As the City of Portland navigates its way through the current Off-Road Cycling Master Planning process, the discussion of where mountain bikes belong in our urban and suburban landscapes has been pushed to the fore. The Portland metro area is blessed with some of the most iconic and accessible natural areas in the country. These urban public lands have become a haven for many city dwellers in which to explore the surrounding natural world.
As our political world has become increasingly polarized, so has our recreational world. Some argue that mountain bikes cannot share trails with hikers. We hear that bikes go too fast and are dangerous to hikers, children or the elderly, and we hear that bikes cause more environmental impacts than hiking.
It’s true that our natural areas are respites for wildlife, especially when compared to the growing city around them. But all forms of outdoor recreation can impact natural ecosystems. So why would we allow one form of human outdoor recreation such as hiking, and ban another form that has been shown through scientific studies to have similar impacts?
We all want the same things: to enjoy a human-powered, peaceful experience on a trail, surrounded by the sights and sounds of the natural world, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
“Off-road cycling” has a wide variety of meanings, all of which involve soft-surface trails. This can mean a relatively flat gravel path, suitable for young kids and beginner bicyclists. Or it can mean a narrower trail twisting through the trees, with an alignment specially designed to keep speeds low, and contoured to shed water and prevent erosion. Though some cyclists do enjoy riding at speed, our shared trails in urban and suburban natural areas would ideally be designed to be most enjoyable at 6 to 8 miles per hour, about the same speed as a trail runner.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have worked together to standardize trail designs to best support environmental health and user experience. This has led to the publication of a manual, the Guidelines for a Quality Trail Experience. This manual is now the benchmark for multi-use trail construction and management on BLM, Forest Service and California State Parks lands. Surely Portland Parks & Recreation and Metro will adopt these guidelines as well.
Properly designed trails, as outlined in this manual, minimize impacts to natural systems. They support ecosystem health by fully spanning streams and avoiding sensitive areas such as wetlands or riparian habitat, and by avoiding important breeding or foraging areas for wildlife. They tend to be wider where there is heavier use, and narrower as the user travels further from trailheads; this alleviates concerns for user conflicts near trailheads and for habitat fragmentation further out.
All humans need nature. We need to experience the natural world for our physical and mental health. Nature needs us, too. The conservation movement was started by hunters interested in conserving nature so that they could continue the outdoor activity they enjoyed. The Sierra Club, Audubon Society and other organizations have programs designed to get people outside and into natural areas, specifically so that those people learn to appreciate the natural world and become nature’s allies.
Constituency is critical to conservation. When we ban certain user groups from our natural areas, we minimize the number of potential new allies for our local flora and fauna, and we reduce the number of people excited to get outside and help maintain the trails they love. But when we get more people into nature, and allow them to experience the natural world in the manner they enjoy most, they fall more in love with the great outdoors. And people naturally want to protect and support what they love.
The Northwest Trail Alliance urges all other outdoor advocacy groups to work together with the off-road cycling community, not against them. Together, we can better manage and equip our public lands to be living, learning pathways to environmental appreciation and stewardship.
For anyone who would like to weigh in with their elected officials, email addresses are provided below.
City of Portland
Amanda Fritz, Amanda@portlandoregon.gov
Nick Fish, Nick@portlandoregon.gov
Dan Saltzman, Dan@portlandoregon.gov
Chloe Eudaly, Chloe@PortlandOregon.gov