WALLINGFORD — Reopening Tyler Mill Preserve can’t come soon enough for local mountain bikers.
The Tyler Mill area consists of roughly 1,400 wooded acres purchased by the town for conservation and as a future water supply.
Passive recreation — mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, hunting and fishing — is allowed on the preserve in the southeast section of town. Tyler Mill has been closed since a microburst on May 15 uprooted trees, snapped utility poles and damaged homes.
Other parks that were damaged, including Wharton Brook State Park, have reopened.
A group of mountain bikers vented their frustrations last week to the town Conservation Commission about the perceived lack of public updates on the work being done at Tyler Mill.
Mountain biker Ken Roe’s backyard on Pine River Road abuts the preserve’s southern border.
“What I’d like to see is more transparency,” Roe said Tuesday, “and a little bit quicker progress. There are a lot of people that want to help.”
John Gawlak, Parks and Recreation director, posted an update to the town website on Friday.
“Work on trails is in the ‘home stretch,’” according to the update. “Final hazard areas are being worked, depending on the weather.”
Dianne Saunders, Conservation Commission member, said during last week’s meeting that volunteers had completed 90 percent of the work in the months after the storm.
“It doesn’t take people on the ground to get it open at this point,” she said. “It takes machinery, tree-moving machinery, that’s OK’d by the town risk manager and OSHA.”
Gawlak’s update said the Public Works Department has been clearing the most heavily damaged area, but completion is weather dependent. He also said the town will decide “when it is safe to reopen the preserve.”
Roe said Gawlak’s posting of the update is “great.”
“If we can keep that rolling, I think that’s good progress,” he said. Regular updates, he added, will “prevent people from feeling like nothing’s happening.”
Last week’s public spat over the preserve highlighted old tensions between some conservationists and some mountain bikers.
Saunders said Tuesday that she doesn’t feel there’s a big division between the mountain bikers and the Tyler Mill conservationists anymore, but “it’s not a mountain bike paradise.”
In 1993, Tom Dooley, the former Parks and Recreation director, created an annual mountain bike race at Tyler Mill called Dooley’s Run, which attracted roughly 300 people some years before it ended in 2004. The increase in mountain biking activity took a toll on the land, from bike pedals that gouged trees to trails, stunts and jumps that were built in sensitive habitats.
“It trashed the place,” Saunders said.
The Conservation Commission stepped in around 2000, she said, and found that historical foundations from the old mill had been torn apart to make jumps and that trails had been made through vernal pools.
Public Works took out the jumps and other changes, but it’s taken years to address the legacy of overuse.
When Gawlak took over as Parks and Recreation director, he “established a different rapport,” Saunders said. “He likes a level playing field and deals with every group equally.”
For the last Dooley’s run, Gawlak let the Conservation Commission approve the course. After that, there was supposed to be no more new bike trails made or stunts built.
“But it kept happening,” Saunders said, when people’s backs were turned, at night.
From 2010 to 2012, the Conservation Commission used a state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recreational trails grant to improve Tyler Mill, clearly marking trails, forming a stewards program, and restoring the land to its natural habitats.
Then the storm closed the park. “Everybody’s asking” about the preserve reopening, Saunders said, including those who use it for other purposes.
“John Gawlak has been wonderful throughout this whole closure,” she said, “and Public Works has been doing a good job, too.”
She said she even exchanged emails with one of the mountain bikers who attended the meeting and cleared up some misinformation.
“They took the olive branch,” she said.