Banning bikes

Wilderness Act’s prohibition of mountain biking is stirring opposition in Nevada County and other hot spots

Dave Hughes is an avid mountain biker concerned about losing access to trails in Nevada County.

Dave Hughes is an avid mountain biker concerned about losing access to trails in Nevada County.

Photo by Doug Smith

Despite a legacy of environmentalism, mountain bikers may soon find themselves excluded from trails they have built and maintained for years. And that’s a reality going down particularly hard in the mountain biking Mecca of Nevada City.

The “California Wild Heritage Wilderness Act of 2002,” introduced in May by U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer to protect wilderness areas, seeks to permanently close 2.5 million acres of California public lands in 77 different areas to “mechanized transport.”

Not only does this include dirt bikes, snowmobiles, four-wheel-drives and all-terrain vehicles, but bicycles will also be prohibited in areas designated as wilderness if this act as written becomes law.

Cyclists like Dave Hughes, a member of Bicyclists of Nevada County (BONC), support wildland protections, but claim they ride responsibly and shouldn’t be banned from these public lands. Hughes said his sport is “low impact if you’re riding in a controlled manner,” and that “horses and even hikers’ boots” can damage steep trails.

Some trails shared for more than 20 years with backpackers, hikers and equestrians in Nevada County’s newly designated wilderness areas—Grouse Ridge and Castle Peak— will become off-limits to mountain bikers with the passage of Boxer’s bill.

“We didn’t make the decision to exclude [bikers],” said Tom Bohigian, Boxer’s deputy state director, as well as someone who claims to be a mountain biker. The ban is a result of the “Forest Service and other land management agencies’ interpretation of the 1964 Wilderness Act” and the fact that mountain biking was not a popular pursuit nearly 40 years ago when that bill was passed.

Although people have ridden trails on old fat-tire bicycles for decades, a Bay Area cyclist, Joe Breeze, is considered the father of mountain biking. In 1977, he created bike frames specifically designed for off-road riding. Within a decade, the sport had grown phenomenally and several companies were manufacturing mountain bikes.

Nevada County is one of the most famed mountain biking areas in the United States, perhaps second only to the fabled Moab in the Rockies. Its temperate climate and variety of trails suit beginners out for an easy ride to professionals seeking a grueling challenge. Single-tracks, no wider than a few feet, evolved from 100-year-old mining trails and wind through canopies of old-growth forest, past glaciated rock formations carved by whitewater streams and waterfalls.

Designating these areas as wilderness will halt future logging, construction, road and dam building, and new mining and drilling. Light recreational use will still be permitted, including hiking, backpacking, fishing, rock climbing, canoeing, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.

“It is crucial that we protect these precious places before it is too late,” said Boxer. “As of this year, protected wilderness areas account for only 13 percent of the state of California.”

The bill faces challenges in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives, which hasn’t been historically responsive to additional wilderness designations. Stiff opposition is expected from Representative George Radanovic, R-Fresno, who chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks. In addition to objections from mountain bikers, the bill has drawn fire from logging, mining and off-road vehicle touring groups.

For all the squawking of mountain bikers, there are other trail users that will be glad to see bikes prohibited in these backcountry playgrounds. Using the same trails, equestrians and bikers can potentially encounter problems.

“Horses, unfortunately, are afraid of bikes” that approach them at high rates of speed, says Peter Brennan, owner of Oak Tree Farms. A well-trained horse with a good rider faces less danger, but for “a young horse … it’s a frightening thing. Their instinct is to spin and take off and if you’re on a very steep hill or cliff, it’s all over.”

Brennan cites the annual loss of 12 horses a year over cliffs at Point Reyes. “The riders manage to get off, but there’s no retrieving the horses.”

Though most bike riders are courteous and will stop when they see equestrians, Brennan said, “some of them are zooming downhill really fast. The trails are narrow and there’s nowhere to go.”

“We understand the hazards we impose on equestrians,” said Hughes. “Bicycles are supposed to yield to all user groups,” maintain a safe controllable speed and “let equestrians know you’re coming up on them.”

Horseman Boris Lakusta is building some of his own equestrian/pedestrian trails and wonders “why there can’t be mountain bike trails” that exclude other users. Indeed, even trails maintained most by bikers are in all cases available to these other user groups.

He said bikers can “put horses and riders in grave danger. Even hikers can have a difficult time getting out of their way. … It’s scary when you come around a corner and there’s a mountain biker bearing down on you who can’t stop.”

However, Lakusta acknowledges, like equestrians, there are those “who ride responsibly and those who don’t. I’ve seen mountain bikers being extremely considerate of horsemen.”

Co-owner of Tour of Nevada City Bike Shop and president of BONC, Duane Strawser has “never had one conflict … with one hiker or equestrian. People here know what the rules are.”

Mountain biking organizations have also been more active in trail maintenance than perhaps any other user group. Through a history of organizing events where members spend weekends building and maintaining trails, clearing brush, repairing eroded areas and removing safety hazards, BONC has garnered the appreciation of Forest Service officials.

“Mountain biking clubs have provided extensive service in a voluntary capacity to maintain trails,” said Pete Brost, public service staff officer for the Tahoe National Forest. “If they were not available to do that any longer, trails would not receive the same degree of maintenance as in the past.” As budget cuts deplete funds for trail maintenance, volunteer assistance becomes more important, Brost said.

With continuing budget shortfalls, the Forest Service could generate additional funds through opening up areas for logging and mining. Tina Andolina, of the California Wilderness Coalition, would like to see vulnerable areas designated wilderness and has worked closely with Boxer’s staff to map out areas slated for inclusion. She notes that “70 percent of Californians want to see more areas protected.”

“We have spent an enormous amount of time trying to resolve conflict with mountain bikers,” Bohigian said, excluding from wilderness designation popular mountain bike areas such as Downieville and some “cherry stems,” long narrow out-and-back trails.

However, Brost thinks those trails are “unmanageable boundaries. It’s totally illogical to build a boundary and introduce mountain bikes, inviting them into the heart of the wilderness—like they’re going to stop and turn around there.”

Hughes counters that his bike club opposes bushwhacking. “Ramboing a new trail is a wrong idea,” he said.

After two years of negotiations, a July 8 meeting between Strawser, the Wilderness Coalition and two members of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors resulted in a major breakthrough.

“In Nevada County, we’ve gone out of our way to address [mountain bikers’] concerns” through modifying proposed boundaries to exclude popular bike trails, Andolina said. “In Castle Peak, we dropped out Hole in the Ground and the Donner Summit Trail … and in Grouse Lakes, the original boundaries were 6,000 acres more.”

Andolina hopes the mountain biking community will support the compromise. “We’ve significantly changed the boundaries to ensure that key mountain bike trails are left open,” she said.

“Cycling is critical to the economy,” Strawser said, benefiting local hotels, restaurants and retailers. “We think we may have come up with a win-win for both sides.”

“We have tried really hard to accommodate a wide variety of users and to protect the resource for all time,” Bohigian said. “We want to make room for everybody.”