- Associated Press - Saturday, March 14, 2015

BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) - From Bozeman the quick drive to the College ‘M’ trailhead at the southern end of the Bridger Mountains is a pleasant one. Heading east out of town the whitewashed monogram looms above on the forested slopes, beckoning Bozemanites for a morning stroll or an afternoon outing with the kids.

From a distance the College ‘M’ is the idyllic vision of a successful, well-used community trail. But turn off Bridger Canyon Drive and that vision is shattered. In white spray paint, in large lettering, “STOP DOG POLLUTION” greets visitors on the pavement leading to the parking area.

User conflict is a reality on the Bozeman-area trail system. As the population of the Gallatin Valley has increased so to has use of its trails and instances of conflict. In response the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, U.S. Forest Service, Friends of Hyalite and Bridger Ski Foundation - organizations that support trails in the area - have teamed up to launch a Trail Ambassador Program. The goal of the program is to take proactive steps to limit conflict on community trails.

“Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in Montana,” said GVLT associate director Kelly Pohl. “We are seeing continued use on our trails and we anticipate more growth and use of the trail system in the future. We thought it would be good to put some smiling faces out there to share knowledge of the trail system and trail etiquette.”

Dogs, dog waste, inappropriate trail use, discourteous interactions and littering are among the most common issues cited when it comes to trail user conflict. But increased use has residual effects as well. Congestion at parking areas, erosion and impacts on wildlife also affect trail user experience.

“I think there are some tension points we see between different kinds of users,” said USFS Bozeman District Ranger Lisa Stoeffler, “but it is a whole variety of things.”

The Trail Ambassador Program was launched two weeks ago on high-use trails around Bozeman. Trail Ambassador Coordinator Jeremy Kunzman said six volunteer trail ambassadors have been out in Sourdough Canyon, the College ‘M’ trail, Hyalite Canyon and at Snowfill Recreation Area. Plans were in place to have trail ambassadors at the Lindley Center, Highland Glen Nature Preserve and Bridger Creek Golf Course - trails groomed for cross-country skiing by BSF - but those plans were nixed due to a lack of snow.

Trail ambassadors assist trail users by sharing trail conditions, handing out maps, providing updated grooming reports on area ski trails and by promoting responsible trail use and etiquette. Ambassadors hand out dog bags for collecting dog waste, share dog leashes and provide trail users with etiquette cards that provide information on good trail behavior.

Trail ambassadors can be identified wearing tan jackets with a “Trail Ambassador” insignia and USFS, GVLT, BSF and FOH logos.

“For the most part everyone has been really receptive to the program,” Kunzman said Monday. ” A lot of times we just offer a friendly reminder of how good we really have it in the Gallatin Valley. Ten minutes out the door you can be skiing, hiking, fishing, you name it. But a lot of effort goes into providing those recreational opportunities.”

Stoeffler said shared responsibility is a big part of the Trail Ambassador Program. While it’s clear people are moving to the Gallatin Valley to enjoy the region’s recreational amenities, Stoeffler said many trail users are unaware of the effort involved in providing and maintaining community trails.

“The trails don’t exist and get maintained by magic,” Stoeffler said. “It is through a lot of hard work and it is good for people to know where that comes from. We want to make sure that not only is the infrastructure maintained, but the social fabric of the trail system is maintain and these areas stay great places to recreate.”

In addition to the growth in and around Bozeman, the community trails system has seen increased traffic from out-of-county users. Visitors traveling to Yellowstone National Park or on ski vacations to Big Sky Resort or Bridger Bowl are spending a few extra days in Bozeman to explore the city’s recreational opportunities.

The Trail Ambassador Program launched in February as a pilot program for the winter season. A second summer season will be initiated if the program proves successful.

“We are really excited to hear back from our ambassadors about their experience on the trails and the feedback they receive,” Pohl said. “If we find trail users are interacting with the ambassadors and we are gathering useful information, we will continue the program. We expect to expand the cadre of trails ambassadors in the future.”

Steoffler said she expects the program to be a success and add to the experience for the growing number of community trail users.

“We have thousands of people using these trails every week,” Stoeffler said. “They are mainly very satisfied. At the same time we know that we have conflicts and that with more users those situations may increase.

“We think it is best to get at these issues at the ground level,” Stoeffler said. “A lot of those conflicts occur just because people don’t know or don’t have the right information or expectation, so it is good to have that information out there.”

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The original story can be found on the Bozeman Daily Chronicle’s website: http://bit.ly/1Hpcs0w

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