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."

In other words, they basically said we can't even build this trail without the mountain biking community's help. This was so wicked awesome I wanted to know when the trail work days were going to be so I could plan a trip around it to help out. The euphoria didn't last long. Every never-heard-of hiking group acronymed up and filed appeals. The forest service was inundated with anti-mountain biking appeals. The claims were the same old BS the grey beard granola munchers have been saying for years, bikes destroy the earth, riders run over little old ladies and bike riders destroy wilderness experience for others. Interesting that I ride the very same trails to enjoy a wilderness experience. The complaints even stated that because the trail was going to contour elevation without steep ups or downs, it would be even more accessible and more popular (which is contrary to speed/erosion complaints). They claimed we already had the Monarch Crest Trail, so that should be good enough and that the view is better there anyway. So why isn't that good enough for them? How do non-mountain bikers know what is best for us?

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.


plum said...

I have made the same shift away from pavement. I bought a brand new MTB about a month ago. As a culture, as a society, we are not in a safe enough place where I feel bikes and cars can share the road anymore. Attitudes, legislation, enforcement are insufficient right now. When the evolution of digital distraction starts to take things in a more sensible direction, I'll re-evaluate. But the nonsense is starting to hit too close to home. I have too much to live for to be run down by some moron checking Facebook, or some townie who already decided they won't tolerate cyclists anymore and you're the one they're going to take it out on. I'm perfectly happy in the dirt. If I hurt myself, it's more than likely my own fault; my fate is in my own hands. Hill climbs are beautiful.

mkr said...

Echoes of the same old same old BS we have been fed for years. Sad. From my experience, MTBers tend to be the primary user group involved in trail maintenance in this area. It was rare if ever that equestrian users contributed, despite the sheer carnage that is often created by the user group. This has been very evident at Great Brook where there are often horses on trail early season or in adverse conditions, resulting in massive trail damage. Similarly, hikers tended not to help out and in the case of the Fells and, would often try and sabotage work days by limiting the locations that could be repaired, at least back in the day when I was heavily involved. I think part of the issue is that MTBers have never had trail given to them. We have always had to build and maintain. Other historic groups however feel entitled to their trail as a right. Hard not to come away from all of this discouraged and disappointed.

Hill Junkie said...

I left out the ugly side of politics going on right now with Senator Sanborn. Let's say he is far from a friend of the MTB community. A number of NEMBA members have written him with concerns and received pretty nasty responses in return. I didn't want to throw any more fuel into this fire. Last word is this issue is now being handled by NEMBA leadership.

The Slow Cyclist said...

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Let's give the horseback riders access and not give them the same treatment we have received from hikers.

Will they muck up some of the trails, sure. Maybe they could become allies to open up more multi-use access to national park designated areas, however. Showing the NPS multi-use trail users are united, large in number and practice what they preach my grant us the ultimate prize.

Which of you hasn't lusted over the savory, sinewy, single track laced over our most beautiful park service peaks?

Let us not stoop to the self righteous tactics of hiking foes but rather let us rally the combined forces of the multi-use community in unison to take our rightful seat at the bounteous dinner table which they exclusively dine as we sulk in the squallor of our self installed state park trail system.

Rise up multi-use trail users with one voice. Your day is coming. I have a dream.....

Anonymous said...

Here is a front row seat at my backyard fight:

And might I add proof why Strava sometimes sucks, by serving up proof for those who chose to poach. Thanks guys, you are going to get us all kicked out all in the name of the almighty KOM. Bravo, well done.

Anonymous said...

No different. I've logged >5k hours in BB over last 27yrs (all sorts of activity). Do my own trail maintenance solo. Yup, no typo 5k... I've seen the evolution of dozens of trails. The best was this singletrack off Hall Mtn 17 yrs ago that had flow rivaling anything at NEK. The old hiking trail up Hall Mtn was solid on the 12 speed rigid mtb, lol. They are both grown in...Then there are the historical singletrack gone by the wayside due to logging, on that note trees are marked where Hemlock exits. Wonder if that's going to get cut soon? If it does it'll be good for the deer and other animals. My guess is I've had >200 horse interactions. I lived near Wingspur ranch for a while, super nice folks they rode by almost daily. I was taught at a young age if hiking stop and say hi. If cycling stop and say hi. I've been dismayed when riding with small groups that blow by them at 10-15 mph w/o a word and visibly irritating the horse, what's the need for that...Let us not forget that 10 or so yrs ago the OHRV community was close to getting access to BB. If my memory serves me the equestrian community was an alliance partner along with the snowmobile community who arguably do more for trail maintanence than pedalers. I'll take some beautiful 1k pound animals and nice people over 2k pound machines, air pollution, and getting run into a ditch on Podunk Rd. Wouldn't be bad for NEMBA to give equestrians a call and see how they can help out. Also, volunteering on public land and then unofficially putting up signs alienating a user community doesn't seem right. How would we feel if some hikers put a sign up on Catamount saying no biking down the backside? Ha that is a hoot. I was pretty upset when I saw that sign on Little Bear, not only was my old Little Bear gone a non motorized group was being alienated. Guess I'll have to reach out to this politician and voice my support of his bill. If anyone knows who cuts the illegal trails over by FOMBA ask them to stop. We should be thankful of the riding and recreation MWW allows. Go to other states and entire areas like that are off limits.

Hill Junkie said...

Anonymous - thanks for sharing your great insight. I too have always been respectful of equestrian trail users. My wife and her dad owned horses for many years back in Michigan, and I understand well how temperamental some horses can be.

I'm still trying to get my head around this whole issue. Here's how I see it right now. The DRED proposed overly restrictive new rules on horse use of trails (see 7301.09). I totally agree the proposed rules are ridiculous, and sympathize with the equestrian community's shock to proposed changes. I do not know what prompted DRED to propose these new rules. Then what I believe to be a retaliatory, tit-for-tat move on senator Sanborn's part, an equally ridiculous law is being proposed to block DRED's new rules. I believe this law is completely unnecessary. It is just bad politics. I have not experienced conflict with equestrians while on my bike in New Hampshire (I've mountain biked in 47 states and haven't had a contentious experience anywhere, for that matter). A new law that singles out equestrian trail users with elevated, protected status can only create tension in the trail user community.

What I'd like to see happen is the DRED back down from new restrictions, if they haven't already, and have SB2676 just go away. Perhaps SB2676 was proposed as a way to bully DRED into backing off. If that's it and it works, that's ok. But if it actually passes, I think there could be many unintended consequences. Let's leave what has been working quite well alone. I think a law of this sort could create animosity between equestrian and MTB communities and hamper efforts to work together in the future. As you mentioned, we share common threats. We'll all lose if we start fighting amongst ourselves.

Brian B said...

This plays right into my theory of the "Loud Minority". It's a phenomenon we see more & more each day across the globe...enabled by the advent of social media...and embraced by small self-interest groups who rally behind a cause...and simply show up when the "Quiet Majority" does not. Think back in the day what it took for a leader or movement/idea to get traction. He/She/Them had to work for years towards a cause and gain an education and then the respect from the general population. Now all you need is a microphone (social media) and the platform is boundless. And if they “Quiet Majority” don’t speak up and mobilize fast enough, they get steamrolled by what is perceived as the common good…regardless of the injustice or unfairness. We can all site numerous examples of this going on right now.
As it pertains to trail use in our case, clearly mountain bikers have taken the ball in the past 10-15 years and run with it. But without these same mountain bikers devoting a fair amount of time (tiring and boring I know) staying in front of their respective may all be for naught. 20 mountain bikers cars in the lot at the trailhead. None at the capitol building. Need I say more? Only takes a couple savvy hikers/equestrians to get into their local politicians ear to get their way.
Bottom line is mountain bikers have to be as adept using social media to get people to the polls and writing letters and posts as do the "Loud Minority".
Doug - you, along with my own mountain biking organization here in NJ, are doing the right thing spreading the word. Thank you.

PS: I've also coined a term for your said "granola eating tree hugger". Hippycrite

The Warrenator said...

Thanks for the great post HJ. Primarily a roadie, but have been ratcheting up the trail miles over the last few years. I do NOT take for granted the work done by NEMBA and other local groups to make the venues safe and accessible, whether it be maintenance or advocacy. It's easy to zone that out and just assume they get there by themselves, so thanks to all who make it happen, including you.
FWIW, my crew is usually on the trails pretty early, and rarely if ever runs into other types of users, and those we do run into have been overwhelmingly positive. Most rides our small group outnumbers the total number of other users we see in what is usually several hours on the trails, and I'm sure that is true for most of us. So I applaud your efforts to unify the community to take on those that consider the woods theirs to use alone.

Mala said...

I appreciate reading your views on this matter. I'm not sure why there seems to be a huge rift between the MTBers and equestrians. In my opinion, we should be on the same side. We're both endlessly on the defensive for our opportunity to enjoy our passion and hobby.

I agree that Sen. Sanborn's bill goes too far (and is this where I should mention, I'm not wealthy. In fact, the majority of my horse-owning friends are far from wealthy). But I think it was meeting ridiculous with ridiculous. The horse community is being attacked on multiple fronts, not just DRED, not just Bear Brook, but by a list of obscene new rules, proposals and laws - and not just over trails.
But to the matter of trails, the MTBers know well the battles to fight being banned. The arguments to ban MTBers are selfish and unfounded. Why should one user group trump another. Equestrians have to deal with the same BS.
I don't ride a bike well (though I still enjoy it) and I'm not about to tell any MTBer which trail is or is not appropriate or safe for them. Conversely, I've scaled some amazing summits on my horse. We've been partners for years and years and I know what he can and can not tackle. The last thing I would do is put my horse in danger. A hiker, or other user group, can not predict my abilities anymore than I care to predict theirs.
As for trails maintenance, the horse clubs have their own trail care days at Bear Brook. To say that equestrians don't help out at Bear Brook is inaccurate. Who did you reach out to to have the equestrians join you on your trail clean up days? In the future, I would gladly be a liason between the two groups. Again, we should be on the same side.
As I attend hearings, the word has been that the MTBers are the force behind all these rule changes and restrictions. I certainly hope that is not true. I will say, last week at the MWW hearing, a man stood up and explained how the MTBers had to fight hard to have access to MWW lands. He then said he agrees that horses should be banned because the MTBers are a bigger group. That left many in the room scratching their heads. Why would he want done to others what he fought against so hard?
In a day where it simply isn't safe for bikers or riders to ride near the road with all the distracted drivers, our public lands offer a safer and beautiful alternative. Pinning one user group against another will benefit no one - for every time a user group gets restricted, it's only a matter on time before the next group gets restricted. We should stand in a united front! I would love to see the MTBers and the equestrians become a joined force. I would love to hear your thoughts on this and ways we could make this happen. If you ever want to experience Bear Brook by horseback, let me know.

Hill Junkie said...

Mala - thanks for your thoughtful comments. I suppose I was being a bit reckless with my "wealthy equestrians" comment. My wife and father used to own horses back in Michigan, and none of us were wealthy. It's easy to jump to conclusions when politics become involved, even in NH.

I believe my local NEMBA chapter president has posted our Bear Brook trail work days on an equestrian forum. I don't know which one. I'll ask about this the next time I see Matt.

Another reader mentioned by email the MWW meeting comments. I'm disappointed a mountain biker would make such comments and hope they were his personal thoughts and not those of any NEMBA chapter or mountain biking organization.

I do believe limited restrictions can go a long way in improving experiences of all trail users and reducing conflict. I just got back from a week of mountain biking in Arizona. Some trails there are posted no bikes, while others are posted no horses. But the vast majority are open to all passive recreational users. Another place I've ridden a few times in North Carolina has an even/odd rule on select trails, where horses are allowed even days, mountain bikers odd days. Common sense approaches like these are needed, not blanket bans or legislation out of Concord.