| | By Alastair Bland
Several mountain bikers skirt single-file across an emerald hillside. The riders disappear briefly into a gully of oaks, pass over a bald hilltop and, after just several miles of single-track trail, come to a stop at a metal gate marking the boundary between property managed by the John Muir Land Trust and that of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Hikers can continue onward, but cyclists cannot.
"By law, all you can do is bike out here, look over the fence, and then go home," says Mike Udkow, a retired Oakland physician and president of the Bicycle Trails Council, a local group advocating to expand cyclists' access to public trails.
It's late December, and Udkow has led several friends on a short ride across the Fernandez Ranch, a 7,000-acre property a few miles directly east of Hercules. If they were to continue past the gate, they would wind up back at the trailhead where they started—a 5.5-mile loop that Udkow hopes East Bay MUD officials will one day permit cyclists to ride.
Udkow and the group look past the gate at a small herd of cows. The animals—explicitly permitted by East Bay MUD to graze here—have turned a green meadow into a messy, sloppy, slurry of mud and dung. "And they say we're the ones causing erosion," Udkow says with a bitter laugh.
The utility district's foremost priority is to provide clean water for millions of East Bay residents, and for the agency to prohibit bicycles while allowing cows seems like a glaring inconsistency in its land management practices, cyclists say.
But it's not unusual. In fact, cows graze on thousands of acres of East Bay MUD property, while all unpaved surfaces in the agency's jurisdiction are off-limits to bicycles. The East Bay Regional Park District, by contrast, is more lenient, allowing bikes on several hundred miles of dirt fire roads. However, most of the park district's single-track trails are open only for hiking and horseback riding, as cows graze nearly everywhere in the district.
Now, the local mountain biking community, led by Udkow's group, is pushing to gain access to lands that have historically forbidden their entry. Part of the interest comes from volunteer trail builders who are creating a 500-mile-long, car-free route encircling San Francisco Bay. Critical links on the Bay Area Ridge Trail pass through East Bay MUD land, and the utility district has proposed opening up several miles of unpaved fire roads to mountain bikers as part of a two-year pilot project. The experiment would help agency staffers assess whether cyclists can coexist with other user groups and might be the prelude to a permanent easement for bikes.
But a well-organized group of hikers and naturalists is fighting back. Hoping to keep local trails bike-free, they have argued that there simply isn't room for bikes on single-track paths. They also warn that cyclists will spook horses, injure hikers, damage plants, and disturb or kill wildlife.
Though the pilot project would only allow cyclists on unpaved roads on East Bay MUD property—not the single-track trails that so many mountain bikers relish—opponents contend that the plan represents a slippery slope. They argue that expanding access for cyclists will accelerate trail erosion. This, they say, is partly why they're pressuring East Bay MUD to complete an extensive environmental impact report, or EIR, before the utility district opens any roads to cyclists.
Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee, said he is concerned that mountain bikers, if allowed access to the proposed fire roads, will then create illegal trails that leave the permitted roads. "It's been demonstrably proven in Marin County that once cyclists get access to a park area, they go rogue, and they engage in seriously destructive activities," he said.
Mountain bikers like Austin McInerny think the Sierra Club's demands for an EIR are unreasonable and disingenuous—a delay tactic. EIRs are normally done for new construction projects. "They aren't moving dirt or building some new facility," said McInerny, executive director of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a Berkeley-based organization that introduces mountain biking to teenagers. "So why do they need a $100,000 review on trails and roads that are already there?"
Douglas Wallace, East Bay MUD's environmental affairs officer, said in an interview that the EIR process will not delay the agency's plan to allow mountain bikers to ride segments of East Bay MUD fire roads by the summer of 2018.
As for Udkow, his group has no interest in settling for eight miles of fire roads. They view the pilot project as just a small step toward their ultimate goal. "The trails are what we want—the fire roads are what they might give us," he said. "But at least this way, we'd get a foot in the door."
A short segment of the Skyline Trail between Tilden Regional Park and Highway 24 in the hills above Berkeley and Oakland may be Glen Schneider's favorite place to walk. It runs about a mile in length, parallels Grizzly Peak Boulevard and offers sweeping views of Mount Diablo and, on the clearest days, the Sierra Nevada. The immediate vicinity—a 250-acre parcel of East Bay MUD land that Schneider calls Skyline Gardens—is also home to hundreds of native plant species, many of which grow immediately adjacent to the trail.
Schneider, a member of the California Native Plant Society's East Bay Chapter who has spent months with volunteers trying to rid the area of invasive plant species while repairing sections of deteriorating trail, said that, inch for inch, this spot is the most botanically diverse in the East Bay. "It's like a Noah's Ark of native plants," he said.
Schneider welcomes the presence of bicycles on fire roads, but not on single-track trails—and definitely not here. The trail is narrow and in places passes inches from rare and protected plants. He said it simply cannot accommodate mountain bikers. "There's just no way—it's an extraordinarily sensitive area environmentally," said the Berkeley native.
However, cyclists do ride here. Schneider guessed that several cyclists every day, and perhaps 20 per week, illegally ride the Skyline Trail, and their impacts are adding up. During a recent walk on the trail, he stopped at a muddy depression. There were a few shoeprints stamped in the muck, as well as a faint horse hoof track. But primarily there were bike tracks grooved into the mud—what Schneider said is clear evidence that bicycles are eroding this piece of the trail.
Schneider submitted a report last summer to East Bay MUD containing photos of such trail erosion. His report documented 233 native plant species in the area—including 13 that are strictly protected by state laws—and extensively illustrated the evidence of illegal cycling.
But cyclists are adamant that they cause no more erosion than hikers and horses, and, in some places, definitely less than cattle. Poor trail design—especially segments that are too steep or pass through small basins where water tends to pool up—is the source of most erosion issues, they say. In places where erosion is persistent, horses and hikers contribute to the problem just as much as bikes do, Udkow argued.
"When you see a puddle with tracks in it, it wasn't the bikes that made the puddle," he said. "It's a badly placed trail." A good trail, he said, follows the contours of the land while avoiding dips and basins where water may collect.
Still, Schneider's report made a strong impression on Wallace of East Bay MUD. "The Native Plant Society made a persuasive case that the intensified use by bikes wouldn't be compatible with such biodiversity," Wallace said.
Hikers and horseback riders have been using East Bay MUD's land for decades. The utility district was established in the 1920s, when it began building dams on public land to store water pumped in from the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Forty years later, the district began allowing members of the public—hikers and horseback riders only—to use the land. More than 7,000 people currently hold trail permits for hiking and horseback riding. They share the acreage with the occasional pickup truck and the ever-present cows.
East Bay MUD's pilot project could result in cyclists getting permanent access to eight miles of existing roads that form part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. However, allowing the experiment is not a simple process. The pilot project can only proceed if East Bay MUD makes critical amendments to its master plan—a set of management guidelines that describes the objectives of the utility district. The master plan currently prohibits bicycles. Altering it to permit limited bicycle use will require a California Environmental Quality Act review, a potentially expensive process.
How expensive that process will be will depend on how extensive the environmental review is. The pro-cycling camp believes allowing bicycles to use existing gravel roads can be done with a minimum of paperwork and fuss. After all, these roads are already subjected to cows, horses, hikers, and even the odd service vehicle. Cyclists scoff at the argument that 2-inch-wide rubber bike tires would upset any existing ecological balance on these heavily trod fire roads.
But a coalition of groups called Safe Trails, Environmental Protection—which includes the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society—will likely take the utility district to court if it does not conduct the most intensive, detailed environmental review possible under state law—an environmental impact report, or EIR.
An EIR would also study the potential for cyclists to create illegal rogue trails and their impacts on sensitive plant habitat and protected species, like the Alameda whipsnake. If it's determined that cycling could have considerable unavoidable impacts, the doors might be indefinitely closed on bicycles.
Terry Noonan, a unit manager of interpretive parklands for the East Bay Regional Park District, is quick to point out that hikers cause their own share of damage to the landscape. Some, he said, bushwhack their own "bootleg" trails, and many hikers shortcut switchbacks. "We have illegal trails in the park system, and the problem is not isolated to one user group, and whoever made them, those trails have the same impacts," Noonan said.
Environmental impact reports are usually required to assess the potential impacts of construction projects or significant changes of allowed land use—things like a new road, a new house in the hills, or a vineyard that would require felling trees. "Allowing bikes on a few miles of existing road isn't a construction project," said McInerny of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
Cyclist and multiuse trail advocate Bern Smith, who is helping lead the creation of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, envisions the trail route as an opportunity to walk, bike, or ride a horse around the entire bay. If East Bay MUD sticks to its no-bikes policy, cyclists attempting to follow the route will have to use several miles of busy highway paralleling the trail—a diversion that Smith feels is unnecessary and, in places, perilous.
He said he appreciates that much valuable plant and animal habitat exists in the hills throughout the Bay Area. "But on existing infrastructure, where there are already trucks driving around, it's a little hard for me to believe adding a few bikes would have the kind of impacts for which we'd really need an EIR," Smith said.
McInerny argued that it would be nearly impossible even to see the evidence of bicycles on some trails trampled by cows. "There is no way you could study the impacts of bikes with the cows out there," he said. "There will be no discernible impacts. In that sense, the EIR is sort of a dead end."
While cyclists fend off accusations of destroying public trails, thousands of cows, permitted on East Bay MUD and park district lands, regularly trample trails, meadows, hillsides, and streambeds. Parts of the Fernandez Ranch trail loop near Hercules, for example, have been rendered almost impassable by herds of cows.
Along some trails, the heavy-footed animals bypass switchbacks. They prefer instead to lumber straight down steep slopes, stripping away the vegetation and causing small landslides of mud that collapse onto the trails and into the area's ephemeral creeks—apparently a blatant violation of East Bay MUD's stated objectives of producing clean water and ensuring that grazing doesn't degrade the environment.
But cows have been roaming East Bay MUD lands for longer than hikers and equestrians. Since the inception of the utility district nearly 100 years ago, grazing has served two main purposes—generating revenue from rancher use fees and reducing vegetation fuel loads that would otherwise create fire hazards. In the 1980s, East Bay MUD eased its focus on maximizing revenue and, instead, began rotating grazing animals from one area to the next with the idea of protecting wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Today, the utility district requires that the seasonal benefits of grazing livestock outweigh any detrimental effects on biodiversity and water quality.
While cattle graze on open hillsides and in shaded woodlands, horses use the fire roads and trails, and they have impacts, too. Some muddy sections of single-track are pockmarked with 3-inch-deep hoof prints that, come springtime, will harden into miniature potholes.
To date, cattle ranchers who pay to use East Bay MUD land to graze their cows have not stepped forward to oppose the cycling pilot project, but some equestrians feel there is no room in the backcountry for bicycles. Amelia Marshall, a board member of the Metropolitan Horsemen's Association of Oakland, said that in the past 20 years, she has had "a hundred encounters with mountain bikers that were disconcerting." She described one case in which a mountain biker who was "100 percent courteous" walked his bike past her and her horse. But the starting torque of the bike's rear wheel as the cyclist rode off kicked up a small puff of dust and oak leaves. The horse spooked and jumped off a small embankment.
"That was the test case that proved that, even if both parties have the best of intentions to share the trails peacefully, it's just a bad idea to have bikes out there," she said.
In some ways, the battle over East Bay MUD property comes down to who started to use the land first. And mountain bikers are definitely the newcomers. The sport was born in the 1970s, when adventurous teenagers and young adults in Marin County began riding bikes down the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. It gained popularity, and the ragtag community of cyclists—some of them bicycle mechanics—began building their own bikes from scratch. They combined sturdy frames with beefy tires, high gearing to accommodate steep uphill pedaling, and motorcycle braking components for breakneck downhill racing.
By the 1980s, mountain bikes were commercially available, and the culture went mainstream. As mountain bikers showed up in new places, tensions grew on trail systems around the nation. In some places, including Marin County, mountain bikers gained notoriety for shredding trails, blazing their own ones, and buzzing past hikers.
"And I get the impression that mountain bikes have been bad ever since," said Maurice Tierney, an Oakland mountain biker who moved to California from Pennsylvania six years ago. Tierney said he receives dirty looks almost every time he parks his car with his bike at the trailheads of the East Bay Regional Park District.
"Hikers look at me as though I'm about to do something illegal," added Tierney, who is the publisher of the Pittsburgh-based mountain biking magazine Dirt Rag as well as Bicycle Times, a magazine oriented toward bike commuters and tourists.
Tierney said that in Pennsylvania, mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders share trails in a communal system that is far more welcoming than that of California. He also noted that in many parts of the country, mountain bikers are a dominant labor force in trail maintenance. As a result, trail systems benefit overall from the allowance of bicycle use, he said. "A lot of users are thankful that we're out there on the trails, because we're also the ones maintaining them," he said. "Out here, mountain bikers are willing to do the work, but there's this old guard that won't let us in."
Sean Dougan, trails development program manager with the East Bay Regional Park District, is also an avid cyclist. Like Tierney, he grew to love mountain biking in an area where the sport is generally an accepted form of recreation. "Coming from Tahoe where you have these amazing single-track experiences all over the mountains, it broke my heart to move here and not be able to ride," he said. "It's something I've been hoping will change ever since."
In theory, the Sierra Club should be willing to at least discuss possibilities for local single-track cycling opportunities. A national policy of the organization directs local chapters "to identify places and situations where bicycles are clearly not appropriate, to recognize opportunities where bicycle use can be encouraged," and "to foster cooperation between trail user groups… ." The same policy also states that "[s]ingle track trails can present difficult management, safety, and environmental protection situations, but may be acceptable for bicycling as determined on a local, case-by-case basis."
Alan Carlton, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter's federal parks committee, said his organization recognizes the national policy and, far from violating it, has simply decided that no single-track trails in the Bay Area are suitable for bicycles. "There just isn't room for both bikes and people," he said.
But Dougan said things are changing in cyclists' favor. "It's just happening so slowly that no one seems to be noticing," he said. Dougan said a group of park managers, including himself, routinely meets several times each year to discuss mountain bike issues "and a path forward."
"Our approach is, people are going to ride where they want to ride—there's nothing we can do to stop that," he said. "What we can do is make it safer."
The park district, in fact, has publicly promised that it will open up its more of its own trails to cyclists to create connectivity on routes that cross into East Bay MUD land—but only if the utility district does so first. That puts the ball squarely in the water agency's court.
Gary Fisher is just one of many cyclists waiting for East Bay MUD to make the next move. Fisher was among the original group that designed and built the first mountain bikes below the flanks of Mount Tam. Considered a father of the sport, Fisher today sees mountain biking as more than just a pastime but a powerful vehicle for connecting people with the outdoors and healthier lifestyles. He believes cyclists shouldn't only be allowed on some existing trails. "We actually need more trails," he said.
Fisher hopes that bicycles eventually replace automobiles as Americans reconnect with their environment. From this perspective, opposition to trail biking is an impediment to progress. "These hikers are being selfish," Fisher said. "There are millions of people in the Bay Area who have a deficiency of vitamin-N—nature."
East Bay MUD has scheduled a public planning meeting for this month to further discuss the bike pilot project. But not all cyclists are pushing strongly for allowing bikes to ride throughout the East Bay hills. Josiah Clark, a consulting ecologist in San Francisco who has pedaled thousands of miles on Bay Area fire roads and trails while tracking wildlife, said that while there is no doubt that mountain biking can forge new bonds between people and the outdoors, the sheer numbers of people in the region are precisely what land managers must be wary of.
"These islands of native plant habitat are all that's left after we've destroyed everything else," Clark said. "They're the very last holdouts for Mission blue butterflies, burrowing owls, rubber boas, the Jerusalem cricket, the brush rabbit. All the native plant people are asking is that we don't tread on these last patches of intact habitat, and the mountain bikers are saying, 'Give us more trails.' "
On the Fernandez Ranch, a stream of urine exits the rear end of a cow, soaking the thick mud at the animal's feet as it walks with its herd, silently eying the mountain bikers grouped behind the gate. The cows are using a muddy fire road on which hikers are allowed but not bicycles. Several of the animals have broken away from the group onto a ribbon of pathway faintly visible across the flank of a steep green slope.
"Look," one cyclist jokes, "they've made a rogue trail!"
The trail runs level, along the elevation contour of the earth, and disappears around the back of the hillside.
The cyclist speaks again, but this time without sarcasm.
"That's actually a pretty nice trail."