Hey (Hey!) You (You!), Get Off of My Trail!
Can't we all just get along? Apparently not.
By Jill Danz
Temporary détente at New Jersey's Tourne County Park
Just moments before Lucas Paz rounded a blind curve on his Trek 8900, flattened a peace officer, outpedaled three siren-wailing ranger trucks, shattered his ankle in five places, and immortalized himself in the annals of bozodom, he had been blissfully rolling along and watching a blazing sun sink gaudily below the ridgeline. "Dusk is the coolest time to ride," the 28-year-old Californian says. "You can't see much, which is hairy. But you can't be seen either."
Unless, of course, you happen to careen directly into the path of a Marin Municipal Water District park ranger, which is just what Paz and two companions did on a cool November evening two years ago. The three were poaching a snaking, evergreen-lined, and absolutely off-limits trail on Marin County's Mount Tamalpais.
"Stop right there!" the ranger yelled.
"So I started going back up the other way," the quick-thinking Paz recalls. The ranger grabbed a handful of his jersey, Paz stiff-armed him roughly aside, the ranger radioed for help, and suddenly three big MMWD trucks were barreling after the bombing, bunny-hopping rider on the lam. One truck bumped him from behind—"which extended my flight mode," Paz says. Outmaneuvering a police roadblock—by simply riding around it—he finally ended his outlaw run in spectacular Thelma and Louise style, soaring headfirst off his bike and into a dry riverbed as a phalanx of patrol cars and ranger trucks closed in on him.
Today, with the newfound maturity that time and a hundred hours of court-mandated community service can confer, Paz professes to have become a different kind of rider. "Next time, I'd just take the ticket," he says. But there's a deeper lesson: "Speed is still good," as he thoughtfully says, "but what's really important, I think, is more stealth."
Wheels? We don't need no stinking wheels: Hikers near Boulder, Colorado, where bikes are banned but off-road cycling's top advocacy group remains
If you believe America's most literal turf battles have cooled, you haven't been getting out enough lately. From coast to coast, trail access is being fought over vociferously—and sometimes violently—with hikers decrying the menace of mountain bikers, mountain bikers lashing out at equestrians, and all three yelling about ATVs. Beyond terra firma, canoeists refuse to share lakes with motorboats, kayakers shake their paddles at rooster-tailing jet-skiers, and during winter, cross-country skiers routinely face off against roaring snowmobiles. In every state and at every level of government—from local park commissions to Congress—officials are wrestling with the competing demands of recreationists. The solutions increasingly being adopted involve restricting access to public trails. And, since they've been the last to arrive on the scene, the nonmotorized users most likely to be affected by such bans are mountain bikers.
Of course, trail wars are as old as the hills. Early Man probably resented yielding ground to Early Horse. And there is a well-documented history of outdoor snit fits that predates the popularity of off-road riding. Back in 1979, well before the advent of the mass-produced mountain bike, the University of Alabama published a chronicle of alfresco irritability titled Conflict in the Great Outdoors; two years later, the Northern Illinois University sociology department published the unforgettably titled study "Who Hates Whom in the Great Outdoors?" (The answer, by the way, is that everyone doing one thing tends to hate everyone doing something else.)
Given this persistent state of war, is peace going to break out anytime soon? Not likely. And certainly not this summer. From Alaska to Acadia, Kauai to Kentucky, thousands of miles of trails are being fought over at this very moment. On the list of proposed closures are hundreds of miles of Minnesota's North Country Scenic Trail, portions of the Snoqualmie River system in Washington state, the fire roads along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and a multitude of public lands in or around Seattle, Denver, Des Moines, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Omaha, and even Manhattan. And these are just the battles that have begun. New fronts seem to open constantly in the backcountry.
If anything, tensions have intensified in the six years since northern California's famous New Paradigm trail—an unauthorized 2.5-mile singletrack—was cut by renegade cyclists deep in the heart of the Marin Watershed, fabled birthplace of fat-tire biking itself. At the start of the trail hung a poster proclaiming, "If we fail here, can you see what this means?" Discovered accidentally by rangers, New Paradigm—and its Remember the Alamo warning—were obliterated.
Partially in response, Marin has set new standards for ugliness and ingenuity in its ongoing trail war, taking the fight even into the voting booth. Several years ago, mountain bikers, viewed by many at the time as rude, snot-nosed delinquents, banded together to help kill a proposed tax that would have raised revenues to preserve open space. Their rationale? We can't ride on those trails, so nyah, nyah, nyah. The more subtle message? Hey, we're old enough to vote, but we can still act like rude, snot-nosed delinquents.
Not all trail-access politics is so screw-you petty. In recent years there have been tentative rapprochements between long-standing adversaries: the Sierra Club and bikers, for instance, and cyclists and equestrians. But all these détentes have this in common: They wouldn't be necessary if someone, somewhere, wasn't calling for a trail to be closed.
"I think there's good reason to be optimistic about where we're going in terms of trail access issues," says Tom Price, communications coordinator for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "But big differences obviously remain." He should know. His group, which calls for the designation of millions of acres of public land as federally protected wilderness, has clashed often with cycling advocates. Bikes aren't allowed in wilderness areas; every new designated acre is another piece of playground permanently off-limits to riders. "We've been working with bicycle groups," Price says. "But maybe we need to start offering classes to hikers and bikers and equestrians and everyone else on how to just play nice together outside."
"There are lots of hard choices in this," says biking advocate Tim Blumenthal.
On a breezy June morning, Tim Blumenthal settles into his cramped office overlooking a funky little corner of Boulder, Colorado, with the blue-hazed peaks of the Front Range rising in the distance. Declared a "Work-Free Drug Zone" by the slacking University of Colorado students who frequent it, the civic space outside the open window is populated at the moment by a few desultory Hacky Sackers. To the low thwack of their play, Blumenthal, a 44-year-old with a receding hairline but a 16-year-old's waist, answers a steady stream of phone calls. Since 1993, Blumenthal has served as the executive director of a national off-road cycling advocacy group called, with a hint of grandiose exaggeration, the International Mountain Biking Association. With its staff of 16 and membership of about 15,000, IMBA's mission is to represent the interests of America's ten million off-road cyclists. To do this, Blumenthal repeatedly crisscrosses the country, meeting with parks-and-recreation pooh-bahs and grassroots cycling groups, attempting to appease the one and buck up the other in an often quixotic effort to prevent more trails from being closed to cyclists.
If the urgency of his mission has ever been in doubt, all Blumenthal has to do is look just beyond IMBA's offices. Never during his tenure has he been allowed to spin along the mountain parkland of his own adopted hometown. Sixteen years ago, in the first such action in the nation, the City of Boulder banned cyclists from the entire 6,500-acre Boulder Mountain Parks trail system. According to local lore, a powerful city councilwoman was loitering trailside one afternoon, enjoying the beauty of a ponderosa pine, when a fireballing gearhead clipped her elbow. No blood (bikers say); a very close call (hikers recall). The council convened soon afterward, and off-road biking in Boulder was history.
And for cyclists, lots of casualties
Today, rangers patrol the municipality's 90 miles of off-limits mountain trails, issuing citations to any two-wheeled scofflaws foolhardy enough to try sneaking on. And should that not be deterrent enough, private vigilantes, perhaps aiming for capital punishment, have built high biker barricades out of logs and strung wire along the sides.
"The depth of bad feeling out there against cyclists is mind-boggling," Blumenthal says in a lull between phone calls. "I've had anti-mountain bikers say they'd rather have development than mountain biking. They'd rather have a big shopping mall. It's just crazy."
Or, more precisely, it's NIMBY ("not in my backyard") extended to the backcountry. "You ask people why they're so adamant about banning cyclists from a particular trail," Blumenthal says, "and what it usually comes down to is they just don't want to share. It's preschool all over again."
The various interest groups' official positions are slightly more elevated than that, of course. But not much. The sometimes curmudgeonly Sierra Club, the nation's largest outdoor advocacy organization ("They have more members in one zip code in Boulder than we have in the entire country," Blumenthal says), vehemently argued for years against allowing any bicycles on any public trails anywhere. Not until 1994, after a multiday "summit" meeting with Blumenthal and other bike advocates, did the club cautiously adopt the position that cyclists conceivably could be "legitimate users" of off-road trails—but only if they are"environmentally and socially responsible."
"'Environmentally and socially responsible' means, I presume," Blumenthal says, "that we won't tear up the trails, ride fast, or, God forbid, wear neon-colored Lycra. For myself, I can live with that. I only wish all the requests we get were so reasonable."
"I blame the bikers," Katy Roberts announces emphatically. "They brought this on themselves." Adjusting her hearing aid, the 59-year-old Morris County, New Jersey, park commissioner takes a deep breath and tries somewhat unsuccessfully to rein in what she earlier called her "Italian temper."
Commissioner Roberts, who last year was named trails czar for Morris County, an affluent area of northern New Jersey, is every off-road cycling advocate's worst nightmare: a parks official who doesn't ride. Because of a heart condition and her poor hearing, she says she in fact lives in terror of being flattened by a speeding rider while visiting her fiefdom.
Which is why, during a memorable exchange of words—if not of calm, measured viewpoints—with Blumenthal and some of his supporters earlier this year, Roberts succeeded in kicking off a significant trail-wars skirmish. The battle began in April, when she sponsored a proposal that would have banned all cycling in Tourne County Park, a 546-acre preserve of rolling hills, dense tree cover, riffling streams, and rioting wildflowers barely 30 miles from Manhattan.
Since 1997, when off-road cycling was banned in the surrounding New Jersey counties, the Tourne's winding paths have become jammed with urban riders searching for untrampled singletrack. "This large group of bikers came to Morris County, which was already an overpopulated area of the state," Roberts says, "and everything was intensified."
That's why Blumenthal, off-road cycling's designated save-our-access cavalryman, rode in, trumpets blaring, in a typical campaign to prevent the loss of another beautiful riding spot—and not coincidentally, to try to cool down the rhetoric. "The Tourne is near a big city," he says, "so lots of people want to use the same trails. And none of them are shy about name-calling."
Certainly Roberts wasn't. At one point she referred to a group of mountain bikers attending a council hearing as "appalling." Today, she says more temperately, "IMBA was the problem. If they had just accepted my compromise..." She pauses. "Now it's the bikers who will lose."
The councilwoman's "compromise" consisted of allowing cycling in several small, relatively inaccessible county parks while forbidding it altogether in the Tourne. When Blumenthal politely declined to support her measure, she swore she'd see to it that cyclists be banned from all parkland under her control. Later, during a public hearing into the park proposals, her measure was shelved, pending further review—at least a temporary reprieve for the Tourne's cyclists.
"The problem is that this park system is 40 years old and is still managed that way," admits Denise Lanza, the director of recreation for Morris County Parks. "Forty years ago, there were no mountain bikes. We need to study what their arrival means."
Roberts feels she already knows: trouble. "I don't think all trails should be shared," she declares primly. "This is not Colorado. This is not the Wild West."And she has a point, if perhaps not the one she intended. Unlike in, say, Boulder, you can still ride in the Tourne.
So who does hate whom in the great outdoors, as the study asks? Or, more to the point, why do the Katy Robertses of the world feel so threatened by the Tim Blumenthals?
For starters, neon-colored Lycra appears to have much to answer for. "Sometimes," Blumenthal sighs, "I wish we could roll back the clock and change cycling fashions. Maybe if helmets had been brown and jerseys green, that would have changed things."
But probably not, because in the mind of most trail users, cyclists' eye-searing jerseys aren't merely bright—they're a blur. They're attached to insane kamikazes who force hikers off the trail and terrify horses. Every hiker seems to know someone's sister's niece who was struck by a hurtling, helmeted speed demon. It's become a backcountry myth—and the justification for countless proposed bicycle bans.
But how dangerous, in reality, is this cycling bogeyman? In 1990, rangers in California's heavily trafficked Los Padres National Forest undertook a study of hiker-biker "incidents." They found that 89 percent of the 1,400 hikers interviewed, when pressed about their actual experiences with bikers on the trail, called them "polite." Exactly one hiker-biker collision occurred during the study period, when two cyclists trying to avoid a hiker rammed each other.
"There is this continuing perception that all cyclists are out-of-control yahoos who will pancake your children and grandparents," Blumenthal says. "And some riders are nuts. I know. But the rest of us are responsible. Really. We're getting older. We have kids ourselves. We like finishing a ride in one piece."
Try telling that to the hikers and equestrians who actually have encountered one of the out-of-control yahoos, however. "Trails are not meant to be used by both horseback riders and cyclists," an equestrian told the Chicago Tribune last year. "It's like matches and gasoline, and it's going to blow up."
To teach cyclists just how terrifying it is for a horse to confront a skidding, speeding, two-wheeled thing, one of IMBA's affiliated bike clubs has begun sponsoring "Romp and Stomp" parties, at which bike riders tentatively mount horses while horseback riders steer bicycles around them. "I think we all learned to appreciate just how hard it can be to handle a spooked horse," Blumenthal says. "They rear."
Still, even where cyclists and other users peacefully coexist, calls for restricted trail access continue, usually because the various parks authorities are convinced that cyclists rip apart the very land they claim to love. "Environmental damage is a serious issue," Blumenthal acknowledges. "And it's one that would be hard to argue against—if it were demonstrably true." Little formal research has been done into trail biking's environmental effects. One of the few studies available, a 1987 effort funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that only one user group clearly messes up wild places: those who build trails in the first place. Every group's impact after that is relatively negligible.
Of course, skidding fat tires do cause erosion, especially in wet conditions—but so do waffle-treaded hiking boots. "It may be that some trails should be closed during certain parts of the year," Blumenthal says. "We absolutely support that. But if so, they should be closed to everyone."
That hiss you just heard was the sound of millions of hikers drawing in breath to protest. Compromise, even on issues of such shared interest as the preservation of especially fragile trails, remains frustratingly elusive. IMBA itself hasn't always been allied with the environmental angels: Last year, for example, it opted not to join the Utah Wilderness Coalition, which is lobbying for the designation of 9.1 million acres of red-rock southern Utah as federal wilderness. "Some beautiful and long-established bicycling trails were going to be taken away," Blumenthal says. "We couldn't support that. It was a hard choice. But there are lots of hard choices in all this."
And endless ways to bicker. "Bikers, hikers, and equestrians are really about 80 percent aligned," Jim Jacobsen, president of the Bicycle Trails Council of Marin, told a reporter last year. "But without some common enemy [like development] to take aim at, they fight constantly over that last 20 percent."
Back in Tourne County Park on the day after the Morris County Council tabled Katy Roberts's ban, Tim Blumenthal deftly hops his borrowed Cannondale over a decaying log and comes to a stop at a fork. We are at the park's highest point. In the far distance, we can see the Empire State Building through a gauzy haze. For a moment there's no sound louder than that of our breath being exhaled into the cool of a May morning. Ten minutes into our ride, the frustrations of modernity—and, for Blumenthal, of nonstop advocacy—have melted away. "Sometimes," he says, "the basic goodness of this activity gets lost in all the shouting."
The fight for control of the Tourne rages, in fact, even as we ride. Roberts's plan will be reviewed again in November, after a study of trail conditions. She has promised to do all she can to ensure that, this time, it passes. Meanwhile, a separate ten-acre pocket of the park, which is owned by the borough of Mountain Lakes,may be closed to bikers even earlier. If so, this would effectively cut off access to all the Tourne trails that cross the tract. Which happens to be the best of the bike trails.
But Blumenthal still hopes to avoid the Mountain Lakes ban. So, a few hours after we wind up our ride in the Tourne, he sits patiently at a parking-lot picnic table in his tie and shirtsleeves, enduring a prolonged harangue by several borough officials, including Janice Hunts, the environmental commissioner. Blumenthal looks bland, intent, serious, like a tough but sympathetic senate candidate.
"This is a very fragile environment," Hunts admonishes him, as if he'd been asking permission to trample fields of the Tourne's native rattlesnake ferns. "We can't expect every piece of land to support every activity." Blumenthal nods calmly. He understands the importance of ingratiation; his father was a lifelong advertising executive, famous in the industry for writing the automobile-exalting tag line "Wouldn't You Really Rather Have a Buick?" Now the son, bicycling's ambassador, spends the better part of an hour not saying a word, listening empathetically.
Finally, it's his turn. "Why," he begins, "if the trails are so fragile, shouldn't they be closed to everyone?" There's silence; hikers are a very powerful lobby here. But who really widens trails, Blumenthal asks—mountain bikers rolling through puddles, or hikers stepping around them? He pads the rest of his talk with nicely conciliatory rhetoric: "My sense is..." and "Am I guessing right that...?"
Within half an hour, he has the Mountain Lakes commissioner nodding."You are marvelous at presenting these things," she says, apparently dazzled by the notion that not all bikers are subliterate.
Less than a month later, she will urge her borough fellows to ban all off-road cyclists from Mountain Lakes.
The day's work is winding down in Boulder. Blumenthal is scurrying to finish: answering e-mail, fielding phone calls, composing letters. "We should change our name to the Mountain Biking Complaint Bureau," he says wearily. "Every day, people call to tell us how much they hate bikers, or bikers call to say they've been discriminated against by hikers. It gets to be exhausting."
To an unsuspecting outsider, however, his job can seem enviable. Blumenthal appears to sit at the very epicenter of cycling. In the hallway, which IMBA shares with a barber shop and a Chinese restaurant, tricked-out bikes are tepeed against one another. Most of the Boulder-based IMBA staffers ride to work every day.
And on the streets of Boulder itself, bikes are everywhere. Riders on GTs practice track stands at stoplights. Executives ride home in button-downs and khakis, sheafs of paper threatening to erupt from their backpacks. On Pearl Street, queues of Konas stand Kryptonite-locked to racks, nuzzled against miniature, sea-foam-green children's models—responsible, ecologically correct transportation, and fun, too.
All of which just reminds Blumenthal of how much he and his compatriots have lost—and of why they remain resolutely in the fray. "The fact that we can't ride singletrack in Boulder is a daily thorn in our side," he says. "We lost here. But I do believe," he continues, "that the tide is turning. When you sit down and talk to people, they often come around, at least a little. Look how far we've come with the Sierra Club."
He excuses himself. It's early afternoon, and the office is about to play boss-sanctioned hooky, heading off for a group singletrack ride. Bikes are collected, helmets slung over arms. Then the entire 14-member crew troops to the corner where, instead of hopping on their bikes, they mass like a giant, neon insect. Even if you work for the International Mountain Biking Association, if the nearest serious singletrack is 15 miles away, you wait, like everyone else, for the bus.
Jill Danz hikes and mountain bikes in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is her first article for Outside.