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Trail groups propose limits for mountain bikers

Santa Barbara News-Press 27 September 2004

Melinda Burns

Declaring a truce after years of sniping, the leaders of hiking, bicycling and riding groups on the South Coast have proposed a partial ban on mountain biking on the steep trails through the foothills of Santa Barbara and Montecito.

The ban would extend for a two-year trial on either odd or even days, meaning that the front-country trails through the Los Padres National Forest to East Camino Cielo would be off-limits to mountain bikers every other day.

Trails advocates said they met for two years before coming up with a compromise all could accept. It is time, they said, to build new trails instead of fighting over the old ones.

"We're moving towards something that's new," said Ray Ford, president of Los Padres Forest Association, a nonprofit group that hosted the meetings. "For the first time, everybody sat down and worked things out. In the past, it was just a lot of groups yelling and screaming at each other."

As proposed, the odd-even arrangement would apply to the Jesusita, Tunnel, Cold Springs, San Ysidro and Romero Canyon trails. It would not apply to the Rattlesnake Trail, which is already off-limits to bicycles, or to old Romero Canyon Road, or to the Arroyo Burro Trail, part of which passes through private land.

"We'll see if this brings people back to using the trails," said Tony Biegen, who participated in the meetings as the Sierra Club hikes chairman. "At the very least, you'd have one day every other day when you could relax a little bit and not be concerned about your safety."

The trails leaders presented their plan this month to the Los Padres National Forest and the parks departments for Santa Barbara city and county. Public hearings are expected later this year.

The debate over wheels on trails goes back 40 years in Santa Barbara. During the late 1960s, the Sierra Club waged a campaign to ban motorcycles, declaring that "trails are for feet and roads are for wheels."

When mountain bikes burst onto the scene in the 1980s, the conflict ignited again.

As the number of bicyclists increased, horse riders abandoned their favorite paths. Hikers complained of near-accidents. The mountain bikers said a few bad apples were causing the problems, and they provided bells to bicyclists at the trailheads. The hiking groups, which outnumbered the biking groups, said all the trails should be closed to bikes. Both sides dug in, and the Forest Service was unable to negotiate a solution.

Three years ago, things came to a head with the appearance of the "extreme downhillers" -- youths who raced down the Tunnel and Jesusita trails, leaping over boulders on bikes equipped with heavy shocks.

"Nobody has had anything good to say about them," Mr. Ford said. "It's Generation X and a lot of the stuff you see on TV applauds that. Unfortunately, we have to live with that."

In addition to restricting mountain biking, the new proposal would create a trails alliance to work with public agencies on a master plan for the "front country" trails. By the end of two years, the agencies would break ground on new South Coast trails, including, perhaps, some new trails exclusively for bikes.

In addition, signs would be posted to educate the public about trail etiquette. And the volunteer "trail host" program would be expanded.

Representatives for hiking and horseback riding groups who worked on the compromise said bicyclists should get the credit for extending the olive branch.

"I was quite astonished when it turned out the mountain bike interests were willing to consider something like this," said Jim Childress, a member of Safe Trails, a hiking group that formed three years ago with the idea of closing some trails to bikes. "It may not be perfect, but it's a start. I felt it was important to sign on."

Otis Calef, a former rides chairman for Los Padres Trail Riders, said he hoped equestrians would gradually return to the front country trails.

"I'm really encouraged by how much the mountain bikers have given up," he said. "A lot of horsemen have been scared stiff of the bicycles."

Chuck Anderson, treasurer of the Trail Volunteers, said he and other bikers had come to realize it would be impossible to raise money for new trails in an atmosphere of mistrust.

"The odd-even thing is a short-term concession to get past a state where people are bickering over what we have," Mr. Anderson said. "We need more trails and better-designed trails to help people spread out without stepping over each other the whole time. That's really the vision."

Pressed for funds, the Forest Service today relies almost exclusively on volunteers for trails maintenance. Most of those who turn out to help are mountain bikers, even when the work entails blowing up boulders for horses on Rattlesnake.

But despite the extra help, the Forest Service is able to maintain less than 20 percent of its trail system; and the backlog, estimated at about $1.6 million per year, just gets bigger. There is no money to build new trails.

Rich Tobin, the Los Padres director of conservation partnerships, said he welcomed the trail advocates' proposal, especially the part about building an alliance.

"It's really a tribute to their hard efforts," Mr. Tobin said. "It's an integrated approach. But it's very preliminary. There's still a lot of work to do."

Mr. Calef said some of the work will be to convince others to accept the new plan.

"We're just all old duffers," he said. "What will the kids say?"