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Home / Articles / News / News /  It's not about the bike
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Thursday, March 3,2011

It's not about the bike

Open space trail debate brings up larger issues

By James Dziezynski
Boulder’s pristine Open Space trails are on the threshold of imminent destruction by an army of adrenaline-fueled, devil-may-care mountain bikers whose insatiable need for speed will inevitably leave behind a wake of flattened children, smashed hikers and scorched earth wherever they seek their hedonistic thrills. Or perhaps Boulder’s Open Space trails are being held hostage by wealthy, selfish Boulder elitists who are too old, too out of touch and falsely empowered by a sense of entitlement by virtue of their tenure in city limits.

 

Which view is right? When it comes to managing the crown jewel that is Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), residents’ perspectives are increasingly polarized. The Boulder West Trail Study Area (West TSA) has ignited passions on all sides, and everyone from hikers to bikers, dogs to birders, young to old, are caught up in the fray.

The mountain bikers’ proposal to create a trail connecting Eldorado Springs to South Boulder, near Shanahan Ridge, has been particularly riling for residents in the area, who say a new trail would overcrowd the now-quiet area and further impact preservation efforts. An open space board has already ruled against the pro-mountain bike residents, who will plead their case in front of the Boulder City Council on March 17.

Over the past year, the city of Boulder has held several public forums to let citizens voice their concerns regarding the proposals and recommendations for the West TSA on a range of issues, including dogs on trails and mountain bike access. An extensive study was also conducted by the Community Collaborative Group (CCG) starting in the autumn of 2009 and wrapping up this past January. The opinions reached by the CCG were reported to the Open Space Board of Trustees (OSBT), which approved a recommendation to Boulder City Council on Feb. 23. City Council will ultimately make the decision as to what will become of West TSA lands.

Recent public meetings have showcased the passions stirred up by the West TSA debate. In a Feb. 9 gathering, a crowd of hundreds was overflowing from the city’s municipal building, eager to have their voices heard. The majority of individuals spoke with elegance and sincerity, sharing their hopes and fears for the future of open space.

Some say that the desires and demographics of the city of Boulder are shifting and that conservation policies need to accommodate those changes. Others point out that this isn’t the first time a group of recreationists has come into conflict with city policy, and that meeting mountain bikers’ needs must be balanced with the concerns of residents and other trail users — and with a thought for protecting wildlife and the natural landscape. The larger question may be: How does the city manage Boulder’s popular trail system to maximize opportunity for different user groups while minimizing conflict?

“We, the department, struggled mightily with this issue,” Dean Paschall, manager of public process and communications for OSMP, told Boulder Weekly. “It’s not a clear-cut issue. It’s not easily this way or that way. We can certainly appreciate the legitimacy on both sides of the discussion.”

Shanahan Ridge conflict

Mountain bikers say they’re not asking for much. They want to be able to reach the mountain biking trails of Walker Ranch, Heil/Hall ranches, Eldorado Mountain/Doudy Draw and Betasso Preserve — without having to drive. They envision being able to step outside their front doors and pedal their way into the mountains for an invigorating ride on singletrack and then home again.

But between the city and these mountain biking destinations lies city parks land, and not just any parks land, but some of the most heavily used parks land in the state.

Originally, mountain bikers had hoped for a few connector trails: a trail linking Eldorado to Walker Ranch and a link trail bridging Betasso Preserve to the community bike path that runs two miles up Boulder Canyon via Chapman Drive. Both of the latter initiatives involve private and Colorado State Park land and are not contention issues.

The conflict over mountain bikes in the West TSA is primarily focused on a proposed two-mile connector trail that would link Shanahan Ridge to Eldorado Springs Drive. Bike enthusiasts point out that their plan to create that link would still leave 76 miles of trail space untouched by bike traffic and would leave 97.4 percent of trails in the West TSA bike-free.

Cyclists’ objective in promoting the Shanahan Ridge access trail is to allow bikers to leave their cars behind and venture onto Open Space via bicycle from their homes. But residents of Shanahan Ridge and Greenbriar are afraid that a connector trail would bring mountain bikes too close to their homes and increase auto traffic in their neighborhood, diminishing the enjoyment of their homes.

“It’s not just the mountain bikes,” Paschall says, clarifying what he understands to be residents’ concerns. “Many neighbors have seen this as a ‘slow landscape’ traditionally focused on hiking. They are concerned that biking will change the nature of their experience.”

Residents of the area banded together to form SOSBoulder in opposition to a connector trail in their area. SOSBoulder’s website (www. sosboulder.org) states that, if allowed access to popular South Boulder trails, mountain bikers would “pose a very serious safety risk” to others and turn quiet hiking trails into “high-adrenaline mountain biking terrain that will no longer be suitable” for others. The auto traffic they might generate as a result of people driving to the trailheads might also destroy the character of neighborhoods near trails, the site claims.

Dick Harris, a proponent of SOSBoulder and a retired physicist from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has been a Boulder resident since 1974.

“Bicyclists in Boulder have access to plenty of trails, and we certainly don’t wish them any ill will,” says Harris. “However, the open space charter stresses preservation. It is one of the strengths [of the charter] that it has dispelled rampant growth.”

Harris cites the aesthetic virtues of bike-free foot travel: the song of the meadowlark, the peace of being a “contemplative hiker” and the ability to have minimal impact on the land.

The Colorado Audubon Society shares this sentiment and has offered its support for a bike ban. Boulder’s western meadows are unique ecosystems and are home to vulnerable species such as the endangered Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and the grasshopper sparrow. Whether bikes have a meaningful impact on the wildlife has yet to be studied thoroughly in Boulder, but as Harris points out, more traffic is inevitably going to stress the land — not to mention disturbing the peace.

Preservation is at the forefront of five of the eight points of the official open space charter, consistent with Harris’ vision of natural space for quiet discovery.

BMA’s view

Mountain biking advocates say that the image of bikers as hell-bent, adrenaline-fueled speed junkies is an outdated notion, one that was formed by many longtime Boulder residents from a rash of biker conflicts in the mid-1980s.

The Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance (BMA) advocates for the mountain biking community, but also stresses courtesy, responsibility and conservation to its members.

The BMA differs with SOSBoulder on one major point: SOS insists that adding an urban bike trail would increase car traffic; the BMA feels an urban access trail will reduce traffic by allowing locals to access larger networks of trails from their front door.

“Our goal is to have the city of Boulder see the BMA as an asset to the community,” says Jason Vogel, BMA’s president. “Since 1991, the BMA has volunteered over 27,000 hours creating and maintaining trails that all users — not just bikers — can enjoy. We also have conducted indepth literature reviews on the environmental impacts of bikes and trails and consulted expert trail designers to engineer conflict out of shared-use trails.”

Vogel says evidence of BMA’s commitment to these principles can be seen in recent trail work.

“A good example of smart trail design is the Picture Rock Trail, completed in August 2008. Riders can enjoy a challenging, scenic ride while the architecture of the trails prevents bikes from going more than 10 to 12 miles per hour,” says Vogel.

Likewise, the BMA re-routed the lower section of the Wapiti Trail at Heil Ranch in 2009 to reduce bike speeds and minimize hiker-biker incidents.

Studies in similar communities such as Fort Collins, Golden and Colorado Springs have shown that mountain bikes have no greater impact on the land than other non-mechanical traffic (like hikers and horses).

Paschall says mountain bikers have a high degree of “trail fidelity,” meaning that they tend to stay on trails, rather than cutting cross-country to make unofficial “social trails.”

“The area around Spring Brook trail was spider-webbed with social trails, so we put in a very welldefined trail system, and we have found that it has pretty much totally eliminated the social trails that existed there,” Paschall says. “We found that bikers just don’t have a propensity for leaving the trail. It’s easier to ride on the trail than leaving the trail. But there is still some widening of trails.”

Mountain bikers tend to widen trails by going slightly off trail to pass hikers and other cyclists rather than stopping. It’s not a problem unique to mountain bikers. Hikers do the same thing when they step off trail to avoid mud, Paschall says.

Vogel claims BMA’s extensive studies, past successes and use of professional, experienced trail designers proves that bikes can be integrated into any community without multiplying the impact on flora and fauna.

But BMA’s arguments did not carry the day with the Boulder Open Space Board of Trustees, which voted 3-2 to recommend against the Shanahan connector trail on Feb. 23.

Not surprisingly, the dispute has grown more heated and continues to flare as the date of the crucial city council hearing approaches.

OSMP’s Paschall says that numbers may have something to do with it.

“When you have really high numbers of users, then the potential for conflict increases,” he says. “When you have so many disparate interests that don’t always coincide with one another, conflict may be the result.”


Areas of agreement

At the nexus of the debate are the members of the Boulder Open Space Board of Trustees, whose official recommendations carry the most weight with city council members.

Allyn Feinberg, a member of OSBT as well as a cyclist and hiker, spoke with Boulder Weekly about the heightened emotions and polarity surrounding the West TSA.

“I’ve been involved with various public processes in Boulder for years, and it’s evident people feel very strongly about open space,” says Feinberg. “We are under no illusions; it will be a struggle. We must constantly be aware of sensitive areas and preserving them and find ways to limit use so we don’t ‘love them to death.’” While she doesn’t speak for the entire OSBT board, Feinberg explains the rationale behind her positions. She supports the two fringe trail projects (connector trails for Betasso Preserve and Walker Ranch), but opposes allowing bikes on the proposed Shanahan Ridge access trail.

“For the people this impacts most, they have very strongly held values. For both sides, what they love is essential to their lifestyles,” says Feinberg. “The process of the CCG study and user input has greatly helped us see what is important to the community ... as well as the environmental impact.”

There were three main elements that swayed Feinberg’s stance.

First, the possibility of new trails at Walker and Betasso (as well as further research into a potential trail on Anemone Hill just south of Mount Sanitas) expands the trails available to bikers from town.

Secondly, Feinberg was concerned that feedback from Open Space surveys showed many hikers felt displaced on trails where bikes were allowed, such as Marshall Mesa in South Boulder.

Finally, she says, regardless of the degree of impact, bikes inevitably mean more traffic and, no matter how wellintentioned, more stress on the land.

BMA and pro-bike individuals say they also have conservation at the forefront of their minds. They say there’s no hard statistical data about hiker displacement. And when it comes to conservation, they point to studies that conclude bikes actually cause less damage than hikers.

Bikers move through an area more quickly and are less likely to disturb critical wildlife, such as ground nesting birds, proponents say. Also, the BMA strongly discourages trail riding in muddy conditions where bikes might rut out paths.

Perhaps most important, from the pro-bike perspective, is that the Shanahan Ridge trail would get people out of their cars and onto their bikes. This is important, they say, because the city of Boulder continues to grow and more people are seeking a wilderness experience.

“As the Front Range population continues to rise, we must find ever more creative ways to manage human use on our public lands to preserve environmental values,” Vogel says. “Sustainable, shared-use trails that connect existing open space parks to one another and to Forest Service lands can leverage existing access to disperse users, provide a more varied recreation experience and minimize impacts to the environment. Ideally, such opportunities could start at your front doorstep in carbon-conscious Boulder.”

Prior to city council’s March 17 vote on the West TSA recommendations, the city of Boulder will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. on March 15 at Boulder High School to give residents another chance to voice their opinions. While the OSBT has already made its official recommendations to the council, the March 15 meeting will give both sides a final opportunity to present their views on controversial issues like the Shanahan Ridge Trail.

From the perspective of some in the mountain biking community, mountain bikers represent a new generation of Boulderites who are giving voice to evolving needs of the public, biking being just one example.

Still, there is nearly universal agreement that preservation is paramount in Boulder.

“We won’t be seeing ATVs or dirt bikes on open space any time soon — at least not legally,” Feinberg says.

But preservation and scientific fact aren’t the be-all-end-all of the open space experience. There are visceral and spiritual components that make each step — or pedal — into the wilderness a personally meaningful experience.

In the end, it will be the values of Boulder residents — or, in this case, their elected representatives — that will define the wilderness experience in the precious, wild land in our collective backyard.

RESOURCES

Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks: tinyurl.com/BoulderOSMP Boulder Mountain Bike Alliance (BMA):bouldermountainbike.org SOSBoulder: www.sosboulder.org private and Colorado State Park land and are not contentious issues.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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