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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Make Way for Mountain Bikes

Air Date: Week of

Park trails are filled with all kinds of trekkers — family walkers, serious hikers, and increasingly these days , mountain bikers. Dan Grossman reports on past conflicts between hikers and bikers and on current efforts to satisfy everyone's desires for public park enjoyment. There's a new truce, and some lands are now being managed for multiple uses by cooperative agreement.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Has this happened to you? You're out hiking on a crisp fall morning, the chill in the air seems less as your body warms on the climb, when suddenly from around the corner comes a flash of chrome and spinning rubber that sends you diving off the trail. Or maybe you've been out mountain biking, soaring and sliding and pumping up and down hills when suddenly around the corner you encounter a hiker standing immobilized in the middle of the trail like a beached whale. You swerve, only narrowly averting disaster. Is there room on the trails for bikers and hikers? Dan Grossman reports that increasingly, there is.

GROSSMAN: Just north of Boston, Bob Hicks, wearing faded cutoffs and a T-shirt, is about to indulge in his favorite sport.

HICKS: We're going in here, we're going to go up over a little rise of land and down to the edge of the pond. Then we're going to ride along the side of the pond for about a mile.

GROSSMAN: Hicks hops onto a red bike and in seconds he leaves his battered pickup and the asphalt road behind. Small branches reaching across the narrow trail brush his body. His tires sink deeply into a bed of decayed leaves. Hicks says he rides whenever he can. A little way down the trail, he stops for a breather.

HICKS: I can go out for a ride for 15 or 20 or 25 miles in several hours, enjoy the exercise of the bicycle, some of the challenges of climbing the hills, and the rush that comes from going downhill. But I also see the countryside in a little larger scale than the walker or the hiker does.

GROSSMAN: Hicks began pedaling trails 5 years ago at the start of an explosion in rough riding. The number of Americans owning bikes with sturdy frames, knobby tires, and upright handlebars, known as mountain bikes, grew from 200,000 in 1983 to over 30 million today.

(Sound of moving gravel. Man: "Here's a little spot I planted out from the other side.")

GROSSMAN: But in the minds of many hikers and horseback riders, that was a problem. Old carriage roads and trails were suddenly rolling with high-tech pedalers, startling horses and foot travelers. The cyclists widen trails at tight curves and hasten erosion. So in the late 80s, backed by conservation groups like the Sierra Club, land managers began applying the brakes. Some parks closed their trails to riders completely. The restrictions spawned a bitter backlash to fight the closings. But recently, longtime enemies like the Sierra Club and the International Mountain Bicycling Association began making up. The Sierra Club's Mark Bettinger says his group has realized the problem isn't bikes but bad bikers.

BETTINGER: The Sierra Club in general has recognized the fact that not all mountain bikers are the wild-eyed radical thrashers that come crashing through the woods, cutting corners and, you know, destroying trails. That there are people that like to take a ride out to a beautiful place and have a picnic and enjoy nature just like a hiker does.

GROSSMAN: Mountain biker Bob Hicks agrees. As vice president of the New England Mountain Bike Association, he distributes brochures on riding etiquette. Hicks opposes outright closures. But he agrees that controls to manage trail use are sometimes needed.

HICKS: Where the use is too concentrated and there's too many other user groups, then trail use management is going to have to take place. The sport is no longer an infant; it's maybe adolescent now. Mountain biking. And it's beginning to realize like an adolescent that it has some responsibilities.

GROSSMAN: Hicks says one of the best examples of trail management that has reduced trail damage and friction between users is practiced at the Noannat Woods Park west of Boston.

(Footfalls on gravel)

MORGAN: You can see that before they worked on it, you could guess if there were grooves showing. It was beginning to get scooped out...

GROSSMAN: Park ranger Rich Morgan points out a trail recently repaired by a Scout troop. Not long ago, up to 70 riders congregated here some days to climb this reserve's gentle hills and to coast through shady beech and oak groves. Soon the speeding cyclists began converting torturous trails into broad byways. So last year, the local conservation group which owns the reserve created pools for the riders.

MAN: Mountain biking, is that after 11 o'clock in the morning?

RANGER: Yes, sir. Weekends and holidays only, after 11. Rest of the time sunrise to sunset. And we ask you to pay for a permit to do it.

GROSSMAN: Now bikers aren't allowed until 11 o'clock on weekends. They're prohibited from narrow trails and ridged trails where erosion is worst. And they're charged an annual $15 fee.

MORGAN: Use has been cut down during the weekends and holidays by one to two thirds at least. Thus, the deterioration of the trails due to the number of mountain bikers has stopped. For the moment, we're in good balance now and there is healing going on and we seem to have worked out an equitable compromise between all users.

GROSSMAN: Managers of private land like Noannan have an easier time making new rules to control cyclers than government officials do. But public parks are doing it, too, often without opposition. All this backpedaling of hikers and bikers began last year at a summit meeting between the Sierra Club and the International Mountain Bicycling Association. The bikers agreed that wilderness areas should remain free of riders. And the Sierra Club agreed that bikes do have a place in parks. This cautious truce went into high gear when Republicans won the Congress last fall. Both groups now say the greatest threat to outdoor recreation comes not from each other, but from budget cuts and attacks on environmental laws. The Sierra Club's Mark Bettinger.

BETTINGER: There's still hostilities that exist, and they're going to exist because it's been going on for a long time, you know, it's not perfect for either side. But you know, we see this as a way to, you know, to get over some differences and focus on the real issue, which is preserving and protecting open space in wild land areas.

(Footfalls through brush.)

HICKS: The left turn up here goes over to the college campus...

GROSSMAN: After a pleasant tour of 4 or 5 miles, cyclist Bob Hicks is ready to call it a day. He says conflicts over park use are bound to flare up now and again. But by and large, back country riders and other park lovers are learning to share the trails in peace. For Living on Earth, this is Daniel Grossman.



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