use, they also result in soil degradation and impact plant and animal life. Trail overuse is becoming a significant problem as Colorado’s population grows and becomes denser near natural areas. In the 1970s, the City of Fort Collins acquired Maxwell Natural Area as a recreational open space.[1] Since then, the popularity of hiking, trail running, and mountain biking has increased, along with the city’s overall population. Issues of trail overuse have recently become even more urgent in the face of a controversial housing development on the former Hughes Stadium land that is poised to bring a new group of trail users onto the land.

In April 2019, the City of Fort Collins’ Natural Areas Department offered the public several choices for how to manage Maxwell Natural Area—most of which hinged on managing mountain bikers. The options it gave to the community were: keep the trail system the same, restrict mountain biking to certain days of the week, or develop a new trail at Maxwell for mountain bikers.[2]  Community input at an open house in June 2019 revealed that the public favored a new trail that separated bikers from other trail users. Given the historic precedent of the National Parks as well as the available scientific research, the disproportionate focus on mountain bikers may have more to do with the perception of the sport than its actual environmental impact. The public conversation around how to address the trails’ overuse has focused on managing the impact of a single, relatively newer group of trail users: mountain bikers. However, historic precedent and the available scientific evidence suggest that improving trail planning and maintenance, not limiting the variety of trail users, is the best way to manage overuse.

Learning from Trail-Building History in the National Parks

Fort Collins is not alone in trying to manage heavily used trails. Steady improvements to trail planning and construction allowed the National Park Service (NPS) to effectively preserve delicate landscapes despite increasing visitation over time. Trails in the National Parks were originally unplanned; they followed animal tracks, or paths established by Native Americans that led to food, water, and trading networks, as well as to spiritually significant places on the landscape. By the late 1800s, recreational hiking had become a popular national pastime. Western tourism had taken root among American elites as a rite of citizenship and remedy to the ills of urban life. By the early 1900s, improved travel and tourism infrastructure, warfare in Europe, and the establishment of the National Park Service drew larger numbers of Americans to explore the natural wonders of their own country.[3] Park visitors had outstripped the historic trails’ capacity by the 1920s. Trail building in the National Parks needed to become more intentional.

Over the years, park staff developed planned trail networks to direct visitor traffic, established standard widths and grades, and blended trails with their surroundings so they complemented the contours of landscape.[4] Now, the National Park Service continues to address overuse issues by carefully developing new trails and “hardening” existing ones by using durable materials like wood boardwalks, concrete, and cut stone.[5] Contemporary land managers also consider a range of environmental factors when building or improving trails.[6] As the park service discovered, well-planned trails that apply best practices and evidence-based study of the environment are management tools that safeguard important landscapes.

Assessing Mountain Bikers’ Impacts at Maxwell Natural Area

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, other trail users sometimes perceive mountain bikers as having a greater impact on the environment and trails.[7] In 1977 in Marin County, California, Joe Breeze developed the “Breezer,” the world’s first mountain bike.[8] Since the sport’s earliest days, bike frames have become stronger and more lightweight, and now include air shocks, multiple gears, and improved braking and tires, which enabled mountain bikers to ride more types of terrain over time. While bikers occasionally move faster than their fellow trail users, studies of mountain bikers’ impact on soil, water, trails, and wildlife show that bikers do not have significantly more or less impact than anyone else on the trail. A jointly-authored U.S. Geological Survey scientific review of more than thirty studies on trail use and mountain biking notes, “Existing impacts… on many trails used by mountain bikers, are likely associated for the most part with poor trail designs and insufficient maintenance.” [9] A trail’s planning, surface, and overall traffic better determines how it will hold up over time than the particular kinds of trail users it carries.

Finding Ways Forward at Maxwell Natural Area

Ultimately, the City of Fort Collins’ decision-making process at Maxwell Natural Area reflected some of the best practices in contemporary land management, relying on careful evaluation of the environment’s needs, finding ways to improve the existing trails’ maintenance, and developing new ones in lower-impact areas. It scrapped plans for a separate biking trail due to its potential impact on threatened plant species and the area’s wildlife; it is now exploring adding a route to connect Maxwell Natural Area to LaPorte Avenue via the CSU Foothills Campus to allow visitors to diffuse across a larger area, rather than intensively using small pieces of land. The City also plans to work with expert trail consultants to find ways to make the existing trails more durable.[10] Improvements to the Maxwell Natural Area’s trails are going to be accomplished through thoughtful planning, not by limiting mixed trail use. The Fort Collins community needs to understand that popular local trails are prone to overuse because they are heavily visited, overall—regardless of whether visitors enjoy the trails on foot, on a horse, or on a mountain bike.

To Learn More

Learn more about the City’s trail planning process for Maxwell Natural Area and elsewhere along the foothills via an interactive Story Map, found here: https://fcgov.maps.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=15d172c2c71f46e386babbe7b6ed468a&folderid=eda4151845354a9594ff0baf7f0a1143


-Luke Linstedt, Student Contributor, Rocky Mountain High School Student, and Ariel Schnee, Program Manager, Public Lands History Center

Published 02/20/2020



[1]Helburg, Jean. An Anecdotal History of the Parks and Recreation Department. PDF. FC Government. https://www.fcgov.com/recreation/pdf/anecdotal_history.pdf?1458679483 (accessed October 27, 2019)

[2] Foothills Natural Areas Management Plan Virtual Open House. http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/4950810/Foothills-Open-House (accessed April 26, 2019).

[3] Marguerite Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001) 1-6.

[4]“Creation of Trails,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/trails/creation-of-trails.htm, Accessed January 15, 2020.

[5]“Trail Management & Maintenance.” National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/trails/trail-management-and-maintenance.htm (accessed April 23, 2019).

[6]Bainbridge, David A. “Trail Management.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 55, no.3 (1974): 8-10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20165994 (accessed April 25, 2019).

[7]Marion, Jeff and Jeremy Wimpey, “Environmental Impacts of Mountain Biking: Science Review and Best Practices,” environment.www.nsw.gov.au (accessed January 16, 2020).

[8]“Joe Breeze.” Marin Museum of Bicycling and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Marin Museum of Bicycling. https://mmbhof.org/joe-breeze/ (accessed October 27, 2019).

[9]Marion, Jeff and Jeremy Wimpey, “Environmental Impacts of Mountain Biking: Science Review and Best Practices,” environment.www.nsw.gov.au (accessed January 16, 2020).

[10] “Visitor Use Impact and Decision Making Framework,” City of Fort Collins NAD Staff, June 2019, https://www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/files/maxwell-trail-idf-table.pdf, Accessed January 15, 2020.