Open Space Use On The Summit – Mountain biking

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Cliff riding down Castle Peak trail in BioRhythm mtn bike race at Royal Gorge-10-2 8-11-12In this installment about open space use on the summit, I would like to discuss what seems to have become one of the hotter of the hot button issues concerning trail use, mountain biking. Let me start out by letting you know that I am a mountain biker and have been riding the trails on the summit for over 15 years. I do not consider myself an expert rider and ride the trails strictly for the physical workout and natural enjoyment of the area. I believe that there are a lot of misconceptions that people have concerning mountain biking in the summit area and I would like to discuss some of them here. Some of the issues concerning hiking have been discussed in a previous post and many of the points concerning the policy of multi-use trails that were discussed also pertain to mountain biking, so you might want to take a look at that post if you haven’t already.

Mountain Biking is too Extreme for the summit

It is important to understand that like many outdoor activities, the term “mountain biking” encompasses a full spectrum of activities that involve a bike and outdoor terrain. They go from the sublime to the extreme. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that you hear about mountain bikes on the trail often lump all of these activities together and apply them to local conditions.

You will hear that mountain biking is an “extreme sport” that will result in mountain bikers “screaming” down our trails and if you venture out there you will be taking your life in your hands. Everyone has seen the X-games and has seen the extreme side of the sport. I have heard these comments coupled with the statement that hiking on the other hand is a moderate activity that does not present the dangers of the extreme mountain biker. We can all identify with a leisurely hike. I would point out, however, that people have the amazing ability to take anything to the extreme. Case in point, consider hiking taken to the extreme, The Tough Mudder.

My point here is not that mountain biking can’t be an extreme sport, but that riding in the summit does not involve the extreme side of the sport. Riders on the summit are primarily cross country trail riders that, like hikers, are out to explore the area and get a good physical workout while enjoying the outdoors. The terrain on the summit is not really suited for the more extreme activities of the sport like freeriding and down hilling. The terrain is either too flat or too steep and the wide flat trails that are in the area don’t lend themselves well to thrill riding. I think most of the riders that visit the summit would agree that the more extreme parts of the sport are better left to other areas like ski resort hills and formal mountain bike parks that can cater to the technical parts of the sport. Personally, I would oppose any effort to allow extreme riding on our mult-use trails. This is something that the TDLT is well aware of and it is why they have designated a few “mountain bike” only trails away from the multi-use trails to accommodate any riders looking for a more challenging ride.

Mountain Bikes tear up the trails and cause erosion

This is a very old argument that not only pertains to mountain bikes, but to trails in general. The fact is that any trail whether natural or man-made contributes to the erosion in the area. There is in fact a wealth of literature available on trails, trail design and the impact they have on the environment. Just Google “trail design”. As you might imagine there have been a lot of studies on the effect of mountain bikes and I have read several. As with many issues you can find data to support it’s pros and cons. The bottom line in my mind is that all trail activity has an effect on the environment and the important thing is to design and maintain the trails to minimize their effects.

When the trail plan was presented by TDLT in the summer of 2013, it was clear that many of the trails were existing ski trails (which were originally logging roads). These trails had in no way been “designed” for any use other than removing logs or skiing on 5 ft of snow. Certainly they had not been subject to modern trail design techniques to minimize effect. TDLT made a very informative presentation on trail design at their presentation. To address some of the issues with the local trails I did a survey that summer with mountain biking in mind. What I found interesting in that survey were the observations of minimum effects on the trails after a 24 hr mountain bike race run that summer that had literally thousands of mountain bikes running on the trails. Subsequently, a group from TDLT, SLCWD and a local hydrologist, John Cobourn, did a walking survey of the trails around Serene Lakes. They were able to identify problem areas which TDLT plans to incorporate into their trail design plan.

While there is no denying that trail use, including mountain bikes, has an effect on erosion, these effects can be mitigated by proper design and maintenance of the trails which is the intention of TDLT. Considering that the existing trails have never been maintained before, the argument can be made that with the design and maintenance program planned by TDLT, the effects of trail use in the future will be much less than in the past, even with increased use.

We don’t want another Marin County on the summit

This is a cry that I have heard raised about the trail plan. When we got our first “mountain bikes” back in the 80′s (that was just a normal 10 speed bike frame with some larger knobby tires) we drove over to Mt Tam to test them out. This was long before it became a mecca for Bay Area down hillers. The draw is the same as it is now, you could drive to the top and then ride (coast) down the trails. I have to admit it was a pretty exhilarating experience on a bike with no suspension. Today riders with full suspension bikes flock to the top and do scream down those trails. No one can deny that trail conflict is a big issue in Marin.

When I look around the summit, I have a hard time equating anything here with Mt Tam and Marin county. Just about everything I can think of is different from the weather to the terrain. But the primary reason that the Summit is not like Marin count is shown in the graphic below.

Click for a larger image
Marin-Summit comparison3-13-14

It’s the people. As the map shows, the population within  a 20 mile radius of Mt Tam is 80 times the population of the center of the Royal Gorge open space area. Isn’t that a big reason why we all come here? The Summit is not Marin County and it never will be. That includes the mountain biking. Sure we will have the occasional thrill seeking bay area mountain biker drive the 3-4 hours to come up here, but that’s not the same as having thousands of mountain bikers about 20 minutes away.

Mountain bikers are going to flock to the Summit now that the word is out

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is sort of a variation on the “build it and they will come” argument. This assumes that the summit has been a secret until now and mountain bikers didn’t know it was here. This is not the case. We are fortunate to have one of the best trail rides in the Sierras right on the summit, The Hole in the Ground Trail. This trail is world famous and mountain bikers come from all over every year to ride the route. I have ridden the trail a number of times and have also hiked it. It is a wonderful trail ride or hike. The trail is meticulously maintained by a number of organizations including mountain biking groups and I would hold it up as a perfect example of what mountain biking on the summit is all about. It is a cross country trail ride that really tests the skill and stamina of a rider.  I have hiked the trail during bike season and have had only positive interactions with riders.

There is no reason to think that riders coming to the Royal Gorge trail system will be any different than those coming to Hole in the Ground.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The truth is that the majority of the riders on the Royal Gorge trails are going to be local residents and vacationers with their families. When my kids were young we road on the ski trails and when I ride now on the rare occasions that I do see other riders they are often whole families out on their bikes. Sure we are going to have the occasional irresponsible rider out there, but that is the world we live in. I firmly support the policy of “Howdy” that TDLT is promoting for the trail system and believe that with proper signage to guide users, everyone, including mountain bikers can use the trails together. We just need to give it a chance this summer.

Next post will have a discussion of the our four legged friends that helped to win the west.




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Van Norden Meadow land swap completed

As many of you probably know part of the acquisition of the Royal Gorge Properties by Truckee Donner Land Trust (TDLT) hinged on a land swap deal with Sugar Bowl. A large portion of the Van Norden Meadow was owned by Sugar Bowl and as part of the acquistion TDLT acquired the 5 acre parcel that Royal Gorge Summit Station sits on. When Sugar Bowl took over the management of Royal Gorge cross country resort, it only made sense that they would like to own the Summit Station parcel and of course TDLT wanted to acquire the Sugar Bowl owned meadow parcel to complete their acquisition of the entire meadow. Well that land swap deal has finally been completed.

The resulting reconfiguration of the land parcels in the meadow is shown here along with the previous configuration. TDLT plans to sell its meadow parcels to the US Forest Service in the next year or two.

Before the Swap

After the Swap

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Open Space Use On The Summit – Trail use

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In this second installment about open space use on the summit, I would like to discuss some of the issues concerning trail use and regulation as it pertains to the trail plan proposed by the Truckee Donner Land Trust (TDLT, see map below).

DTLT-RG Trails 8-23-13

The genesis of this plan as a product of public outreach was discussed in the previous post. TDLT has stated that the intention of the plan is to provide equal recreational opportunities to the diverse user categories while protecting the natural environment of the Donner Summit area. Toward that goal the plan utilizes a network of multi-use trails that will allow equal access to most of the open space area by the three major groups of users; hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. In this post I will discuss some of the issues that have been raised about hiking. In subsequent posts the issues concerning mountain bikes and horses will be addressed.

Calla LC Ann hiking in Royal Gorge area-02 7-11-12For this discussion we will define hiking as walking across country. I have heard some people say that walking is somehow different than hiking but by this definition we are just talking about where the walking gets done. I have also heard people say that trail running is different than hiking. I would agree with that in the sense that the pace is elevated, but both activities consist of accessing the trails propelled simply by foot power with no added equipment (ie: a mountain bike or a horse). The impact on the trail for each individual hiker is their two feet alone. According to the TDLT public outreach survey hiking is the most popular trail use activity. Since the TDLT trail plan was proposed there have been a number of objections to the multi-use aspect of the trail plan that primarily promote hiking as higher valued activity that should receive priority over other activities. I would like to discuss a few of these objections here.

Seniority = increased priority

The gist of this argument goes something like this – humans have been walking (hiking) for hundreds of thousands of years and therefore hiking should have a higher priority on the trails. A variation is “I’ve been hiking the trails around here for ___ years (fill in the time of your choice) and I should have more right to them than another user that hasn’t been here as long as I have”. Most of us that visit the summit have our favorite trails and it’s just human nature that you start the think of them as “yours”. This seniority argument however is really a can of worms. Does it mean that us older folks have priority over younger people. And what about the kids. If we go back far enough then none of us should have access to the area. After all the Native Americans were tramping through the summit (probably on some of the same trails) thousands of years ago. Even in more recent times, people on horseback have been riding through the area since pioneer times. Shouldn’t people on horseback have as much priority. And so on and so on.

The reality is that open space land by definition should be accessible to everyone as long as they treat it with respect and do no harm. The trail system being proposed by TDLT is designed with good trail practices to provide a sustainable system with equal access and minimum impact on the land. Some sort of temporal priority implies that some users are more equal than others which defeats the purpose.

Exclusivity = Equality

This argument has manifested itself as a request for trails that are exclusive to one use (ie: hiking only) so that there is an “equality” between multi-use and exclusive use. This argument is really based one three faulty premises.

The first premise is that hikers can’t have a quality hiking experience on a multi-use trail and in order to have one they need an exclusive trail. This is just not the case. I can safely say that I have hiked every inch of the proposed trail system numerous times. During the summer Linda and I with our three blonds hike the area almost every day. I can count on the number of times that we even see another hiker (or biker) on less than my own ten fingers. This is not really surprising if you do a little simple arithmetic. There are approximately 29.5 miles of trails specified in the TDLT plan. Even if you assume that on any random day there might be 200 other users out on the trails at any one time (and this would really be a super crowded day) there would still be

29.5 miles x 5,280 ft = 155,760 ft / 200 users = 779 ft of clear trail for each user

Brita a natural bridge near Rowton Peak in Royal Gorge area-09 8-4-11That’s over 2 football fields distance between you and another user. Now of course this is pretty simple minded and assumes a completely random distribution, but it does make the point that there is really a lot of space out there. The fact that a trail is multi-use won’t have much affect when the density of users is so dispersed. A hiker in a multi-use system has access to 100% of the trails and in the Royal Gorge open space it should be possible for any hiker to pick a route in the area that will result in a quality (and solitary) outdoor experience.

The second premise is that equality is achieved by trying to provide equal numbers of exclusive use trails. Does this mean that there should be equal numbers of hiking only, biking only, and equestrian only trails? There are a finite number of trails and often only one or two to particular area (ie: Mariah Pt). Does this mean that one group gets access to a specific area and others don’t? How is this egalitarian? In a multi-use system every user has equal access to all of the trails and all areas.

And finally the third faulty premise is that it would be possible to enforce a regime of exclusive use trails in the sparsely populated open space area. Let’s face it, it is impractical for any agency to constantly patrol the 3,000 acres of forest that make up the Royal Gorge open space area. Even if a plan for exclusive trails was implemented, people would find it hard to understand why they should not use a particular trail when no one else is using it. I think a system of mutual respect and conscientious trail etiquette by all users would be much more effective in preventing trail conflicts and insuring a quality outdoor experience. Sure there are always going to be a few people that abuse the system, but it is really counter productive to restrict every one’s access to counter the behavior of a small minority of users.

Hiking trails should be single track “footpaths”

I have to admit that this objection leaves me scratching my head. When you look at the trail plan proposed by TDLT superimposed on a satmap of the area it is easy to see that the trail system is simply utilizing existing cross country ski trails (which utilized existing logging roads). The reality is that there is a much more extensive network of established “trails” and TDLT is using only a small subset of those existing trails for their system. As you would expect with a ski trail (or logging road) it is pretty wide and relatively straight. In fact the existing trails make great multi-use trails because they provide plenty of space for the rare interaction of users and they provide good sight lines to give people plenty of notice if another user is approaching.

It is important to keep in mind that the Royal Gorge open space area is a wonderful natural area, but it is not a pristine wilderness. The area has been trodden extensively since pioneer times and exploited many times over. The area was extensively logged on many occasions (hence all the logging roads) and been the subject of various ventures, most recently the proposed development by Foster-Syme. Nature has done her best to repopulate the area, but the effects of years of logging have taken its toll. The current forest restoration project underway by TDLT should go a long way toward eventually establishing a healthier forest. It will not, however, result in an area resembling a natural wilderness for generations. TDLT is trying to provide access to the area as soon as possible and it is only logical that they would use the existing trail system. While their plan does call for the addition of new single track trails in the future, it seems reasonable for them to make the most out of the existing trail systems.

It should be noted that TDLT did modify their trail plan to include about 3.5 miles of trail designated as hiking only. While I have expounded on why I don’t see the need for it, I do applaud their effort to respond to the feedback they received from their outreach program. It does demonstrate that they are willing to apply oil to the squeaky wheel. Of course you always have to be careful not to apply so much oil that the wheels come off. No one can predict with complete certainty how the trail system will work out. As users get out on the trail system this summer, we will see where the kinks are and TDLT will be able to make modifications through signage or redesign to handle any problems. My feeling is that we really need to give the plan a chance.

Stay tuned. Mountain biking will the subject of the next post.

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