Trail tension

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 28, 2000

Trail tension

Battle brews between bikers and hikers in the foothills

by Marc Igler

It's a warm June morning in the foothills high above Palo Alto. Sandy Lowery and her friend, Marla Cruz, have just started hiking along the Franciscan Loop Trail in the Los Trancos Open Space Preserve. Oaks and firs stretch out in the distance. Wildflowers such as trillium and false Solomon's seal bloom at trailside.

The two women are headed for a vista point about a half-mile away, where a panoramic view takes in much of the Bay Area. On a clear day, they say, you can see the skyscrapers in San Francisco to the north and Mt. Diablo across the bay to the east.

As the two crest a low rise in the trail, voices pierce the silence. "Coming up! Coming up! On your left!"

Two mountain bikers whiz past. Both women have to move quickly off the trail to let the bikers by. Within seconds, the bikers disappear around a bend. Lowery and Cruz are clearly rattled by the bikers' sudden arrival and departure.

"It's like they bark out orders, 'We're here, we're here. Move away.'" Lowery said. "I know these trails are for everyone, but stuff like that just bothers you. What if we hadn't moved quick enough? I'd probably have tire treads all over my body."

As confrontations go, it wasn't much, but Lowery and other hikers say such run-ins with mountain bikers are increasingly common on the latticework of trails that wind through the Peninsula hills and along the Skyline Ridge.

Critics--including hikers, equestrians, and bird watchers--complain that mountain bikers act as if they own the trails. Their brazen, loud behavior turns what could be a peaceful retreat in the wilderness into yet another urban struggle.

Nowhere has the tension been as severe as it has on the trails maintained by the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), a sprawling network of preserves extending from San Carlos to Los Gatos. The district, long considered one of the most biker-friendly venues in the Bay Area, has become the latest battleground in the long-simmering skirmish over trail rights.

Last month, the district said, "Enough." At a heavily attended public meeting on May 22, the district's seven-member board of directors did what it had been threatening to do for more than three years: It banned mountain biking in seven of its 24 preserves, including the popular Los Trancos preserve near the top of Page Mill Road.

The closures will affect 13.6 miles of trail of the 165.3 miles presently open to bicycles. The district has more than 219 miles of trails in its system.

"It's regrettable that it's come to this," district board member Deann Little told a loud and angry audience at the meeting. "I'm an avid cyclist myself. I'm also a hiker. We have to balance the needs of everyone. Something has to give."

Mountain bikers have reacted bitterly to the closure, arguing that complaints against them are highly exaggerated and that the vast majority of cyclists go to great lengths to respect the concerns of other trail users.

They admit some bikers continue to act irresponsibly--ignoring trail etiquette and treating others on the trail rudely--yet leaders say the sport as a whole shouldn't be punished.

"I don't deny there are conflicts," said Rod Brown, president of the mountain advocacy group Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers. "But in doing this, the district is listening to a tiny percentage of trail users. If you ask all hikers and equestrians about whether they've had trouble with mountain bikers, I bet more than 90 percent will say 'No, I never have.'"

The phrase "tranquil nature experience" is one of the most common refrains heard around the district's headquarters in Los Altos these days. Everyone speaks to the need for restoring such an experience to the 1.2 million people who each year visit the forests, meadows and grasslands that make up the district's preserves. With the explosion of mountain biking's popularity in recent years, many naturalists say that experience has become harder and harder to find."

"It's not easy watching birds when you've got bikes barreling down on you," said Craig Breon, environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. "You find a lot of special birds up in the preserves that you don't find elsewhere--coveys of quail, Lazuli buntings--and when you constantly have to negotiate trail space with bikers, it really disturbs the experience."

Breon's comments address the crux of the dilemma facing the MROSD in deciding to ban mountain biking in some preserves: Whose nature experience do you preserve? Many recreational groups use the preserves for their activities. Besides the main ones--hikers, horse riders, bird watchers, and bikers--district property is also a magnet for hang gliders, rock climbers, dog walkers, school groups, even skateboarders.

Berry Stevens, a former member of bicycle advisory committees for San Mateo County and the MROSD, said he understands the need to balance the interests of all recreational users. Yet he believes the recent crackdown on cycling is a reflection of a longtime bias against bikers, one that stems from a philosophical difference about on the board about how nature should be used.

"They have this attitude that there's only one way to appreciate nature, and that's in this Thoreau-like trance of blissful awe," Stevens said. "They talk about their 'tranquil nature experience' as if that's the only thing the outdoors are for. They think mountain bikers don't appreciate the beauty because we're riding too fast. It's all very frustrating to us."

The dilemma for the MROSD is that it can't please everyone. Trail users who are on foot simply have different needs, different expectations than their wheeled counterparts.

While most trail users have no quarrel with mountain bikers, critics speak in a loud voice. They say cyclists treat the environment with disrespect--skidding along trails, taking shortcuts, and riding their bikes as one would an off-road vehicle. Confrontations, they say, are inevitable.

"My wife and I were up on the ridge trail just a few weeks ago," said Bruce Rosenthal, a Los Gatos resident who regularly rides his horse in the district's preserves. "A biker came roaring at us around a blind turn, never tried to take evasive action. Both me and my wife were thrown from our horses. We both got hurt. We both learned the hard way."

Such injury reports are rare. From 1996 to 1999, the district recorded only 15 accidents where bikers caused injury to others. Yet many hikers, equestrians and other trail users say most incidents never get reported.

"I've stopped riding horses in the district's preserves," said Susan Dorsey of Woodside. "I've had many bad experiences. Most cyclists are courteous, but it only takes one to ruin my day--or my life."

District officials say they can't recall if a hiker or other trail user was ever seriously injured by a mountain biker since the district was formed in 1972.

Most mountain bike critics, however, say injuries are not their main complaint. It's the aggressive riding and "in-your-face" attitude that many bikers adopt on the trails.

"The greatest negative issue I experience as a hiker is some cyclists' seemingly utter disdain for the rules," said Jane Littell, president of Bay Area Hiker. "The attitude I encounter with renegade cyclists is one of entitlement, that they should be allowed to ride wherever they want."

Most critics, including Littell, say only a small percentage of bikers-- commonly called "the yahoos"--continue to give the sport a bad name, turning many organized groups against them. While many trail users support bikers on an individual basis, the groups they belong to almost uniformly support the district's recent riding ban. They say the ban is fair because it sets aside a small portion of district property where they know they won't be disturbed by the commotion of bike riding.

The district's decision to ban biking in seven preserves represents the harshest--but hardly the first--action it has ever taken against mountain bikers. Since the late-1980s, the district has tried several strategies. Hundreds of signs have been posted throughout the district's 24 preserves, warning bikers about the rules of the trail as well as common sense etiquette. The rules include speed limits--15 mph when riding on trails, 5 mph when passing hikers or equestrians.

To enforce the rules, the preserves are patrolled by a 20-member ranger team, including two, two-person units on bikes. Members of the trail patrol use radar guns to check speed and hand out an estimated 50 to 100 tickets a year for violations, which carry fines ranging up to $100. Rangers say that's a small volume of tickets compared to the number of mountain bikers who use the trails on an annual basis.

Not only do most bikers follow the rules, but the mountain biking community in recent years has also taken the lead in trying to educate their ranks.

Biking groups such as ROMP and Team Wrong Way regularly set up booths at trail mouths where they pass out educational materials to other bikers, informing them about the do's and dont's of riding the district's trails.

Bikers have also reached out to other trail users to develop stronger ties. Several times a year, mountain biking groups organize joint events with hikers and equestrians to make repairs to trails, plant new vegetation or pull up intrusive plants.

"We've been making good faith efforts for years and years, and it's not just window dressing," said Michael Kelly, the Northern California representative for the International Mountain Biking Association.

"We as cyclists are the first to admit that we have to increasingly learn how to accept responsibility for our impact. It feels now, however, like Midpen is just turning its back on us."

Although officials disagree with that assessment, they acknowledge that managing mountain bikers has been a tricky issue, one that has forced the district to play a role that it's not accustomed to and doesn't necessarily want--that of mediator between warring factions on the trails.

Though it has been around for nearly 30 years, the district still sees its primary role as what was defined by voters in 1972--a public agency dedicated to acquiring and preserving open space on the Peninsula.

Even its critics admit the district has been highly successful at carrying out this mission.

Since it was established, the district has grown from 7,400 acres to more than 45,000 acres spread across 24 preserves extending primarily along the foothills from San Carlos in the north to Los Gatos in the south. It currently has its sights set on acquiring 144,000 more acres along the San Mateo County coast, stretching from Devil's Slide south to the county line. The acquisition process has been slow because of the number of property owners who need to approve the plan. The board also needs to finalize details on how to raise enough money to acquire the land.

The district has an annual budget of about $10 million, funded by property taxes. About 1.7 cents of every $100 collected in property taxes in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties goes to the district. The district employs about 60 people. Its seven-member board of directors is elected by district.

Nonette Hanko, a district founder and Palo Alto's longtime representative on the board, said the district struggles with its dual role of being open space stewards as well as recreational managers.

"It's a real balancing act, even after 30 years," said Hanko. "We try to please everyone, but oftentimes we can only do so to a certain point. I know bikers aren't thrilled with the new plan, but we've really bent over backwards to try to please them."

District officials argue the ban represents only a minor take-away to bikers, shutting down 13.6 miles of the 165 currently open to biking. They also say parts of some of the preserves are already either off-limits to most recreational uses or are seldom used by cyclists.

The preserves affected by the ban are Foothills, La Honda Creek, Los Trancos, Picchetti Ranch, Pulgas Ridge, Teague Hill and Thornewood.

Los Trancos, located in the hills above Palo Alto, is considered most important to bikers because its gentle trails are popular with beginning bikers and kids. The ban will be phased in over the next year.

Originally proposed by Hanko in 1996, the ban is the first step in a long-range district policy to steadily reduce the percentage of trails available to bikers. Currently, about 75 percent of the district's 219 miles of trails can be used by bikers. The goal is 60 percent, but there could be a net gain in trails open to cyclists. District officials note they hope to nearly triple total trail miles to more than 600 over the next two decades.

Such promises don't carry much weight with mountain bikers, who have long argued the district spends too much attention as well as money acquiring property. The victim, they say, is the trail system, which has grown slowly over the years, oftentimes stalling for many years at a time.

"Let's just say they don't have the best track record when it comes to keeping their promises," says longtime mountain biker Patty Ciesla of Palo Alto. "They've been talking about regional connector trails and adding trail mileage for a long time. They pass a lot of resolutions, but they're never binding. They always gives themselves an out."

Ciesla said, for example, that in 1998 the district promised better upkeep of the Leaf Trail in El Corte de Madera Creek preserve, a steep, rocky ride considered one of the most challenging in the Bay Area for bikers. Mountain bikers were also told, Ciesla said, they could help maintain the trail to biking standards.

"None of that has happened," Ciesla said. "There's been one maintenance project since 1998, and we weren't even told about it."

Ciesla said the district also never followed through on verbal agreements to open several trail sections in Russian Ridge and Purissima preserves that make up the Ridge Trail, a 400-mile loop weaving throughout the Bay Area. Instead, the district instructs bikers to ride along Skyline Boulevard.

District officials say trail safety issues and unfinished planning processes can explain most of Ciesla's criticism. Yet officials admit they have a long way to go in mending ties with mountain bikers.

Combined with the recent ban on riding in seven preserves, district officials admit outsiders might get the perception that the MROSD is singling out mountain bikers for punishment.

Mountain bikers, on the whole a very organized constituency, certainly feel that way. They also maintain the district is alienating its biggest recreational user. No one has ever taken an exact count, but even the district acknowledges that mountain bikers account for at least half the people who use its preserves.

At the May 22 meeting, many mountain bikers reminded district trustees of this in taunts and shouts just before the vote. Bikers added that, as a constituency, they are young, growing in numbers and wealthy enough to aggregate into a sizable donor group. Said Steven Path of Cupertino: "You should be cultivating the generation, not alienating us."

Added Sharon Morgan of Mountain View: "You need the support of people like me. I'm a safe trail user as well as a donor to many organizations. Maybe in the future I'll give a little less to the district and you can't buy as much land."

Most mountain bikers say the decision to ban them from seven preserves poses several problems to their sport. To understand the biggest, one has to think about scale. While hikers may only need a two-mile trail to satisfy their recreational longing, mountain bikers--in many cases--need a whole mountain. In the time it takes hikers to leisurely walk along that trail, mountain bikers will have covered dozens of miles, crossing several preserves stretching from, for example, Cupertino to Woodside. It is feared the closures will interrupt the long rides bikers yearn for.

The closures will also make it harder for bikers to ride the foothills safely. The closure of Teague Hill, for example, will force cyclists from Redwood City to ride along roads if they want to get to Skyline Boulevard.

The decision to close the seven MROSD preserves, however, didn't surprise most longtime mountain bikers. They say their world has been steadily shrunk ever since the sport was born in the hills of Marin County in the early 1970s.

Since that time, an increasing number of public and private agencies have blocked off their property to mountain biking.

Most parks operated by Santa Clara County are off limits to mountain biking, as is the vast park system in San Mateo County. Most state parks and the sprawling East Bay Regional Park District ban riding on dirt or narrow "single track" trails, although fire roads are oftentimes open for use. For years, the MROSD has been considered one of the most biker-friendly venues in the Bay Area.

In almost every case, the agencies operating parks have cited three reasons why they prohibit cyclist: safety of trail users, damage to trails, and the nuisance to hikers and others.

In many cases, mountain bikers have not helped their cause. Besides their occasionally wild behavior, mountain bikers have been stung by several highly publicized incidents of illegal trail digging by some of the more renegade elements of the sport. Several prime areas of Marin County are now off limits to mountain bikers after rangers found networks of illegal trails in 1993, crudely cut across open terrain.

Dennis Danielsen, a supervising patrol ranger for MROSD, said rangers routinely find illegal trails in the district's preserves.

"It's simply awful," Danielsen said. "There seems to be a close group of people working them. They come out with shovels and saws and axes and starting clearing a trail, with no real concern for the environment." Many of the illegal trails are designed for maximum thrills, running straight down hill. Rangers say this sort of trail can cause serious erosion problems during the rainy season.

The most extensive illegal trail was found last October, running more than two miles across Teague Hill preserve into San Mateo County's Huddart Park.

"It had to have taken them months to dig," said Danielsen, who's been a district ranger for 22 years. Officials later estimated the cost of repairing the damage caused by the trail at about $30,000.

Most illegal trails are found in El Corte de Madera preserve, west of the Skegg's Point Lookout parking lot along Skyline Boulevard between Highway 84 and King's Mountain Road, where Danielsen estimates rangers discover about one a month.

In one of the more glaring recent cases, a homemade sign was posted just inside a trail entrance explaining how to keep the entrance from being spotted by casual observers. The sign said, "Make sure to cover this entrance when you pass through."

While rangers eventually find, and shut down, most illegal trails, they've had little luck catching culprits in the act of digging. Illegal trail diggers often work at night. If digging during the day, they will post sentries to look out for rangers.

"In all my years here, we've only really caught one," Danielsen said. "That was about three years ago, and we had to let her off with just a citation because it wasn't a very strong case. We didn't really catch her in the act."

Rod Brown, president of Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers, cringes when he hears such accounts.

"That is certainly not representative of our user population," said Brown, an engineer at Cisco Systems. "Those are the young, wild ones. It's stories like that, unfortunately, that really back us into a corner."

Brown argues that mountain bikers have one of the most highly developed set of self-governing rules of almost any sport, and that the vast majority of riders follow them. Such rules include observing the 15 mph speed limit, announcing to hikers when bikers are approaching and how many are in the riding group. Bikers are also the largest group to regularly turn out for trail maintenance events in district preserves.

Brown also questions the main reason district officials cited in deciding to close the seven preserves to hiking: letters of complaint from other trail users. Since 1990, there have been 228 complaint letters filed at district headquarters. Brown says 171 those have been filed since 1998, when district officials began openly soliciting letters about the proposal to ban biking.

"It's always been our position that a small, vocal minority that opposes us, and the board of directors always seems to choose to listen to this group," Brown said. Michael Kelly of the International Mountain Biking Association said mountain bikers' biggest enemy is the sport's image. He added that the bike industry's advertising doesn't help. Ads routinely show mountain bikers as mud-splattered daredevils cutting through dense foilage, often in mid-wheelie or skid.

"What's a 70-year-old hiker going to make of that?" Kelley said. "Unfortunately, that's the only experience that many trail users have of us."

Hanko said that despite what some mountain bikers may believe, district officials have no bias against them. She said that while 13.6 miles of trails has been taken away from bikers under the recent ban, cyclists will quickly recoup that loss in coming years as new trails are built and the district expands over the hills to the coast.

"It may be hard for them to realize this now with emotions running so high, but things will only get better for them as time goes by," Hanko said.

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