Trail wars: Study on damage creates stir |

Trail wars: Study on damage creates stir

Scott Condon

Warm weather will soon bring a flock of hikers, mountain bikers and off-road motorcyclists back to the trails – and that will inevitably renew debate about which users should be allowed on what trails.

A group fighting to preserve access to public lands for mountain bikers hopes to influence that debate this year. The Boulder-based International Mountain Bicycling Association released a study two weeks ago that claims scientific studies show mountain bikes don’t cause any more damage to trails than other users, including hikers.

“Mountain bike advocates have needed this for a long time,” said Gary Sprung, the study’s author and the senior national policy advisor for IMBA.

Since the birth of mountain biking, environmentalists and some hikers have contended mountain bikers were destroying the trails, according to Sprung. “This didn’t jibe with our experience,” he said.

So IMBA collected all available scientific research that compared wear and tear on trails by bikers, hikers and horses. IMBA’s review concluded that the allegations against mountain biking are “unsubstantiated.”

Eight studies were examined – a body of work that IMBA acknowledged is inadequate. “To silence our critics there’s not enough,” Sprung said.

But he noted that he reviewed everything available.

Controversial stand on wilderness

IMBA is widely regarded as the most credible national organization on mountain biking issues. Its functions vary from sanctioning races to leading programs on trail maintenance.

But a position the organization took in February 2003 stirred controversy even within its own ranks. IMBA’s board of directors took the stand that wilderness lands, which are closed to all mechanized travel, should be open to mountain bikes.

IMBA alleged that the prohibition against bikes wasn’t based on valid concerns over protection of the environment. The organization has opposed creation of any new wilderness lands where biking opportunities could be lost. That’s put it at even greater odds with environmental groups.

Sprung said IMBA hopes its review will be used to influence public land managers when they consider trail-use issues. Too often, he said, public land managers buy into the myth that mountain bikes cause greater damage as justification for closing trails.

Sprung said trail closures can be justified on grounds that separating uses in some areas can create a better experience for them all. But such closures should be made on social grounds not under the guise of faulty science, he said.

In the White River National Forest, which surrounds Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, the debate over trail use could erupt this summer.

The forest supervisor’s office is continuing to work on a travel management plan which will determine what trails stay open and what closes to whom.

Motorcyclist backs study

IMBA’s study has drawn interest from people on all sides of the trail-use debate.

John Narby, an off-road motorcyclist from Missouri Heights, said the study indicates public land managers must make decisions with sound science rather than preconceived notions. He hopes it will spur various users to negotiate trail use in amicable ways rather than through the “us versus them mentality.”

Narby believes motorcyclists tend to get a bad rap, probably because there are a few bad apples, like there are in any group.

“People tend to look at motorized vehicle users as a bunch of knuckleheads who don’t give a damn about the environment,” Narby said.

In reality, he said, they are like any other forest user group. Many participate in off-road motorcycling to enjoy the scenery and seclusion.

He believes it is ridiculous for public land managers to “hassle a handful of mountain bikers or motorcycle riders” when grazing is such a destructive force on forests and desert canyonlands. “The single most destructive thing in the American West is cattle grazing,” Narby charged.

He said he hopes the IMBA review will lead to a more objective look at trail closures.

Another angle to issue

Mountain biking enthusiast John Wilkinson, who is active on local and statewide trails issues, found the IMBA study interesting but not comprehensive.

Wilkinson, of Snowmass Village, presses for increased access for mountain bikes, including wilderness areas, yet he doesn’t think the study reflected the total impact of mountain bikes. For example, he noted in an e-mail interview that a strong hiker could cover eight to 10 miles in four to six hours. A mountain biker can cover up to four times that distance in the same time.

“So the argument could be made that, yes, the mountain bike’s damage is equal over the same terrain with the hiker, but the mountain biker damages four times the distance of trail,” Wilkinson said.

On the flip side of that argument, a hiker or horse rider would have to spend a night in the forest to cover the same distance a mountain biker could cover in a hard day or riding, Wilkinson said. Their impacts would be significantly greater due to human and animal waste and trampling of the ground.

Mountain biking and hiking enthusiast Michael Thompson of Basalt has a firsthand look at the wear on numerous trails in the Roaring Fork Valley as a trail leader with the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers. The organization undertakes six or so trail rehabilitation or rerouting projects per summer.

He said the biggest problem on trails is erosion. Improperly constructed trails tend to channel rather than shed water. Wet dirt is damaged more by tires than it is by hooves or feet, so he views mountain bikes and off-road vehicles as more damaging.

However, properly designed and built trails can absorb the impacts of mountain bikes with little problem, he said. Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers is using techniques to allow trails to withstand 50 years of use without requiring high-maintenance water bars – rubber, rock or wood barriers that divert water.

Nevertheless, Thompson said he would “never, never, never” advocate mountain bike use on trails in wilderness lands. “Wilderness is the cathedral to me,” he said.

Once an exception is made for one type of mechanized use, the door is open to all uses, he fears.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is