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Mountain Bikers Hope to Blaze New Trails

October 26, 2003

Douglas Trattner
Special to The Plain Dealer


With more than 65,000 acres of state, county and national parkland in the greater Cleveland area, it may be surprising to learn that there are currently only four miles of trails specifically set up for mountain biking.

Contrast this figure with the fact that there are more than 500 miles of hiking trails and 170 miles of bridal trails.

Dan Vardamis, advocacy associate for International Mountain Bicycling Association, cites Cleveland as one of the least accommodating cities when it comes to mountain bicyclists.

"There is nowhere to ride legally on trails for mountain bikers within an hour of the city limits," says Vardamis from his Boulder, Colo., office. "I can't think of another major city in the country that has that situation. There are some cities that have bad access out there, but that's pretty unique."

For mountain bikers eager to take their rugged two-wheelers out for some off-road excitement, they need to travel an hour by car from downtown. Riders are rewarded with 12½ miles of trail, which some say is a meager payoff. Members of the mountain-biking community wonder what it will take to open up some trails a little closer to home.

This issue pits mountain-bike riders and the groups that represent them against the managers of parks such as the Cleveland Metroparks, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Geauga and Medina park districts and Summit County MetroParks.

Lorain County Metro Parks and Lake Metroparks are the exceptions, offering mountain bikers one and three miles of trail, respectively.

Park managers cite a string of concerns, including limited resources to design, build and maintain trails; potential conflict between different trail users, including bicyclists, equestrians and hikers; and fear that mountain bikers will damage the environment.

But as valid as these concerns seem, Mindy Kuth, advocacy manager for the Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Association, believes the issue boils down to one of perception: The mistaken belief that mountain-bike riders require things that are vastly different from other trail users.

"What mountain bikers seek is an outdoor experience similar to many other trail users, such as hikers and equestrians - the opportunity to experience the outdoors while bicycling along narrow dirt trails," Kuth says.

With more than 23 miles of the bike-friendly Towpath Trail meandering through the Cleveland Metroparks, Summit County MetroParks and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one might ask: What more do mountain bikers need?

The towpath is as wide as a car lane and as equally unappealing to mountain bicyclists. Where it isn't completely paved, as it is in many high-traffic areas, the towpath's base is composed of smooth, compacted limestone. Mountain bikers desire a trail experience that is narrow, naturally surfaced and tends to wind through and around obstacles such as trees and rocks. This type of trail is often referred to as single-track.

Tom Stanley, chief of natural resources for the Cleveland Metroparks, says that allowing mountain bikers on unimproved (nonpaved) hiking trails causes a "legitimate concern for erosion and impact on the land because they have no gravel base. Especially after a rain when they get wet."

John Debo, superintendent of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, echoes this sentiment. "Our view is that the environmental impact is too great to provide off-road mountain-biking activity."

Some research appears to indicate otherwise. In the November 2001 issue of the Environmental Journal, researcher Eden Thurston found, when examining mountain biking's impact on growth and soil in a forest, "there was no significant difference in the direct physical impacts of hikers and mountain bikers." And in the Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Ariz., one of the few national parks to allow mountain biking on unpaved trails, the impact to those trails "is not substantially different from other trails that allow horses and hikers but no mountain bikers," said Meg Weesner, chief of science and resource management at Saguaro.

Kuth concedes that not every trail is an appropriate one to open up to mountain bikers. But she questions: "Is there no appropriate trail in all of Cuyahoga County? In Summit, Medina or Geauga counties?"

The key to managing the detrimental effects of erosion, says IMBA's Vardamis, is starting with a sustainable trail. "Water is the main force that erodes trails," he says. "Trails need to be designed so that water flows off them, not down them."

So important is the proper design and maintenance of trails that Subaru has teamed up with IMBA to create the Trail Care Crew.

These teams of trail-building experts routinely travel throughout North America working with IMBA-affiliated clubs, such as CAMBA, and area land managers to build and maintain sustainable trails. This, in turn, significantly reduces the demands on resource-strapped park officials.

That expertise has been tested in West Branch State Park in Ravenna in Portage County. In 1999, West Branch decided to convert some underutilized snowmobile trails into mountain-bike trails.

Working hand-in-hand with the now-defunct Northern Ohio Mountain Bike Association, seven miles of trails were opened to riders. Then in 2001, West Branch allowed IMBA-trained CAMBA personnel to build and maintain a new 5½-mile stretch of single-track trail for mountain bikers.

Park manager John Wilder could not be more pleased with the work that has been, and continues to be, done by CAMBA. "They adopted the mountain-bike trails through our Adopt-a-Trail program," Wilder says. "They did everything from design them, build them and maintain them. They did an outstanding job. The trails have held up great."

Cleveland Metroparks' Stanley says that if mountain bikes were permitted on bridle trails, they would not cause any more impact to the trail than horses.. But the idea of opening up trails to dissimilar user groups is something he is extremely hesitant to do.

"We have had several incidents where bikers were inappropriately using the bridle trails and have encountered people on horses and the horses have been spooked," Stanley says. "We've had no serious injuries to my knowledge, but we have had impacts of that nature."

This notion of user conflict is proving to be the mountain-biking community's biggest hurdle. Debo of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park shares Stanley's conviction that "mountain bikers and equestrian-trail riders do not share the same trails very well."

National and local mountain-biking organizations counter that shared-use trails are absolutely essential, and that with proper education and the realization that there is a limited amount of outdoor resources for people to enjoy in urban areas, all user groups can peaceably coexist. Operating in a shared-use environment also obviates the need to construct new trails.

"People sometimes call a trail a hiking trail or a biking trail, and that's a misnomer," Vardamis says. "There should be no designated trails for just one group. We need to work in a shared-use system, where different users work together and get along."

CAMBA's Kuth adds: "The trails are already multiuse. How can you say 'yes to you' and 'yes to you' but 'no to you?' "

An official with a state equestrian group is open to sharing trails. "Our position is that if there is no other option, we do not have a problem sharing trails with mountain bikers," says Larry Matthews, chairman of the state trail committee of the Ohio Horseman's Council, which promotes horse use in Ohio. "Horses are like people in that they have individual personalities - some would not do well with bikes and others would not mind. By acquainting horses to mountain bikers, we have been successful in desensitizing them."

One needs to look no further than to the Towpath Trail for a successful model of a shared-use system. On any given day, this busy corridor sees walkers, runners, cyclists, dogs on leashes and babies in strollers. By being considerate and following a few simple rules of trail etiquette, various user groups share this trail harmoniously.

Henry Holman agrees. Holman is management assistant of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, one of the few national parks to open multiuse trails to include mountain bikers.

"We did this as an experiment to determine what the impact would be," Holman says. "We found that there have been very minimal complaints from other users. We haven't had any instances where there has been physical wrecks from bikers running into hikers or horseback riders."

Wilder has witnessed similar results at West Branch. Though the mountain-bike trails are regularly shared with hikers, hunters and fishermen, there haven't been any conflicts between riders and nonriders, Wilder says.

While these practices appear to be working in other parks, Jane Christyson, the Cleveland Metroparks' director of marketing, warns against comparing apples to oranges. "Not all parks are equal. You need to look at volume and visitor pressure," she says. "Last year we had over 15 million recreational visits. That's a lot of people you are trying to make happy. It's a balancing act."

When all is said and done, park officials Stanley and Debo both feel that neither the Cleveland Metroparks nor the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is an appropriate venue for mountain biking.

"Since our mandate is the conservation of natural resources, we don't feel it is our obligation to provide a venue for that type of recreational activity," Stanley says.

"Mountain-bike riders are there for the aerobic exercise and that is fine, but it's not what we provide as our first priority."

Trattner is a free-lance writer in Cleveland Heights.

© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.