Upfront: Path of peace

Trail Partners presents campaign for better etiquette in open spaces

by Peter Seidman

The Marin Museum of Bicycling and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame opened in Fairfax on June 6, the same day that Trail Partners held an inaugural event in that organization’s effort to bring peace to trails in Marin open spaces.

The two events highlighted the history of biking, especially mountain biking, in Marin, as well as the problems that come with popularity. Marin has been wrestling with the increasing popularity of mountain biking ever since the 1960s, when a small group of enthusiasts pointed their fat-tire bikes down the slopes of Mount Tam. They created a new sport and an industry that has spread across the globe. And while most mountain bikers play nice with other trail-users, a rogue element in Marin has always stirred controversy on the county’s trails.

In writing a draft version of the county’s open space management plan, consultants came out of the gate with this: “Conflicts among visitors, safety concerns, high speed and extreme riding, unauthorized off-trail use, highly destructive trail building in fragile areas, sedimentation into creeks, fire risk and fuel management needs, the proliferation of invasive non-native plans, and subsequent diminution of ecological integrity brought preserve management to a critical point in 2010.”

Conflict among visitors is a reference to a seemingly intransigent problem: A minority of mountain bikers speed on trails and create hazards for hikers and equestrians.

The conflict between bikers and other users came to a head when two equestrians on a single-track, no-bikes trail in the Indian Tree Preserve in Novato said that two boys on bikes came flying around a blind curve and spooked their horses. One of the riders was thrown and suffered spinal fractures. The horse she was riding bolted and wasn’t recovered until 24 hours later. Although the boys reportedly were only 10 or 12 years old, an age when reckless behavior is not unheard of, the incident renewed calls for mountain bike management on county trails.

After that incident, Curt Kruger of the Marin Horse Council, Kim Baenisch, former executive director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition (MCBC) and Tom Boss, off-road and events director at the coalition, started talking in an attempt to begin a peace process among user groups on the trails. “We recognized that what was really needed was a comprehensive effort at culture change,” Kruger says.

Last year, the two organizations, along with the Marin Conservation League, created Trail Partners. The idea was that through an outreach effort on and off the trails, each user group could better understand why rules and etiquette are necessary when riding and walking on trails. Trail Partners was—and is—an attempt to reroute a conversation that in the past often veered toward the invective, to a new path of cooperation.

Each user group started actually listening to the others, rather than merely hurling accusations. The event on June 6, dubbed “Slow & Say Hello!” saw Trail Partners at locations across the county spreading the share-the-trail message.

It’s been done before. The MCBC has stationed members at trailheads to disseminate safe-trail etiquette, for instance. But the event on June 6 was a coordinated event that could signal a new and invigorated effort to educate and cajole trail-users. That’s tough—changing trail culture is no easy task.

Speaking for Trail Partners, Kruger says, “For the past few years, we worked on an investigation into the root causes of the conflict issues on the trails and the environmental damage. Not just what is happening, but why, what goes on inside [users’] heads. We also have Tails and Tires.” That’s an education program that was a precursor to Trail Partners. The investigation and early work led to Trail Partners. Volunteers for the June 6 event distributed brochures that feature information aimed at each of the three user groups. The information explains why, for example, a mountain biker should proceed with caution when meeting a horse.

It’s the explanation of the rules that could bring a new understanding. It’s also part of Trail Partners’ mission to impart a sense of personal responsibility and cooperation to the users in each group—not just mountain bikers. Kruger says that when some bikers met some equestrians on a trail recently, the bikers slowed and interacted with the equestrians. The horseback contingent said that there was an area to the side of the trail where they could bring their horses and let the bikers pass safely.

And underscoring Trail Partners’ effort to seek across-the-board cooperation, the brochure mentions that horses can be intimidating for hikers, and equestrians should bear that in mind.

Although the inaugural event for Trail Partners signals a positive turn of events, a wave of sweetness and light has yet to shine without exception among the three user groups. Even setting aside the recalcitrant cohort of mountain bikers who will never obey speed limits or courtesy concerns, conflict on county trails seems endemic in Marin. Traffic laws get ignored. Trail etiquette is rejected.

That’s the culture that Trail Partners and those who seek to calm bike road traffic seek to moderate. But with human nature being what it is, it may be a virtually impossible task to convince the recalcitrants to calm their behavior. Take a look at the reckless vehicle driving on Marin roads. “I often say that the same [minority of] riders who blast down a trail in the open space probably load their bikes on a car and cut people off at an exit on the freeway,” Boss says.

The tension among user groups is nowhere more apparent than in a recently formed, informal association of hiking and equestrian enthusiasts. Calling themselves the Footpeople, they say that land managers in the county’s open space and the Marin Municipal Water District watershed need to tighten enforcement of the rules and regulations.

According to a report that the Footpeople compiled, rangers in the county’s open space issued “less than one biker citation per ranger/deputy every two months.” That’s insufficient to control recalcitrant bikers, say the Footpeople, whose report states, “The data provided strongly suggests that enforcement of the Marin County Open Space District code provisions relating to bicycles is not given sufficient priority.”

Hunter Sykes is a spokesman for Access4Bikes, perhaps the most militant organization pushing for increased trail access for mountain bikers. He says that the Footpeople cherry-picked statistics to prove a problem that doesn’t exist. Even with an increased number of enforcement officers (the Open Space District now has 11 rangers and a deputy sheriff), the number of citations has not increased dramatically. Sykes says that’s proof that a problem doesn’t exist.

Nona Dennis, a member of the Conservation League and part of the Footpeople contingent, says that the increased number of officers means little if they fail to issue citations when they should. That’s not such an easy task. An officer must see an infraction to issue a citation. The nature of open space trails makes that difficult, even though many infractions occur at the same spots on county trails.

“Although enforcement of open space rules is an essential foundation for appropriate behavior,” Dennis says, “Rules alone cannot resolve [all] the conflicts. You have to have strong ground rules as well as active enforcement. There’s a fringe that simply won’t respond to anything else. They’re the ones who ruin the experience for everyone.”

Those uncooperative users—whether they’re hikers, bikers or equestrians—will look at the “Slow & Say Hello!” paradigm and “just say, ‘F you,’” Dennis says. It’s the rest of the users, the majority, who will respond to the Trail Partners’ message, and that’s a worthy contingent to reach. The ultimate goal, perhaps a blue-sky goal, rests on the hope that peer pressure among users can reduce tension and confrontation on the trail.

“We need something positive for people to latch onto, and the majority will respond,” Dennis says. “There are a lot of people who will do the right thing. It would be really nice to have them self-enforcing more than they do.”

Dennis says that Trail Partners’ effort is meeting “a strong sense of cooperation” from the MCBC. But, Dennis adds, “I don’t know what we’re going to get from Access4Bikes.”

Sykes says that his organization supports Trail Partners’ premise, but because Access4Bikes is solely aimed at increasing access to trails, it isn’t an active participant. “The brochure is great,” he says. “But what bothers us a little bit is that two of the three partners are organizations whose members are always speaking against increased bike access. That’s troublesome to us. They don’t seem to be forthcoming about wanting to share trails.”

Contact the writer at [email protected]

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