Environmentally Friendly Bikers Have a Mountain to Climb for Trail Riding Rights

Courtesy of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy

Courtesy of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy
Crossing the Line: A mountain biker is caught illegally passing through sensitive, protected habitat at the historic Irvine Ranch with his bike.

Courtesy of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy

Courtesy of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy
Bikers Beware: Despite clear signs forbidding trespassers from entering restoration areas, bicyclists have often been spotted illegally hopping the fences.

The environmental community is polarized on the issue of mountain biking. Many environmentalists argue that mountain bikers are destructive rule-breakers who cause erosion of soil, leading to the degradation and fragmentation of habitats. On the other hand, many mountain bikers, including the members and alumni of the UC Irvine Cycling Club, consider themselves to be environmental stewards. They follow the rules of the road, put in hours of volunteer work to maintain trails and help fellow land users in distress.

I feel that there are valid points to both sides of the argument. On the one hand, when mountain bikers act illegally by blazing new trails and riding on closed trails, they are having a detrimental effect on the environment.

But, when they follow the rules, the mountain biking community can be a valuable resource as environmental advocates and recreational park users. George Pryor, medical director for the UCI Cycling Club and long-time mountain biker, urges people to think of bikers as “de-factor park rangers.”

“[Bikers often] check on other park users, provide directions, pass along safety information, pick up trash, report suspicious or illegal activities and provide first aid to injured trail users,” Pryor said.

The first issue is that of impact. The main issues that arise, as I previously mentioned, are erosion and habitat fragmentation. Erosion occurs when bikers ride in the same areas and kick up soil and cause furrows with their tires. This ultimately weakens the trail and degrades the habitat.

A study published in the Journal of Park and Recreation states that “the magnitude of ecological impacts attributed to mountain biking appear to be comparable to those of hiking, and appear less than motorized trail use and equestrian use.”
The key here is that the focus is kept on mountain bikers who are following appropriate guidelines for behavior, such as staying on legal, accepted trails, rather than those who are blazing illegal downhill trails or riding in areas that are closed for preservation purposes.

What is not taken into account is that those trails are closed due to habitat restoration linked to an imperiled or endangered species. The argument that was posed to me by the many mountain bikers is that only a small percentage of the bikers are disobeying laws.

However, if you consider that 10 percent could hypothetically be this small percentage and take into account that mountain bikers are consistently one of the largest user groups, with over 300-500 riders on a given trail on any Saturday, that would lead to around 30-50 individuals who are acting illegally.

The second negative impact of illegal mountain biking is habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation can be caused by anyone who goes off the trail and blazes a path, which can greatly affect sensitive populations. Many species, especially certain birds, rely on large stretches of undisrupted habitat, and there is surprising scientific data that indicates that they won’t cross even small trails.

The Sierra Club has some provisions for proper mountain biking behavior laid out in their conservation policies.

In order to minimize conflicts with other trail users, bicyclists should know and use the established Rules of the Trail:
– Ride on open trails only
– Leave no trace
– Control your bicycle
– Always yield trail
– Never scare animals
– Plan ahead

While I am not a mountain biker (I prefer to stay on foot) I feel that these guidelines are not only reasonable, but are pretty much common sense. Why then, do some bikers choose not to follow these simple guidelines? From what I understand, it may be extreme thrill-seekers who are looking for the best ride possible and feel that the currently maintained trails no longer give them the excitement they seek.

In order to form a fair compromise, land management groups like the Irvine Range Conservancy (IRC) not only provide public programs which cater to the needs of the mounting biking group, but strive to keep the best interests of the environmental group as well.

David Raetz, the director of public programs for IRC, explains that the best way to handle the issues of environmental impact is for mountain bike organizations to work hand-in-hand with land managers. By communicating with each other, bikers can share their thoughts about existing trails and their desires to change them with the managers.