Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Those who follow me on Strava may notice I ride very little on the road lately. There are several reasons for this, I think, including some nasty encounters with motorists earlier in the season and getting a big-wheeled dualie that made it so much easier on the body to do long, rough rides off-road. Over half my "training" hours this year have been trail riding, the balance roughly split between running, skiing and road cycling.
Mountain biking is making a resurgence across the country. The national park and forest services, BLM, state and local land managers have all warmed up some to allowing greater access to trails and building new trails specifically for mountain biking. There are far more miles of singletrack in New England now than 10 years ago. Local NEMBA chapters have been particularly proactive in working with land managers.
Take Bear Brook State Park, for example. 10 years ago, the trail system there was in pretty horrible shape. There was no regular maintenance of singletrack. Many New England riders found Bear Brook uninspiring. Then NEMBA stepped up and began cleaning up existing trails and getting permission to build new trails. Suddenly, Bear Brook was on the map as a destination riding place. New trails like "Alp d'Huez" and Hemlock were instant hits. Instead of being three or four cars in the mountain biker parking lot on weekends, there were now 20 or more. I suspect now mountain bikers out-number all other day-use visitors combined. NEMBA is executing a five-year master trail plan with the park, having completed the second year now. Note all of the trails in Bear Brook are multi-user. A much broader user group than just mountain bikers benefit from our work, including hikers and equestrians.
Other success stories are where NEMBA was invited to build trails on town conservation lands. Two examples are Russell Mill in Chelmsford, MA and Horse Hill in Merrimack, NH. These parcels suffered from neglect and illegal activity, such as dumping, partying and motorized vehicle use. Again, respective NEMBA chapters, with considerable trail building expertise and large base of volunteer labor, cleaned the places up and brought healthy, sustainable activity to the parcels. Both places are now wildly popular riding destinations and are also heavily used by local residents for nature walks, taking dogs out and trail running. Everybody benefits.
Not all is rosy, however. In parts of the country where there is way more demand for trail resources than trails, user conflict persists. Marin County in California has been in a perpetual battle between users groups for more than 30 years. Mountain biking is banned on most of the singletrack trails as a result.
When the forest service solicited comments for a brand new section of continental divide singletrack to be built, the mountain biking world went into a tizzy. The new trail would replace a 32 mile section of the continental divide route that followed jeep roads in valleys with contouring singletrack at 10,000ft elevation. This was awesome. Of course, the forest service recognized there was likely to be some contention. Hikers, on average, feel their wilderness experiences are harmed when encountering other trail users on bikes. Funny that mountain bikers don't feel that way when encountering hikers. Anyway, the forest service proposed four options, only one of which allowed cycling. Of course I wrote a letter to weigh in, citing my many trips to Colorado specifically for high alpine riding.
Some time after the public comment period ended, the forest service issued their report with a decision. Bikes would be allowed! The decision was overwhelmingly pro-multi-user. In fact, in the report, the forest service stated:
"Most of our non-motorized volunteer groups in the area are either mountain bike clubs or multiple-use advocates; therefore, the trail should be designed to accommodate those non-motorized uses to increase the chances for sustainable construction and long-term maintenance for which the forests have neither the staffing or funding to accomplish on their own."
What really irked me was the claim that 98% of forest service "trails" are open to mountain biking already. Yeah. That is the 98% that are gravel roads in valleys. Already, 100% of the best scenery is locked up with Wilderness designation. How much of that do we get to ride? A big F'n 0%. So how much of the best of the rest do we get to ride? Very little. Cyclists are banned from both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. So that leaves tiny little bits and pieces here and there that are high quality and open to cyclists. How is that fair? I recently commented to a friend that it is time mountain bikers stage a critical mass type event to ride a banned section of trail with a couple hundred riders...
Given all the harsh criticism from the other side, the forest service caved and rescinded their decision. No explanation was given, but you can read the appeals online to gain understanding. I suspect what could have been the crown jewel in Colorado ridge riding just slipped right through our fingers. That hurt, and I still haven't gotten over it.
We now have another trail user conflict flaring up right here in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Dept of Economic Development (DRED) recently proposed rule changes for horse use on state lands. Among some of the changes were cleaning up after horses and much stricter definition of which trails are permissible for horseback riding. Personally, I don't think horse shit in trails is that big of a deal. I find it ironic though, that walkers must clean up after poodles while equestrians do not have to clean up after their 100x bigger animals. The equestrian community went into an uproar over the proposed changes and started writing their representatives in state government. Understandably so, as the changes, if enforced, would decimate the riding experience on state land. It is not very practical to clean up after your animal everywhere, and permissible trail types would ban horses from all but the widest forest roads.
Then state senator Sanborn stepped into the scene, firing a return volley on behalf of the equestrian community. He's sponsoring a senate bill, SB2676, which amends RSA 216-F:2 with the following paragraph:
"Nothing shall limit the right of the public to pass over any trail in the multi-use statewide trail system for the purpose of horseback riding. Horseback riders shall be responsible for removal of horse waste from the trail head and parking areas of any park or reservation."
At first, one may think yeah, that's seems reasonable. But then you start to think about it a little. Why don't other user groups get that kind of protection. Wouldn't it be cool if state law said "Nothing shall limit the right of mountain bikers to ride any trail?" It will never happen, yet the wealthy equestrian community is now trying to get such a law passed to benefit only them that can only be to the detriment of other trail users. But this isn't what troubles the New Hampshire mountain biking community.
Bear Brook State Park is at the epicenter of this whole battle. I'm not sure what triggered the more restrictive DRED rules to begin with. I'm pretty sure it was not the mountain biking community, as we're a pretty tolerant bunch when it comes to trail use. We have to be, as we too easily end up on the raw end of access.
There are several trails in Bear Brook that NEMBA believes are not suitable for horse use. These trails are benchcut into extremely steep gradients. There is no way for two horses, or a horse and any other trail user for that matter, to safely pass each other. Yet the new bill, if passed, would grant equestrians access to trails like Hemlock, Bear Brook and Cascade. Horses can weigh well over 1000 lbs. That weight is concentrated in very small patches as a horse travels. These trails are built in sandy loam. We fear the trail could easily give way to that much concentrated weight. This could cause great harm to the rider, horse and the trail itself.
NEMBA spent hundreds of man-hours building these trails. All user groups were invited to help build these trails. To my knowledge, the equestrian community did not help at all. There were zero volunteers from that community on the work days I participated. And now they want legally protected access to ride (and destroy) the trails we worked so hard to create and maintain. That is NEMBA's rub with the new bill. It prohibits the park manager from closing any trails to horse use.
If this law passes, it could go badly for the MTB community. It could mean all new trails on state land must be designed to safely accommodate horses. Mountain bikers probably would not find these very inspiring. User conflict could go way up too, if the park gained in popularity with equestrians and more horses hit trails like Hemlock. That is by far the most popular mountain biking trail. Nobody wants a horse to get spooked in confined quarters and throw a rider. It is a long tumble down to the stream in places. That could prompt mountain bikers getting banned from the very trails we created. Don't laugh. It has happened before. When use of our national parks is going down and funding to maintain them is at an all-time low, you'd think you wouldn't want to alienate the biggest user group of our state's biggest state park by passing an unnecessary law. Horses are banned on select trails in many places I ride, even Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, which is wildly popular with horse riders. There's no uproar over it there. I hope our legislature realizes what they are doing when voting on this bill early next year. I plan to write my senator. Part of the reason for this blog post is to solidify my thoughts on the issue before writing.
So at concern here is only a few miles of singletrack that almost certainly will see severe damage and conflict issues if horse use goes way up. The equestrian community claims there are 100 miles of trails at Bear Brook, and the proposed DRED changes would limit them to only 10 miles of trails. The proposed senate bill would keep all 100 miles open to horses by law, including trails that were not designed for horse use. There hasn't been significant conflict on the trails to date. I think in 17 years, I've encountered horses only twice at Bear Brook. NEMBA has placed signs on Hemlock Trail stating "not recommended for horses", but they keep getting torn down. If the law does pass, the only saving grace here might be that because the NEMBA built trail is so popular with cyclists, the equestrian community may chose to ride the other 99 miles of trails in the park.
It then occurred to me. As a dominant trail user at Bear Brook, is NEMBA playing the same role as the hiking community in Colorado is playing? The hiker groups claim we should be happy with our 98% of the trails, so they alone should get the new 32 miles of world-class ridge trail. At Bear Brook, we are telling the equestrian community they should be happy with their 97%, and the 3% of scenic, fun steep river bank trails belong to us. Is this really any different? I challenge readers to drop their biases and explain how it is different.