Enough already!

The author used to love illegal bike trails, but now there's too many


I love mountain biking. And the trails I ride in Western Colorado are as good as anyplace you can boast about. But it’s no secret that throughout much of the Western United States, many of the mountain bike trails used today were created illegally, only later ‘grandfathered’ grudgingly into our public land system by whatever federal agency had been ‘managing’ the land. As a matter of fact, that’s still the pattern.

I have to confess that I’m grateful to those early outlaws, some of whom I’ve gotten to meet in my area around the city of Grand Junction. The way they see it, ‘bandit’ trail-builders wanted somewhere to ride and just doing it themselves was the quickest way to make it happen. As an about-to-be retired public land ranger, I’m well aware that it can take a frustratingly long time to get the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service to respond to the public. It can take decades for a federal agency to work through its planning process and build trails in areas that would tolerate riders well.

But having admitted that, I have a message for the mountain biking community here in Colorado and elsewhere, and it’s short and sweet: Enough already! Over 200 miles of legal mountain bike trails now exist on lands managed by the Grand Junction BLM, for instance, and many were constructed in the last three or four years. More are coming aboard all the time. These are excellent trails that have begun to lure bikers -- and their wallets -- from around the country. It’s true that millions of acres of nearby open public land seem to beckon to riders, but while it's unlikely for a rider to get caught striking out across public lands, creating new trails is not only wrong, it’s just plain stupid and irritating.

Here’s why. First, it perpetuates an obnoxious philosophy that can be summed up as, ‘This is public land; I can do whatever I want on it.’  Yet I don’t know of one mountain biker who doesn’t turn up his or her nose at illegal dumping, the illegal taking of game, or driving ATVs all over the sacred landscape. Many mountain bikers are even righteous about how destructive motorized users are. But how is creating bike tracks and trails all over the place for one’s personal benefit somehow different behavior from what these other slobs do?

Second, we ride where we do because we love passing through beautiful landscapes -- and then we defile them with casually carved-out trails. Some mountain bikers may think that a plethora of crisscrossing trails is beautiful; most probably would admit that it’s an eyesore.

Third, solid reasons exist for allowing our land management agencies to plan and construct new trails. The West is rife with Native American cultural sites that need to be preserved. Part of the federal planning process is to survey and identify cultural sites so that a proposed trail can go around, rather than blasting through. Our region is home to many rare plant species that also have to be surveyed and identified so that, again, the trail can be routed around and away from them. If mountain bikers are so environmentally concerned -- which seems to be something we’re happy to proclaim -- shouldn't we care about where we ride? In addition, we are always sharing our trails with wildlife, and while most of us would probably agree that the potential impacts to wildlife from proposed highways, drill sites or hydro-electric dams should be considered and addressed, isn’t that also the case with mountain bike trails?

Hypocrisy is such an unattractive trait. Finally, proper trail construction is important. A badly constructed trail becomes nothing more than a useless, destructive, un-bikeable hazard.

I think that these days federal agencies have become more responsive and more reasonable to work with, though, of course, this is not true everywhere. But just as the off-highway vehicle community came together to protect the values of what they enjoyed, as well as to keep open areas open to them, the mountain biking community can and should do the same.

So here’s my advice to today’s bandits: Come in from the cold and make federal agencies your allies. It’s for the good of the land and riders everywhere.

Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a grumpy, soon-to-be-retired ranger with the BLM and lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. The opinions he expresses are often not shared by the BLM.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Douglas Tooley
Douglas Tooley
Mar 05, 2013 04:11 PM
The iconic rebel M. John Fayhee recently made a similar point in a diatribe against cairns marking routes to unspoiled locales - 'Misdirection' 1/29/2013 Mountain Gazette - and devils advocate that I am, think both of you are wrong - rationalizing, with some validity, a conclusion that just defends your respective intellectual, and geographic turf.

When it comes to mechanized travel the BLM always has the authority to regulate same - with respect for historical precedent - but when it comes to foot traffic any individual has the right to walk wherever they want on public land - and to share that with any other individuals they choose.

Restricting access - whether it be to one's drinking buddies or ones professional colleagues, is a bad thing. Responsible access is the goal.

I am a trail maker, by foot, and it is not illegal - any assertion to the contrary is nothing but harassment, actionable harassment.

If you disagree, why don't you get the Federal Government's house in order first before you attempt any further attempts at addressing constructive, even if misguided, citizen actions?

For instance, how about guidelines as to what makes an appropriate trail to share - or, for that matter, propose.
Mike Vandeman
Mike Vandeman Subscriber
Mar 20, 2013 06:08 PM
Nonsense. The citizens have the right, through their representatives and government employees, to protect nature from unwise use. For example, in the case of mountain biking, that was settled in federal court in 1994: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb10.htm. Wildlife cannot protect themselves from humans. They can only be protected by laws and law enforcement.

Bicycles should not be allowed in any natural area. They are inanimate objects and have no rights. There is also no right to mountain bike. That was settled in federal court in 1994: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtb10.htm . It's dishonest of mountain bikers to say that they don't have access to trails closed to bikes. They have EXACTLY the same access as everyone else -- ON FOOT! Why isn't that good enough for mountain bikers? They are all capable of walking....

A favorite myth of mountain bikers is that mountain biking is no more harmful to wildlife, people, and the environment than hiking, and that science supports that view. Of course, it's not true. To settle the matter once and for all, I read all of the research they cited, and wrote a review of the research on mountain biking impacts (see http://mjvande.nfshost.com/scb7.htm ). I found that of the seven studies they cited, (1) all were written by mountain bikers, and (2) in every case, the authors misinterpreted their own data, in order to come to the conclusion that they favored. They also studiously avoided mentioning another scientific study (Wisdom et al) which did not favor mountain biking, and came to the opposite conclusions.

Those were all experimental studies. Two other studies (by White et al and by Jeff Marion) used a survey design, which is inherently incapable of answering that question (comparing hiking with mountain biking). I only mention them because mountain bikers often cite them, but scientifically, they are worthless.

Mountain biking accelerates erosion, creates V-shaped ruts, kills small animals and plants on and next to the trail, drives wildlife and other trail users out of the area, and, worst of all, teaches kids that the rough treatment of nature is okay (it's NOT!). What's good about THAT?

To see exactly what harm mountain biking does to the land, watch this 5-minute video: http://vimeo.com/48784297.

For more information: http://mjvande.nfshost.com/mtbfaq.htm .