Upfront: Path of most resistance

Do bikers, hikers and equestrians finally agree on the newly approved Open Space District Road and Trail Management Plan?

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by Peter Seidman

When county supervisors recently approved a new plan that sets policies for trail use in Marin County open space preserves, they capped a long and contentious process in a quiet meeting marked by consensus. Hard work still lies ahead.

The meeting in which the supervisors approved the new plan was the 16th public session, including workshops, notes Linda Dahl, director and general manager at Marin County Parks and Open Space. The first meeting four years ago was marked by rancorous argument and a sign that the ensuing debate wouldn’t be genteel. But as the process unfolded under the guidance of stakeholders and Dahl’s open space department, it yielded a quiet assertion that hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians could, indeed, live together. Maybe not in a rainbow world with unicorns and shafts of ethereal light falling on them, but they could find ways to live together on the county trail system.

Reaching that point of consensus “is what you dream of in conflict resolution,” Dahl says. “The breakthrough was giving people a forum to have a conversation. Giving everybody a forum where they all had to come together and they all had to listen to each other and put themselves in each other’s shoes, and then agree that there should be rules and they would live by them,” created the process that led to the consensus.

Dahl and the county faced a daunting task: Creating rules for an open space system about which hard information didn’t exist. An ironic twist to a story that started when county officials in 1971 agreed that the hillsides and ridgetops of the county should be protected by concentrating development along corridors that corresponded to main roads.

As part of the process that led to the approval of the new road and trail plan, the county conducted for the first time an inventory of the trail system and assessed the condition of the trails. The county thought it had about 170 miles of trails. Actually the inventory found about 250 miles of trails that fell into three categories.

When county residents voted to create the Open Space District in 1971 to purchase undeveloped land, the district inherited trails that ranchers had built as utilitarian connectors. The district created other sanctioned trails. And rogue users hacked some illegal trails. The road and trail plan looks at each of the three categories in a process that allows informed decisions about whether to retain a trail, improve a trail or eliminate a trail. The road and trail plan is a policy document rather than a call for specific actions.

In 2010, when the Board of Supervisors, acting as the board of the Open Space District, held a meeting to begin a review of management practices in the district, about 47.5 miles of non-system trails criss-crossed the patchwork of preserves. Mountain bikers could use 24 percent of the single-track trails and shared-use trails. Hikers and equestrians objected to any suggestion of expanding access to mountain bikers.

The battle lines drawn then were similar to the battle lines drawn in 2005, when a study of the county’s open space policies revealed that most Marin residents favored the status quo when it came to bike access.

But contention on the roads and trails had simmered for some time and showed no signs of abating. The main issue focused on hikers and equestrians who voiced concerns and complaints that mountain bikers rode too fast on shared routes, causing hazardous conditions for everyone and generally creating an unpleasant experience for hikers and equestrians. Letters to the editor decrying the bikers often appeared—and still do—in waves. The fact that most mountain bikers ride with courtesy is overshadowed by a rogue element that creates continual bad press for the bikers.

The huge irony is that in the county where mountain biking began, trail-users wanted to limit bikers from riding on roads and trails in the district. Back in the 1960s, Joe Breeze and his friends looked at their fat-tire bikes and turned their heads toward Mount Tam. The early attraction was inescapable. The boys began riding the mountain. In doing so, they created a sport and an industry that has swept across the globe. The thrills are unmistakable. But so is the impetus to get closer to nature at a slower pace, on foot and on horse and bike. The speed demons often overshadow the more causal bikers who simply enjoy riding in nature. (Breeze now is curator at the nascent Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax.)

The problems of sharing trails with the minority of bikers who favor speed over contemplation came to a head when two equestrians on a single-track trail in the Indian Tree Preserve in Novato said that two boys on bikes flying around a blind curve spooked the 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. The incident triggered renewed general condemnation of mountain biking. Although the two boys reportedly were about 10 or 12 years old, an age of irresponsibility, mountain bike critics used the incident to renew calls for limiting mountain bike riding.

Controlling the relatively few rogue riders always has been an issue when it comes to sharing trails. Bike groups have conducted their own outreach campaigns to educate their membership about the rules of the trails and proper etiquette. The situation is analogous to drivers on the freeway who speed wildly in the center lane—or the fast lane—and then at the last minute force their vehicles into a line leading to an exit ramp. The behavior has become common in Marin. The Highway Patrol cannot ticket all the recalcitrant drivers who show little respect for safety and etiquette. Neither can officials control all bikers who ride the roads and trails of the Open Space District. But that doesn’t mean drivers are inherently disobedient and uncaring. Neither does it mean all bikers are rogue elements. (The district has added nine rangers, and Dahl says the district can, if necessary, ticket rogue riders.)

In another irony, the challenge of sharing roads and trails in the district is exacerbated by the success the county has had in creating an open space system that’s enticing. In addition to Marin residents, people come from across the Bay Area and beyond to enjoy the road and trail system. The road and trail plan is, in part, an acknowledgement of that attraction.

Early in the process, a draft of the road and trail plan included policy implications that could have led to a strong prohibition of off-trail use for hikers. That met opposition from critics who said a large part of the attraction of the open space in the county was the ability to wander in nature. The final version allows hikers to walk off of the roads and trails—as long as they are not unaccompanied by dogs. Mountain bikers and equestrians must stay on designated routes.

The change in policy is one example of how the public process helped shape the final version of the document. “It’s a small system” that has many users, Dahl says. “They like it because they want to experience nature. If everybody does everything they want to do, there’s no nature left.” The road and trail plan sets policies the county will use to create specific standards and procedures for each of its preserves.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Dahl says. “The mandate is to let people enjoy. The big debate is how much enjoyment is too much and what’s appropriate enjoyment. That’s what this process brought us to.” When discussions started about creating the plan, the talk centered on what range of environmental pressure the county and users and residents were willing to accept. “We’ve done that” with the road and trail plan, Dahl adds.

“The process worked,” says Tom Boss of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “We went into this process knowing we were going to have a seat at the table and we weren’t going to get everything we wanted. But Director Dahl told us that [we would have a seat], and I think she honored that.” Boss says that bike advocates pushed for as many miles of trail as possible, and although the bike contingent didn’t get everything, it got “the key things we wanted.”

One of those keys includes a policy that strives for road and trail connectivity “for all trail-users.” The district will “consider one-way, uphill only, time separation and single-house or priority-use trails to achieve these ends.” Wagon Wheel Trail in Camp Tamarancho in Fairfax is a mountain bike priority trail. For 17 years the trail has been a priority route for bikes. No conflict has resulted among users, notes Vernon Huffman of Access4Bikes.

Like Boss, Huffman is pleased with the outcome of the road and trail debate. “We’ve come a long way from that first contentious meeting,” he says. The Open Space District “has done an exceptional job of listening and responding to all the different interest groups” on the way to creating “an environmental protective document. It’s pretty impressive.”

The massive growth in the sport, the lifestyle, of mountain biking has changed the demographics on the roads and trails of the district. The management plan is an attempt to recognize the changing demographic and adjust policies to accommodate the new users as well as protect the legacy users. “We are now 25 to 30 percent of the users,” Huffman says. “We’re asking for change. They are trying to accommodate it.” Above all, the road and trail plan holds safety as the paramount goal, along with environmental protection.

The bike community also succeeded in winning an adjustment of how creating new trails will affect old ones. In a draft version, the plan called for no new trail miles in the preserves. The plan delineated four zones, from the most environmentally sensitive to the most amendable to recreational use. In the most environmentally sensitive zone, if the district built a new trail, for every mile of new trail the district would eliminate two miles of old trail. In the other three zones, for every mile of trail that gets built, the district would eliminate a mile of old trail.

The calculation was based on linear miles of trail. Boss says that the bike coalition pushed for a different way to look at the trail-for-trail process. “We pointed out that removing one mile of steep fire road is going to have a greater effect than removing two or three miles of switchback trail that is much more gentle on the environment. Now, it’s the cumulative impacts rather than the linear” assessment that will decide how much trail must be removed to make way for new routes.

Although the policy document has been approved, the hard work of using the policies to create specific rules in the preserves is yet to come. Starting in a few months, the district will conduct another series of open meetings to set specific rules and standards for the preserves.

Nona Dennis of the Marin Conservation League wanted those standards in the plan. She says that without them, the document is incomplete. “The things the plan does are good,” she says, but parameters for safe design of trails should be established and included as part of the plan. (Dennis calls the road and trail plan basically a mountain bike plan.) Dahl, Boss and Huffman say that setting overall standards is too general an approach. A better way to accomplish what Dennis talks about should come as the district sets specific rules for each preserve. Setting those rules sets up the next round of debate.

Huffman adds that Access4Bikes is ready to move to other agencies in a wider push for bike access. He says that the Marin Municipal Water District is next. “No legal bike trails exist on Water District land,” he says, and that land represents “the heart of Marin.”

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