The Community Collaborative hands comments to the Forest Service
Last Thursday, October 27, 2016, the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument Community Collaborative group (Collaborative) finalized their consensus comments on the SGMNM Management Plan. The process was helped immensely by the extension of the public comment period through to today, November 1st.
The Collaborative took a long, hard look at the draft Management Plan, and felt that it fell short of accomplishing everything desired by the community, and mandated by the Presidential Proclamation. I served on the Monument and Transportation Plan Coordinating Committee, tasked with developing comments for the entire Collaborative to review and approve. We broke down the management plan, and assigned sections to those with expertise and interest in the section topics. I helped write the Sustainable Recreation section with the Sierra Club representative, while the Heritage Resources section was initially drafted by an archaeologist. Over the course of two months, numerous conference calls, and four Collaborative meetings, the comments were developed and modified into a document that all members could support.
The Collaborative’s strength comes from the diversity of its membership. When the Collaborative was convened, effort was made to bring in diverse and sometimes opposing viewpoints, including some who did not initially support the Monument. Over the course of nearly two years, Collaborative members have become much more aware of and sensitive to the issues and viewpoints of other members. It’s been a slow process of building trust, and coming up with compromises that support the greater vision for the Monument. The member list is available on the National Forest Foundation’s SGM Community Collaborative page, along with all our meeting records and documents.
The Collaborative code of conduct prohibits any Collaborative member from submitting individual or organization comments that are contradictory to those of the Collaborative. CORBA’s comments supplement the Collaborative comments, addressing a few issues not addressed by the Collaborative. Both are posted here for review.
Nothing in the Management plan directly affects mountain bike access to existing trails. Much of the draft plan and the Collaborative comments concern social and environmental justice, transportation, and heavily impacted areas of the Monument.
The Forest Service expects to release a Final Management Plan next spring, as they read through and respond to all the public comments received. That will be followed by an objection period, then a final Record of Decision. The Presidential Proclamation mandates the completion of the plan by October 10, 2017, the third anniversary of the establishment of the Monument.
President Obama signs the proclamation, October 10, 2014
Next month, October 10, 2016 marks the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s proclamation declaring the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. We’re also two years in to the three-year deadline imposed on the Forest Service to develop a Management Plan for the new National Monument. The management plan development process is well on track to meet the October 10, 2017 deadline for completion, with a draft Environmental Analysis (EA) and draft Management Plan released on August 17, 2016. The public has until November 1st to submit comments on the EA and draft Plan.
Since the Proclamation, the Forest Service has conducted the Need to Change analysis, identifying what needed to change in the current Forest Management Plan to fulfill the mandates of the Proclamation. CORBA and thousands of others subhttp://need to changemitted comments on what we thought needed to change, which the Forest Service considered when developing the EA and draft Plan. The comment period has been extended until November 1st, to ensure everyone ample time to review, while still keeping on track for the 2017 deadline.
For the first time in Forest Service history, the agency was also tasked with the development of a Transportation Plan that would achieve a number of goals: provide access for those without vehicles or other means to get to the Monument, mitigate parking and over-use problems, and address environmental justice.
Over the summer, the city of Duarte did a trial run of shuttles from the newly opened Gold Line light rail station to Fish Canyon falls trailhead, giving Forest visitors a vehicle-free way to access the forest.
Over the next few weeks, a second pilot program will be running shuttles from the Arcadia Gold Line station to Chantry Flat, where there is a historic mule pack station, numerous multi-use trails, picnic facilities, historic cabins and at least two waterfalls. The free shuttle is being operated in partnership with Car-less California and the Forest Service.
For this pilot program, unfortunately the smaller buses aren’t equipped to carry bicycles, but for those who want to ride a bicycle to the rail line, there are bike lockup facilities at the Gold Line station. The Forest Service is already aware of our desire to have bike racks available when and if a permanent shuttle service is provided.
The shuttle will operate for three weekends with the first shuttle leaving Arcadia at 7 am and the last shuttle leaving Chantry Flat at 4pm. The shuttle will run continuously, approximately every 30 – 45 minutes. Dates:
September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and 25, then October 1 and 2, and October 8 and 9. The shuttle is free, no reservations are required.
Last Saturday, September 10, about 30 mountain bikers joined 50 or so HandsOn Santa Clarita volunteers to help with Sand Fire cleanup at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.
The HandsOn crew focused on the west end of the trail and the parkland surrounding the Nature Center. Meanwhile the SCV Trail Users headed up to the more heavily burned area at Walker Ranch campground.
We split up and built eight debris check dams in drainages that lead into the streambed of Placerita Creek. After a fire, soil and ash denuded of vegetation, can become major debris flows with a relatively small amount of rain. These debris flows do more damage to trails than anything else. We saw it in many areas of the Station Fire. I did an interview for Mountain Bike Action magazine, discussing the impacts of fire to trails.
The eight debris check dams will help capture sediment and slow down flows before they cross the trail and enter the canyon. They were constructed of native rock and sand bags filled from the dry streambed, upstream of the check dams.
Thanks to all the volunteers who came out to help, LA County for allowing us to help protect the trail we lobbied for access to, and to the SCV Trail Users for coordinating the effort.
We’re fulfilling our promise of being both responsible trail users, and stewards of our trails and public lands.
On August 17, the Forest Service released the remaining chapters of the draft Environmental Analysis (EA) and draft Management Plan. The plan will guide the management of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument (Monument) by the Forest Service.
The biggest changes are those mandated by the Presidential Proclamation, including the development of a Transportation Plan, to address parking and overcrowding. Nothing in the draft plan changes mountain bike access to trails within the Monument or the National Forest. It does however, update the current Management Plan to include the Pleasant View Ridge and Magic Mountain Wilderness areas which were designated after the current Forest Management Plan plan was last updated in 2005.
Some sources have described the draft plan as “toothless.” It is short on specifics and lacks details of how many of the objectives and desired conditions will be achieved. However, it isn’t meant to cover specifics. Those are on-the-ground project-level decisions, that must be in compliance with the Plan. The draft Plan takes much of the current Forest Management Plan’s existing language and direction, which provides management guidance that was deemed to be in compliance with the mandates of the Presidential Proclamation. Therefore many of those sections weren’t considered to be in need of change. The Plan appears as Appendix C of the draft EA.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement and more specific direction. The San Gabriel Mountains Community Collaborative (Collaborative) is undertaking a deep analysis of the plan. CORBA will be submitting comments, and will also submit comments as a member organization of the Collaborative. We encourage all to attend a meeting or the online webinar and submit comments, expressing your support for continued and improved mountain biking recreation.
September 14, 3 – 8 pm, Pico House, 430 N. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
September 15, 4 – 8 pm, The Centre, 20880 Centre Pointe Pkwy, Santa Clarita, CA 91350
September 17, 10 am – 2 pm, ANF Headquarters, 701 N. Santa Anita Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91006
October 4, 3:30 – 7:30 pm, Big Pines Lodge, Angeles Crest Highway, Wrightwood, CA 92397
The Collaborative have requested that at least one of the public meeting presentations be recorded and made available online for those whose schedules don’t allow them to attend one of the public meetings.
The Forest Service aims to have the final plan, addressing any comments received, next spring, followed by a formal objection period for anyone who submitted comments and believes they were not addressed. The proclamation mandates the plan be completed by October 10, 2017.
We recently posted a report on the completion of scheduled work on the Ken Burton Trail. On May 1st the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association, who partnered with CORBA to restore the trail, held their annual Pancake Breakfast fundraiser at Gould Mesa Campground in the Angeles National Forest. It was perfect timing for all to celebrate the completion of the Ken Burton trail.
Jim Burton cuts the ceremonial ribbon, as Steve Messer, Matt Lay and Jenny Johnson of MWBA, and Ken’s daughters Heather and Tania look on. Photo by Mark Skovorodko.
While the Pancake Breakfast was an all MWBA event, many CORBA members were also present to enjoy the celebration. Through the wonders of social media, we were able to connect with Ken Burton’s family, many of whom came to the event to celebrate the reopening of their “dad’s trail.” The cermonial ribbon cutting was performed by Jim Burton, Ken’s brother, with Ken’s daughters Heather and Tania, Steve Messer from CORBA, and MWBA’s Jenny Johnson as MC. Heather gave an inspiring speech about her dad, his love of trails, bicycles, and the National Forest where he served as Battallian Chief before being killed by a drunk driver on Angeles Crest Highway in 1988. A moment of silence was observed in honor of Ken Burton before the ribbon was cut.
Plaque of recognition for Steve Messer
MWBA thoughtfully honored Steve Messer with a special plaque of appreciation, made in the style of the original Ken Burton trail sign. Volunteers who gave two or more days of volunteer work received a commemorative T-shirt and a certificate of appreciation from the Forest Service. While the project was initiated and led by Steve Messer of CORBA, it was truly a partnership with both CORBA and MWBA volunteers working together to complete the trail restoration project.
It was a great day to celebrate the completion of one trail project, as we prepare to move on to the next project: restoration of the Gabrielino trail from Ken Burton trail junction to Switzers. CORBA has applied for a grant from REI, and will partner with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, Bellfree Contractors, and again, the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association to complete the project.
On Sunday, April 17, 2016, 32 volunteers converged on the Windsor/Ventura parking area, the Gabrielino trailhead, in Altadena. The day, hosted by our partners at the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association, was a complete success by all measures. It was our last scheduled group trailwork day on this restoration project, which began in earnest last Fall. In October last year, I declared that all these tools we were hauling up to the top of Brown Mountain would not be coming back down Brown Mountain. They’d be going out the bottom of the trail and the Gabrielino, once the trail was finished. Last Sunday, the tools were brought out of the bottom, as planned.
In reality, the project started long before last fall. In 2013, we scouted the Gabrielino trail north of Paul Little campground, up to Oakwilde campground and the Ken Burton trail. The trail was devastated, with two major slides (think hundreds of cubic yards of earth sliding off the mountain and taking the trail with it). Before we could work on the Ken Burton trail, we had to complete the Gabrielino trail to which it connects, otherwise the two trails would be dead-ends. So our first task was to restore the Gabrielino, up and over the Brown Mountain Dam to Oakwilde/Ken Burton trail.
While our experienced volunteers could tackle the project, we were much more confident having a professional take care of it. At the same time, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps signed a contract with the Forest Service to work on the Gabrielino trail. They didn’t feel comfortable repairing some of the major damage either.
CORBA applied for and received a generous grant from REI for this section of the project. We applied that grant primarily to pay professional trailbuilders Bellfree Contractors for their expertise and work with the LACC. That work required Forest Service engineers to inspect and approve the work plan, the removal of chainlink fencing, and the re-routing of two sections of trail to avoid the major slides.
Over winter 2014-2015, the work was completed by Bellfree and the LACC. They discovered the original trail alignment near Oakwilde Campground, a fully-benched trail segment 30 or more feet above the stream bed on the eastern side slope of the creek. There were sections of rock and cement retaining wall that we estimate were built as a part of the Gabrielino in the 1950s. The LACC and Bellfree restored the trail through that section, rather rebuilding it along the streambed that everyone had been using before the Station Fire.
This segment of trail was completed last winter, but the Forest Service wouldn’t open it to the public as it was a dead-end, and too many people had already been rescued trying to find their way through the Arroyo. The completion of that section allowed us to ask permission from the Forest Service to begin on Ken Burton trail.
Oakwilde campground was devastated, and was buried under 3 feet or more of silt and sediment as the Arroyo Seco swelled well above its banks, bringing with it all the dirt and sediment from the naked hills after the station Fire. Only the tops of the picnic tables, now a few inches above “ground”, are all that remain in the campground. We’re hoping the campground can be restored to a primitive hike-in backcountry camp in the future.
So while we’ve been working on the Ken Burton for just six months, more than two years of planning and pre-requisite projects have needed to take place.
Last Sunday we had a long list of tasks to finish Ken Burton trail. With so many volunteers to help, we completed: the complete rebuilding of three switchacks; widened and cleaned up three additional switchbacks; re-cut bench on a quarter mile of trail; rock-armored two switchbacks; installed a half-dozen drains; rock-armored and rebuilt two major washed out drainages; cleared brush from the upper trail that had grown in since we worked on it six months ago; and cleared additional brush and poison oak near the bottom, all on the Ken Burton trail.
Installing rock retaining walls on the Gabrielino trail
A finished rock retaining wall on the Gabrielino
With the additional manpower, we also installed two rock retaining walls, and widened two sketchy segments of the newly re-established route of the Gabrielino trail, just south of Ken Burton. That segment will be a part of the Brown/Burton/Gabrielino trail loop, and was an important project to complete for us to feel comfortable with the trail being opened to the public.
Walk-through of our day’s work
What the bottom section looked like before our work
While working, several mountain bikers and a couple of trail runners came through the trail. It’s nice to see the trail getting use after being closed for seven years. The trail and switchbacks near the top have packed down and hardened up beautifully, having had a longer time and a lot of traffic from all the volunteers riding and hiking in to work on the lower trail. Many of the switchbacks towards the bottom that are still very loose, having had little to no rain over the past few months as we’ve worked on the trail.
The most defining moment of the day, was when we, with Forest Service authorization, removed the “trail closed” sign from the upper Ken Burton trailhead at the end of Brown Mountain Road. A Forest Service ranger inspected the trail two weeks ago, and recommended the trail be opened to the public, once we completed today’s work. The ranger’s only comment was that the Ken Burton trail “is in way better shape now than many Forest Service trails that are already open to the public.”
Removing the Trail Closed sign
We concur. The trail is in better shape than most of us remember it from before the fire. With the brush not nearly as tall now, there are some incredible views that were blocked before the Station Fire. Eventually the brush will grow taller and obscure the views again, but right now, it can’t be beat. You can see downtown Los Angeles, all the way up the Arroyo Seco canyon, highway 2 and the historic Slide Canyon Bridge.
A rebuilt switchback, still soft.
The trail includes 22 switchbacks that get progressively steeper and more technical as you descend. It’s great practice! But locking up and sliding your back wheel around the turn is not the correct, or the fastest way to ride a switchback. Practice until you can ride without sliding! Until we get another rain and some time for the trail to pack down, we all need to take it easy.
Riding the Arroyo Wash along the Gabrielino Trail
The return ride on the Gabrilieno trail is always an adventure. On Forest Service maps the trail appears as “unmaintained, unimproved, primitive trail.” For about 1.25 miles, you’re riding in the sediment that has been trapped behind the Brown Mountain dam. It can be something of a maze to pick your way through, but as more and more people begin to ride Ken Burton trail, a more defined line will be developed through the arroyo wash. Then with a big rain storm, the stream may change course and we’ll find a new route through the wash.
That’s the beauty of this trail. It really feels like you’re in the backcountry and riding in a wild place.
The trail leaves the wash at a rocky hike-a-bike chute on the right side of the river. It’s marked by ribbons and tire tracks in the sand leading up to it. Eventually we’ll need to improve that section to create a rideable/hikeable ramp out of the wash. But for the moment, prepare for a 50’ hike-a-bike up through the boulders. The trail then meanders through the alluvium, before crossing the stream and beginning the climb up and over Brown Mountain Dam.
At the crest, there are great views of the Brown Mountain Dam from above. The chainlink fence that previously lined that section has been removed, with the materials from the fence being re-purposed as retaining wall structures for segments of the Gabrielino trail. The result is a much more pleasant segment with better views. The trail through this section is extremely loose, with three very loose, tight and steep switchbacks that most people will hike their bikes through. Coming the other direction, they will be a hike-a-bike for most.
The Gabrielino trail remains closed north of Ken Burton Trail junction. This “Trail closed” sign was moved from the top of Ken Burton to here.
Our next project in our ongoing mission to reopen all front country trails will be the completion of the Gabrielino trail through to Switzers and Redbox. Work has been underway on that segment for the past year by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, but they’re down to a similar situation where the trail is so bad they are going to need professional help. Once again, CORBA has applied for an REI grant to help complete the section. CORBA volunteer chainsaw operators will help clear more than 60 downed trees through that segment of the trail. It may be another year before the Gabrielino is opened all the way through to Switzers.
The effort this has taken is remarkable. We’ve had at least 97 individual volunteers who have given over 1650 volunteer hours, spread over 15 scheduled work days and another 14 prep days with smaller crews. Volunteers have collectively ridden (or hiked/run) over 4000 miles with over 400,000′ of climbing to and from the work site over the past six months. We’ve had volunteers from four high school mountain bike teams participating, and people traveling from as far away as Long Beach, Orange County and Santa Clarita.
So with the Ken Burton trail reopening, the question has been asked by several people. Who was Ken Burton? The Mount Wilson Bicycling Association did a great history of the trail. It was built from 92 – 95 by the Forest Service and the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association. Ken Burton was a much-loved Forest fire fighter who was struck and killed by a drunk driver near Chilao in 1988. The trail was named in his honor, and a memorial placed at the top of the switchbacks, the section with some of the best views.
While there is still a little fine-tuning to do, we’ll be having an official ribbon-cutting and volunteer recognition on May 1st at Gould Mesa campground, as a part of the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association’s annual Pancake Breakfast. Come out on out, ride the trail before chowing down on delicious pancakes, and check on your chances to win some amazing prizes. Volunteers who did at least two days of volunteer work on the project will be presented with a commemorative T-shirt. It’s the least we could do to thank everyone for such a great effort.
Now go and ride it. We’ve earned it.
Here’s a timeline of progress reports on the project:
Saturday, March 19, 2016, was a perfect day to do trailwork. There was moisture in the ground from the week’s rain, temperatures were cool, and the crew were able to ride to and from the work site via the Gabrielino trail. A half-dozen or so volunteers were already on their way to the work site when this group photo was taken.
Some crew members were already on their way to the work site
While several volunteers rode in via the Gabrielino, some opted to ride up to Brown Mountain and enjoy the fruits of their labor on the way down Ken Burton trail to the work site. It was the first time we had been able to ride all the way down to the 16th switchback without interruption. The volunteers who rode down Ken Burton trail were all in agreement that the efforts of the group over the previous five months had been well-worth the experience.
We were fortunate enough to have several SoCal High school league student-athletes and coaches join us for the day, along with members of the IMTBTrails.com mountain bike forum out of Santa Clarita.
This was a heavily damaged section
With the major brush work completed, the crew split into groups, concentrated on re-cutting the bench along a heavily damaged section of the trail, restoring outslope, and removing remaining roots and stubs from the tread.
Another crew worked diligently to rebuild the 16th switchback, using rock extracted from the tread to build an outside retaining wall on top of the old wire basket retaining structure that had failed. By day’s end, the switchback was completely rebuilt. We were fortunate to have the expert assistance of Hans from Bellfree Contractors on this major effort.
Rebuilding Switchback 16
By day’s end the crew had completed tread work almost all the way down to the 17th switchback, restoring one of the more heavily damaged sections of the trail so far.
So far, 81 individual volunteers have put in 1,408 total person-hours of work on this project in 14 scheduled work days, plus another 12 prep days. This is an impressive effort to restore this much-loved trail that was built by mountain bikers from the Mount Wilson Bicycling Association in the early 90s.
The next scheduled group work day on Ken Burton will be with Mount Wilson Bicycling Association on April 17, though there will be additional prep days before then. Contact Steve@corbamtb.com if you’re interested in helping prep before then (likely April 10).
On Thursday, March 3, CORBA and MWBA Volunteer Sawyers and some additional dedicated volunteers continued work on the Ken Burton trail. This time they started at the bottom of the trail, from its junction with the Gabrielino National Recreation Trail, working up the lower switchbacks through a tangle of downed trees, poison oak, overgrowth, and near-impossible wayfinding. Using chainsaws was the only viable means of cutting through the several fallen oak trees that once shaded this beautiful old oak grove. This shaded oak grove was often a popular spot to re-group after challenging oneself to clean all the switchbacks, before attempting the most difficult between there and the Gabrielino trail.
Steve Messer had spent February 20 flagging out the original trail, using a combination of GPS tracks, searching for ground evidence of dirt compaction that may still be found even after six years, and a good memory of one of his favorite trail loops.
The group made what appeared an impossible task look relatively easy, working carefully to cut brush, downed trees, and have swampers carry away and stash the cuttings. It was most gratifying to follow the string of ribbons, and find the original tread under all that brush and debris. We made it to the 17th switchback, our target for the day.
Day 13, March 13, 2016
Erik from MWBA cuts through the brush
Ten days later, on Sunday, March 13, 2016, was our 13th group trailwork day. It was especially encouraging to see that all our previous work has held up perfectly to the recent rain and storms, with no rutting, and soil being packed down nicely. The first sections we worked on last November are maturing nicely.
Our 13th worday on Sunday March 13, was a milestone day. With 21 volunteers out putting in a 7 hours or more, we were able to do a first-pass brushing on the last remaining section of trail, linking to our March 3rd work and to the bottom of the trail. This was a great milestone in this restoration project, now in its sixth month. We had cut brush from the entire trail corridor.
While the brushing tools and swampers diligently plugged away to reopen the trail corridor, the tread crew made quick work of the tread on about .3 miles of trail. With the damp dirt, cool temperatures, and sense of determination among the volunteers–many of whom have worked multiple days on this project–we had an extremely productive day.
Ryan and Stephanie work on tread restoration
There is still work to do on the 16th switchback, but it was rendered temporarily passable for the day. The last half mile of the trail is far from finished, needing a second pass with the hedge trimmers and extensive treadwork. But with some careful hike a bike the group was able to ride out the bottom of the trail, completing the loop with the closed Gabrielino trail. It was a truly gratifying day for all who made it.
We currently estimate two to three more days working on the bottom of Ken Burton trail, and an additional day on the Gabrielino trail between Oakwilde/Ken Burton and Paul Little.
We were also joined by an Ultra Distance runner, and past AC100 runner. Many trail runners are just as excited to get this trail opened as mountain bikers. During our last two days of work and long before we were finished brushing the corridor, we had hikers come up from the bottom, bushwhacking their way through until they heard us, then asking where the trail was. After reminding them the trail was closed to the public and we were working as Forest Service volunteers to rebuild it, he headed on beyond our work area for a leisurely stroll up the newly groomed segment of the trail, and all the way to Brown Mountain. People put far too much faith in outdated maps and information.
After loading up tools, the group rode out via the Gabrielino trail back to the trailhead and our meeting spot. This section of the Gabrielino trail was worked on two years ago by Bellfree Contractors. volunteers, and the Los Angeles Conservation Corps with the financial support in the form of an REI grant to CORBA, and funding from the Forest Service for the project. While the section was rebuilt, it has been two years and it also once again needs some minor work. Between Oakwilde and Bear Canyon the trail is in poor condition and almost entirely gone and unrecognizable for a long stretch. Plans are underway to continue work on rebuilding that section of the Gabrielino, once again in partnership with the LACC, USFS, Bellfree Contractors and REI.
Both the Gabrielino between Paul Little and Bear Canyon junction, and the Ken Burton trail, remain closed to the public by order of the Forest Service. Please respect the closure until the Forest Service opens the trails. We’re just as eager as everyone else to finish the project and be able to ride, but there are many steps to go through before that can happen, and it is the decision of the Forest Service as to when and if the trail will be opened.
For all the volunteers who have joined us for at least two days, we’ve ordered a special commemorative T-shirts. It’s our–CORBA and MWBA– way of saying thank you. If you haven’t put in two days, there are a few more coming up starting this weekend and in April.
Currently mountain bike advocacy is facing one of the the most important long-term issues in our history. The issue is whether mountain bikes should be allowed on trails in Wilderness areas. How mountain bikers and advocacy leaders respond to this can either be polarizing or make us an even stronger voice in the trail user and land stewardship community.
In Idaho Montana, the Wood River Bicycle Coalition, an IMBA chapter, worked with IMBA to build support for a National Monument rather than a Wilderness area. Over a period of several years, negotiations with wilderness advocates, motorized and other recreation groups and elected officials formed a broad coalition of support. However, raw ugly politics ultimately produced a Congressional designation for the Boulder White Clouds Wilderness. This was a painful and well-publicized loss to the mountain biking community. The land protection provisions they had negotiated in good faith to produce a bicycle-friendly National Monument designation were ultimately lost to a crass political maneuver to deny President Obama any semblance of a success. Congress passed a Wilderness bill and the Castle Divide and Ant’s Basin trails were closed to bikes.
Meanwhile, attorney Ted Stroll had been continuing his research into the Wilderness Act, and the congressional debates and intent surrounding that landmark legislation as it was enacted in 1964. He had concluded that the original intent was never to exclude bicycles, as a human-powered form of low-impact recreation, from Wilderness areas. Further research led him to believe that, in accordance with our constitution, we have the right to bring our grievances to the U.S. government. To do this, he formed the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), whose sole mission is to pass legislation that would allow local land managers to open trails to bicycles in Wilderness, and to authorize the use of machinery that would allow the most cost-effective and efficient maintenance on Wilderness trails, on a case-by-case, trail-by-trail basis.
How many mountain bikers view the wilderness ban on bikes
The timing of the Idaho defeat brought heightened attention to the STC and their focused, single-issue mission. It cast doubt in the mountain biking community about the effectiveness of IMBA’s approach of building broad partnerships and seeking compromises to both protect bicycle access, while protecting the landscapes through which we ride bikes with a mix of Wilderness boundary adjustments, cherry-stems, and alternative designations. This approach has been highly successful in many instances, but there have been some exceptions, with this loss in Idaho being the most recent and the most publicized.
Condor Peak Trail – Wilderness advocates are still proposing a Condor Peak Wilderness.
Here in the Angeles National Forest, we’ve lost access to much of the backcountry trail network on our Forest. This has placed increased use pressure on non-Wilderness trails by all user groups. Trail maintenance on Wilderness trails has come to a near-halt in many areas, and all user groups are losing those trails to nature. We don’t have any bicycle-legal singletrack options to traverse the San Gabriel Mountains north-south, or east-west, because of numerous closed trails, Wilderness designations, and restrictions on bicycles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Similarly, in the Sierra, Inyo, and Sequoia National Forests there are vast swaths of Wilderness and a few isolated areas that are open to bikes, many of which are currently being evaluated for Wilderness (and, remarkably, the folks who maintain many Wilderness trails and can’t keep up with the workload have objected to any new Wilderness.).
These Wilderness losses are very much a localized issue, affecting California and the Western States disproportionately to other areas. California has the most Wilderness areas of any state, and is second only to Alaska in Wilderness acres. Here in CORBA’s territory, we have the largest population base in the country near a National Forest. 1 in 20 Americans live within easy driving distance of the Angeles National Forest, with its five Wilderness areas and additional Recommended Wilderness taking nearly one third of the Forest.
Condor Peak Trail
Recreational activities are greatly reduced in Wilderness areas compared to non-wilderness areas, even if bicycles are left out of the equation. Maintenance efforts are greatly reduced and near-impossible for the Forest Service to schedule, as the cost of manual labor to rebuild trails (no mechanized tools allowed, even wheelbarrows) means these trails often don’t get worked on. While the same can be said of many lesser-used non-wilderness trails, this doesn’t bode well for the future of Wilderness trail recreation.
It also disproportionately affects a smaller subset of the mountain biking community who seek out, relish, and live for backcountry wilderness-type settings that can be experienced by bicycle. It’s why I started mountain biking, and what inspires me to continue exploring and experiencing these majestic landscapes. Sure, I love purpose-built flow trails, downhill trails, and our many favorite local trails. They are needed, but they don’t offer the same experience and escape that some of us live for. We need a broad spectrum of experiences and trail types to cover the many diverse reasons for which people ride mountain bikes, including wilderness-type experiences.
There have been calls for IMBA to take a stronger stand on the Wilderness access issue in print media, the blogosphere, and on social media. In fact, if you have followed closely, the amount of grandstanding on both sides of the bikes in wilderness debate has escalated. From reading some of what has been published, one could easily come away with the assumption that mountain bikers have to pick a side: either support the Sustainable Trails Coalition or support IMBA. Over the past month there have been many calls, emails and forum posts asking to cancel IMBA memberships.
Some writers in the print media have accused IMBA of taking a hardline stance against the STC, but there is much more nuance to their statements that has been overlooked. IMBA hasn’t condemned the STC or opposed their efforts. In fact, IMBA has for many months taken a neutral public policy position toward STC’s strategy, neither supporting nor opposing. Publicly, IMBA has simply stated that the STC approach is not appropriate for IMBA’s mission, given STC’s single focus, uphill battle, risks and uncertain future.
Pressure continues to mount calling for IMBA to support the STC, or at the bare minimum, take a more conciliatory stance and acknowledge the common ground that exist between the two organizations. IMBA have held a press conference explaining their position, posted an FAQ on land protection strategies they will continue to utilize, and conducted four Chapter Leader Executive Briefings with question and answer sessions with approximately 100 chapter leaders nationwide, which I attended. Many forum comments have construed their public arguments and tone as denigrating and dismissive of the STC, but in direct conversations with IMBA staff, that tone is much more nuanced.
With all this attention on Wilderness, one could be misled into thinking that this was the only issue facing mountain bikers. Admittedly, it is probably the most far-reaching issue that could fundamentally change our approach, as mountain bikers, to land protections nationwide, and especially in the Western states like California. But there are still plenty of more immediate issues and opportunities that need immediate, focussed attention, and that is where IMBA has chosen to put its limited resources and energy.
We see this “us vs. them” dichotomy as far from the case. The fact that IMBA has chosen not to support STC does not infringe upon anyone’s first amendment right to speak up for and support the STC, including us as a chapter of IMBA. IMBA’s (and CORBA’s, for that matter) plate is full with current mountain biking issues, and the vast amount of attention and resources needed to achieve the STC’s mission and focus on Wilderness access would hinder our ability to tend to more immediate threats, identify new opportunities, take advantage of current opportunities, and just get things done now.
We believe we need both organizations. STC’s single, focussed mission is to enact legislation that will allow management of wilderness trail access (and mechanized maintenance) to happen at the most local level feasible. STC is not a membership organization and as such is not structured for or able to do anything on the ground right now to open closed trails to bikes or develop and maintain positive relationships with land managers that are key to our future successes. It will be a difficult struggle and take some time before STC’s efforts may prove fruitful.
IMBA chapters are currently doing the vast majority of advocacy and access work at the local levels. If STC is eventually successful in passing their legislation it will likely be IMBA chapters doing the necessary outreach and hands-on work to give the STC’s legislation teeth, by working directly with local land managers to open trails under the authority of STC’s Human Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act of 2016 (HPWTMA).
Despite what has been claimed by the Wilderness Society and others opposed to bicycles in Wilderness, the STC bill doesn’t open ANY trails to bikes or mechanized maintenance. It allows the “most local” land managers feasible (likely district rangers and supervisors) to make those determinations on a case-by-case, trail-by-trail basis. That’s why IMBA chapters will need those strong relationships when and if the time comes.
You can bet the opposition to bikes will only get louder when that happens, both locally and nationally. It will be IMBA chapters with current, strong land manager relations that will be best positioned to follow through on any STC success. Land managers aren’t just going to open trails to bikes in wilderness areas if the STC bill is eventually enacted. If the STC bill does go through–and let’s be clear that we hope it eventually will–IMBA Chapters will need to actively engage with local land managers to open trails to bikes under the newly granted authority of STC’s legislation. Even then, those trail openings will probably require a lengthy NEPA process, and may come with restrictions. Permits, capacity limits, mandatory leave-no-trace classes, or other hurdles could be put in place as a part of that Wilderness access. Passing of the HPWTMA is just the starting point to opening trails in Wilderness.
In the meantime if people start choosing to drop support for IMBA chapters to support the STC, that will impede our ability to get things done now, such as bike parks, trail maintenance, new trails, and being a crucial voice in current land management and trail planning efforts. If CORBA/IMBA is weakened by an attrition of supporters now, it will hinder our ability in the future to build upon any STC success, and open trails currently closed to bikes by Wilderness designations.
One of the best things that STC is doing is bringing more attention to this major access issue. What saddens and frustrates us is that social media are misinterpreting some of IMBA’s responses, and turning this into an “us vs. them” situation, which will weaken our efforts on both fronts. We’d much preferred to have a more conciliatory tone from IMBA towards STC, even in the absence of outright support. IMBA has alienated a portion of their members through their statements and firm stance. That just doesn’t need to be so.
There is room–and a great need–for another group like STC to give the Wilderness issue the razor-sharp focus it will need to see through.
IMBA is a 501c3 and cannot directly lobby our government to introduce new legislation, endorse political candidates, and other restrictions. IMBA (and CORBA) are set up as 501c3 public benefit corporations, that can only influence existing laws and policies through public comments, broad-based partnerships with other organizations, and encouraging our members to speak up with their own comments and letters to elected representatives and land managers.
STC is set up as a 501c4, with the specific purpose of directly lobbying congress and our elected officials to enact change at the legislative level. They are able to do things that IMBA and CORBA cannot. It’s important to note that the Sierra Club is a 501c4, just like the STC. They have a companion 501c3, the Sierra Club Foundation, which collects tax-deductible donations that can then be used to support the lobbying efforts of their 501c4. They also operate under budgets 100 times larger than IMBA’s. Most mountain bikers are decidedly lackadaisical in their approach to advocacy–until their favorite trail is closed, or threatened to be closed. And as previously mentioned, while most mountain bikers support opening some trails in Wilderness to bicycles, the number of riders who may eventually utilize wilderness trails is likely much lower.
The mountain biking community has never had a 501c4 organization to stand behind before the STC came along. Just as the Sierra club leverages both a 501c3 and a 501c4 for various, but related, purposes, the mountain biking community has needed both a 501c3 and a 501c4 voice. As mentioned, where we see things have gone awry is that IMBA’s firm but neutral stance has been twisted and construed in social media and the blog/print media as an “us vs. them” situation.
IMBA’s approach is appropriate for IMBA. The STC approach is appropriate for STC. Together, they have brought more attention to this contentious debate, and hopefully helped engage a new cadre of concerned mountain bikers ready to advocate for continued access to trails–both inside and outside of Wilderness. Both organizations are advocating for increased trail access. They are just employing different strategies and tactics.
Let me re-iterate that in the long run, if STC is successful, strong IMBA chapters will be best positioned to make the changes that STC’s bill will authorize. We’ll then need to leverage our ongoing track record of being good land and trail stewards, and work side-by-side with local land managers to open trails in Wilderness areas. We’ll need to work hard to usher those requests through the NEPA process, and deal with the opposition to bikes that will inevitably emerge. If our voice is weakened by a lack of support now, we’ll be in a more difficult position to ask for trails to be opened under the STC bill’s authority in the future.
If STC is unsuccessful, IMBA chapters like CORBA will continue to work to make a difference, just as we have been doing for more than 29 years. We just hope to have the continued–and even increased– level of support we now get from our members.
But things at IMBA have changed somewhat. Their 2016 advocacy position clearly states that they will continue to fight more aggressively to keep trails open in the face of Wilderness proposals, wherever there are local chapters available to do the local on-the-ground work needed. They have been emboldened to take a firmer stance than ever before to prevent trail closures, within the constraints they operate under as a 501c3. Wilderness and environmental advocates are finding it increasingly difficult to pass Wilderness legislation when advocacy groups like IMBA and its chapters are directly and strongly opposed. IMBA is also investigating the merits of a legal challenge to recent trail access losses in the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho. They have expressed a desire to legislatively adjust existing Wilderness boundaries to open trails that have been closed to bikes (without any changes to the Wilderness Act itself). But their stance falls short of lobbying for sweeping change at the legislative level, which is precisely what STC is positioned to do.
CORBA and IMBA have on a number of occasions asked for “language-based exemptions” to prohibitions on bikes on specific trails in new Wilderness proposals. We’ve usually been turned down on these requests as being “incompatible with the intent of the Wilderness Act” even though numerous language-based exemptions exist for purposes other than bicycle travel and recreation, and the STC’s contention that the “intent” of the Wilderness Act has been misinterpreted in current regulations. Yet what STC is proposing is making such language-based exemptions (or, more accurately, allowing Forest Service orders to authorize access) for bicycles and trail maintenance, an integral part of an amended Wilderness Act.
Let’s not have this issue divide us, weaken us, and allow us to be conquered. Our members can support both STC and CORBA/IMBA, and both organizations will be stronger for it. While we applaud the STC for their approach, CORBA will continue to work on efforts that have immediate, near-term benefit to all mountain bikers and our public lands: trail maintenance, management plan advocacy, currently pending bills, land manager relations, education, and stewardship.
We also hope that one day, CORBA will be in a position to ask our local land managers to open trails in current Wilderness areas to bikes, under the authority of STC’s legislation. But until then, we have to stay strong, stay united, and keep striving towards making immediate, short-term differences, happy in the knowledge that STC is working on a long-term strategy that most of our members agree would be a step in the right direction for all of us.