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November 2000

Mountain Biking Too Costly For Marin Taxpayers


By Terri Alvillar

Mountain bicycling organizations advocate "equal trail access." They say "mountain biking does not cause erosion" and "mountain biking has no greater environmental impact than hiking or horseback riding." Although many of these groups have achieved 501(c)3 corporation status with the Internal Revenue Service, a considerable portion of their efforts is directed at increasing bicycling access by influencing legislation.

Residents living near Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) and Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) lands know well the impacts mountain biking is having on the environment. It is not necessary for them to be forensic soils engineers to identify the deep, narrow, grooves caused by bicycle tires on steep fire protection roads near their homes. They know the sport has hastened erosion and siltation, and has compromised the integrity of fire protection roads so essential to our region.

The cost of known mountain biking impacts can be considered in relation to legal and prohibited causes, as well as direct and indirect, ones. Usually, mountain bikes are permitted only on fire protection roads. However, damage from mountain bikes to any tread surface over a very low gradient is inevitable. At a MCOSD Trails Committee meeting earlier this year, Bicycle Trials Council of Marin (BTC) president, Jim Jacobsen, stated that damage from bicycles will occur on gradients of more than 7 or 8%.

Over two years ago, a long section of the Toyon Fire Road, Fairfax, had to be regraded due to serious erosion. Bicyclists had begun using the steep road heavily in 1996, causing long ruts from locked, skidding wheels. After one winter season, the ruts were so deep that the road had to be graded to 150 percent of its normal width to restore a level surface. The bicycle tire ruts at the steep top portion of the Happersburger Ridge Trail are now about 3 feet deep from illegal riding. According to a MCOSD official, members of the WOMBATS mountain biking club were caught doing trail work here where bikes are not allowed.

Several sections of fire roads on MCOSD lands are in dire need of repair as a result of the legal use of mountain bikes. The southeastern section of the Blue Ridge Fire Road has extensive, multiple parallel ruts 4 inches wide, 6 inches deep, and 150 feet long. A minimum estimate to repair this small area is $3,000. The County has proposed rerouting a 500 foot section of the road to prevent further erosion. This will necessitate the felling of several trees in the midst of known Northern Spotted Owl habitat, and significant excavation in close proximity to a protected stream-just as a result of currently permitted mountain bike use. The cost of that project will be several thousand dollars.

Another severely damaged section of MCOSD fire road exists adjacent to Camp Tamarancho between the Toyon Fire Road and the Creekside Fire Road. Although bicycles are allowed here, it is impossible to avoid damage from them because the gradient is too steep. Consequently, there is severe rutting caused by mountain bikers braking and skidding their vehicles. This will cost thousands of dollars more to repair.

Frequent illegal mountain bike riding on the San Pedro Ridge in San Rafael has created extensive damage. It is difficult to estimate the value of this natural resource destruction. The JCC Trail is off-limits to bikes; however, bikers' continual illegal presence on that trail has made it almost impossible to walk without falling. Trails have been widened to 8 feet (from 18") from bicycles skidding around all turns, thus destroying the safe tread for pedestrians. All over Marin, huge volumes of soil are being transformed into dust by bicycle tires. The silt then washes into our sensitive stream conservation areas, many of which are designated critical habitat for Central Coast Steelhead.

Legal and illegal mountain biking has created an enormous liability for Marin taxpayers. Just one trail, the illegally built "Split Rock" or "Volunteer" trail, was constructed in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, about four years ago. MMWD and MCOSD officials have estimated the cost to close and restore this sensitive wildlife habitat to be $250,000. This doesn't seem to bother San Francisco-based Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (BARTC) representative, Don Herzog (Herzog is also chair of the Bicycle Trail Council's Political Action Group). Shortly after the illegal trail was built, Herzog sent out a March 12, 1996 email "Marin Alert - Volunteer Trail," warning, "The Marin County Open Space District plans to destroy the wonderful trail built by volunteers near the Repack Fireroad in Fairfax... the trail represents hundreds or even thousands of hours of volunteer effort, and it would be a crime to waste it... Let's not lose this trail." Herzog is also chair of the Bicycle Trail Council's Political Action Group.

A crime to waste the Split Rock trail? It was a crime to build it! Why should the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council care if illegal trails are built and used? Evidently they don't care, since only Marin County taxpayers have to pay for this land, for enforcement, and for maintenance. The tourism industy (BARTC contributors) is keeping its costs down by building its profits on the backs of Marin residents. If Herzog's approval of this vandalism to public property wasn't enough, he suggested that MCOSD General Manager, Frances M. Brigmann should be removed if she doesn't like it, saying "Fran will either change or she will be history."

Mountain bikers already have over 150 miles of fire roads on which they can legally ride in MMWD and MCOSD boundaries. In addition, thousands more acres are available on which to ride within federal and state parks, and on private property, within County limits. Yet the demand for access to new areas and narrower trails continues. Why is this? Formal and informal surveys have shown that large numbers of visitors to Marin County public lands are not Marin residents. The pressure to open more trails to bicycles is coming from several sources; advocacy groups who have financial backing from corporate sponsors such as car manufacturers, bicycle manufacturers, the outdoor adventure tourism industry, and manufacturers of accessory products. Whether legal or not, damage from mountain biking constitutes a mounting debt which public agencies have proven we cannot afford to pay.

Increased bicycle access to public lands translates into profits for motorized and human-powered vehicle manufacturers, the tourism industry, and all related businesses. In a few short years, off-road bicycle damage has been calculated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Cascade Canyon Preserve, alone. There has been no effective implementation of controls, enforcement, or maintenance programs, although sound land management policies have been adopted.

Until Marin County officials acknowledge the cause of the most destructive source of environmental degradation in our watershed, our natural resources will deteriorate at an alarming rate, unabated. Our tax districts cannot afford to pay the astronomical debt which is rapidly accumulating through the quiet conversion of watershed and nature preserves to predominantly recreational uses.

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