Bike Trails - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow|
Sunday, July 18, 2004
The Surveyor's Ridge trail begins beneath a web of sputtering power lines, climbs through a clear cut to a ridge, which straddles the Mount Hood Valley to the southwest and patches of clear cut forest to the northeast. Along the way, a Forest Service information sign tells visitors what kind of wildlife abounds there, what kind of weather systems roll through and what kind of vehicle a traveler might use to traverse the 11.7 miles to the trail's end.
|Photo by Christian McKnight|
|Cruisin' Oregon's Surveyor's Ridge|
Hiking, the sign says, is a common means of transport, as is horseback riding. One of the most popular forms of recreation along Surveyor's Ridge and the adjoining Dog River Trail, the sign says, is by mountain bike. The Mount Hood Forest Service installed that sign but might have to uninstall it should Senator Ron Wyden's draft proposal to grant 160,000 acres of forest Wilderness protection push through to Congress.
If that happens, sections of Surveyor's Ridge, Dog River trail and scores of other trails could transform from local mountain bikers' "own back yard" to geological seductions into misdemeanor criminality. In total, mountain bikers are bracing to lose more than 172 miles of trails throughout the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Mount Hood National Forest.
The effects on the Northwest mountain biking community would be devastating, says the Columbia Area Mountain Biking Advocates (CAMBA), a regional affiliate to International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).
"We stand to lose 150 miles of mountain biking trails, leaving 50," said CAMBA member Kay Kucera. "That's one-fourth."
The Wilderness status will simultaneously protect the 160,000 acres from logging, development and excessive use, including any means of travel that relies on "mechanized transport." Off-Road-Vehicles, motorbikes and snowmobiles are obvious members of the "mechanized transport" category, says CAMBA member Douglas VanZandt. "I can't think of any places where mountain bikes are allowed where they shouldn't be," he said.
Hiking and horseback riding, for example, are two forms of recreation, which Wilderness protection will not prohibit, even though the environmental impacts of hiking and horseback riding is comparable to that of mountain biking.
"The impact of mountain biking depends upon where the trail is," said Jay Ward, Conservation director at the Oregon Natural Resources Council."Ridge tops, areas that are drier and not as steep sloped are not as sensitive. Wetter areas, such as wetlands and creek beds are very sensitive. At the time you can make the argument that hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking are similarly problematic."
Still, Ward says, drawing boundaries - both geographic and bureaucratic - is necessary to prevent a slippery slope that would end with further degradation of the forest, "Because there's a number of other user groups who want to maintain access, such as snowmobiles," Ward says.
The threat comes at a time when mountain biking is exploding in the Columbia River Gorge and at a place - trails - that attract 44 percent of forest visitors, according to the Columbia River Gorge National Visitor Use Monitoring Results.
BIKE magazine's June feature of mountain biking in the Columbia River Gorge is the most recent in a string of them that details the area's natural resources, riders and advocates.
|Photo by Christian McKnight |
|An area that would be closed off, but as |
photo shows, it is already damaged...
"What you're doing is restricting the amount of terrain when we're experiencing the largest growth of area mountain biking in our short history," said CAMBA member Douglas VanZandt.
For this reason, Sen. Wyden has opened his proposal to public comment at two meetings, one at Timberline and one in southwest Portland, which according to his press secretary Josh Cardin, earned overwhelming support from audience members. According to a The Wilderness Society poll, 60 percent of likely Oregon voters favored awarding Wilderness protection to the Mount Hood, Columbia Gorge, Badger Creek and Salmon Huckleberry Wilderness areas.
But until a Wilderness proposal reflects the environmental and recreational interests of CAMBA, it won't support the bill.
The two sides have been brainstorming two possible compromises. One of the solutions, said CAMBA spokesman Rich Lee, is that the immediate trails remain accessible to mountain bikers with the land immediately surrounding the trail enjoying Wilderness protection.
"But that invites too many other issues," Lee said. "Too complicated." Lee favors the second option, which would grant different sections of the forest different levels of protection, depending upon how pristine that environment is.
To exemplify his point, Lee pointed to Rick's Loop, which circumvents Lawrence Lake, a man-made lake in a section of proposed Wilderness. Surveyor's Ridge, Dog River, East Fork and Gumjuweck all run through, along or near areas trammeled by man, while the Wilderness Act's specific intent is to protect areas "untrammeled by man."
But ONRC Conservation Director Ward said categorical designations are too vague, too flexible.
"If you look at secondary designations, such as in the CRGSA," he said. "The management plans are written and rewritten and allow a lot of flexibility, such as logging."
Ward did say trail clean-up crews would still be allowed to clean trails, preferably with the most primitive tools possible, but, if the cleaners acquires a permit to do so, he or she could bring in a chain saw to remove downed logs.
"We want to work with them and try to make certain that the mountain continues to accommodate both mechanized recreation and non-mechanized recreation," Cardin said. "There was a reason the Senator put forward a draft proposal as opposed to actual legislation. The draft proposal gives everybody a chance to provide meaningful input. We know we will find areas where we will need to compromise. In fact we have found some areas that need to be improved."