Us and Them, or Who Owns the Land Anyway?

This past week, a horrifying picture made the rapid social media rounds in our neck of the woods. The picture shows a local rider and bike shop employee with a severe red gash across his neck. The accompanying story said merely that “Unfortunately you will now need to use extreme caution riding in the Durance Lake area, also known as Partridge Hills in Victoria, BC. Someone has strung wire or wires at neck height. If you know or see anything, please contact authorities immediately.”

Within a day, local authorities announced that the wire didn’t appear to have been placed across the trail intentionally, that it was old wire that had been out there long enough to have grown into the tree on one side,  that the trail isn’t widely use, and that they weren’t really sure how it got strung across at this time. Okay, check, fair enough, and pardon? If you aren’t sure how the wire got across the trail at this point, isn’t it worth considering it might have been intentional?

What really struck me though, was how quickly the riding community coalesced to spread the word. This was no idle threat of danger – this was a very real possibility. Because, this is not an isolated story. Again and again we hear about damage done to trail structures such as board on wall rides being removed or bridges being sabotaged. In one of the most heinous cases, a publicly-employed psychologist confessed to multiple acts of vandalism and was charged with assault for endangering riders in Ashland Oregon. Let me say it again – a psychologist … go figure.The list goes on. And while a simple “why can’t we all just get along?” is appealing, the issues around mountain biking trails are as complex as any in which multiple interested groups share a stake. Add in the big business of insurance – who is liable if someone is hurt or killed on public lands? – and we have a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves mountain bikers, for the most part, riding unsanctioned trails. When ‘unsanctioned’ also means shared with horseback riders, hikers, dog walkers, and other recreational land users, tempers will often flare. Both horses and many dogs (not to mention skittish humans) have a tendency to startle when a biker comes up on them unannounced – especially if the bike is moving at high speeds from the horse’s blind side. Everybody wants their piece of paradise, but not everybody wants to share.

There’s also a keen environmental debate about the damage to forest floors that mountain bikes can leave. Add in technical features such as berms, bridges and elevated board walks, and what was just riding your bikes in the park really begins to irk people. Like so many other user groups – mountain bikers want to enjoy the outdoors, not destroy them. Given the opportunity and partnerships, great fun trails can be built in public lands.

The documentary movie “Pedal Driven” does a great job of breaking down this complex conversation and showing an example of how a committed band of riders made a difference with the United States Forest Service in Washington state. The work of changing the forest services’ mind was so much harder than the work of building trails, and so worth it in the end when people get to share the land.

I have a confession to make – my favourite place to ride in our home town is not sanctioned for bikes. However, since the other main user group in this particular forest is dog walkers who are supposed to keep their dogs on leash and rarely do, there’s an unspoken agreement – I won’t complain about your off leash dog if you don’t complain about my bike.

There’s a better solution though, and it’s one the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) is working on locally, nationally and internationally – advocating for more sanctioned, supported trails in the jurisdictions where riders are present and willing to help build and maintain those trails. I really respect the IMBA’s four pronged approach: Speak (lobbying and advocacy to build partnerships and policy support), Build (constructing fun, functional trails for riders of all abilities), Respect (promoting good stewardship of public lands), Ride (celebrating and sharing the sport).

I do wish we could all just get along. I wish that whenever Rivers went out on his solo rides, that being caught in sabotage wasn’t on the list of things I worry about for him. And, I’m so grateful for the people not just at IMBA but also through our local bike clubs and in parks planning committees who work every day to make sure that mountain bikers have a safe place to ride.

Maybe some day pictures like the one at the top of this post will be more shocking. Wouldn’t that be nice.

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