The debate over which “user group” should be allowed to use what trails is a seemingly endless debate, especially here in the San Francisco / Silicon Valley area. We have enormous amounts of protected space, both close to highways housing areas, as well as a bit further away. “Generally speaking” the busiest trails are reserved only for hikers. This makes sense, as it allows, for example, small children and moms with strollers to enjoy the trail without needing to be cautious of other users (cyclists and equestrians). Where the questions arise is for the trails that get much less usage. Should they be restricted? Who suffers and who benefits? Wildlife? Other user groups?
I could rant about steaming piles of manure in the trail that wash into fish habitat. I could rant about skittish horses and their whining owners. I could rant about aggressive cyclists, banked turns and bad manners. It’s all been said before and it won’t go away anytime soon. What I want to rant about is when equestrians or cyclists get priority over each other. In my view, the “negative impacts” of equestrians and cyclists are roughly the same. If it’s not a densely used trail, and it’s not a sensitive habitat where erosion is an issue, OPEN IT UP! There will always be “bad eggs” (aggressive cyclists, skittish horses, NIMBYs) in each user group, but 99% of the people out there are respectful and kind to each other.
I will use the 86,000 acre Henry Coe State Park (http://coepark.net/pineridgeassociation/) as an excellent example of how the National Parks might operate. Henry Coe strictly limits the use of trails within about a 3 mile radius of headquarters. Beyond that radius, it’s WIDE OPEN to everyone. (With the exception of the portion designated as “Wilderness Area”. More on that later…) In my experience, the only time that Hikers, Equestrians and Cyclists don’t get along is when it’s crowded and someone gets surprised or passes too close for comfort. In backcountry areas where it’s rare to see another human, conflicts don’t exist!
A very unusual sign! (Coyote Creek Trail, between San Jose and Morgan Hill, CA)
Another case in point: The Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers (http://www.romp.org) does quite a good job of reaching out in the community to attend planning meetings for trails and organizing volunteer work crews. They often find it frustrating that equestrians are favored over cyclists by parks management. Why? Is it a generational “age thing”? Do equestrians, especially in Silicon Valley, represent wealth and connections?
I don’t expect to change the world with this humble blog post. I do want to point out to others in “cyberspace” that we shouldn’t always see the world in a polarized manner. I set about writing this today after seeing a tweet by @NatParksBlog, which is a private “Community blog for all those that love National Parks”. They Tweeted an article “Rocky Mountain National Park should keep bikes out” http://www.collegian.com/2014/02/rocky-mountain-national-park-should-keep-bikes-out/61697/ Upon seeing that, my little corner of the Twitterverse, which includes hikers and cyclists, jumped all over that article.
The dominant feedback on the “no bicycles” article is that with proper planning, National Parks could be just like the trails I mentioned above: hikers only on the heavily used areas, and OPEN UP the backcountry to both cyclists and equestrians. These parks are HUGE and visits to National Parks are dropping. Why not encourage new user groups? For example: the Geocaching hobby has been embraced by many parks authorities (excluding National Parks) for bringing admission-paying users to lesser used parks, and often their tourist dollars to the surrounding motels and restaurants. This is a good thing, folks!
Some of this discussion also entails debate over the intent of the “Wilderness Act of 1964”, which prohibits “mechanized vehicles” in designated wilderness areas. This has been interpreted to include bicycles, which is controversial in it’s own way. Did they mean to refer only to combustion engine vehicles in 1964, prior to mountain biking? There are 100 million acres of federally designated “bicycle free” Wilderness, in addition to the National Parks. Would allowing a little human-powered tourism in our National Parks be a bad idea if it reverses declining visitors? Perhaps some folks would like the visitor numbers to decline to zero and leave nature completely untrammeled?
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the “closed to bicycles” areas far exceed those closed to equestrians. Cyclists are enthusiastic, and often younger, users of our parks. They should be welcomed and appreciated for the positive impact that 99% of them make. I hope the conversation can be more balanced for both of those groups.
An entertaining picture to leave you with! (Humor and/or vandalism at Joseph Grant County Park, San Jose, CA)