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Mountain Biking

Mountain Bikers and Conservationists
at Odds Over Land Proposal

from the

SUNLAND, Calif. Mike Melton would love to support the latest campaign to save wilderness across California. Preserving open space, he says, is a priority. But so is his mountain bike.

And like thousands of other riders in the state, he has a tough new choice to make: Either give up some of his favorite back-country trails for nature's sake, or fight a plan that would ban his pastime on vast stretches of wild land from the Oregon border to San Diego.

"I'm all for having pristine wilderness," Melton, a 35-year-old electrician, said as he set off riding along a narrow, rocky trail here in the Angeles National Forest one recent Sunday morning. "But why take a poke at mountain biking? We're just like anyone else who loves nature; we just choose to pedal in it. What's wrong with that?"

Such torment is a sign of a growing conflict across the country, and especially the West, over the rules of recreation on ever more crowded public land. It is pitting conservationists against each other, splintering outdoor groups into feuding factions, and causing so much tension in some places that professional mediators are being called and summits convened to broker compromises on trail use.

Environmentalists who say wilderness is under siege from a population boom across much of the West are demanding strict new protections for land, even at the expense of popular recreational pursuits. And recreation groups already clamoring for more elbow room on trails are balking at many of those proposals, even though they also want wilderness kept sacred.

Both sides in the disputes are backed by legions of fervent, well-organized supporters. The International Mountain Bicycling Association, once a small volunteer band of devout riders, has in the last decade become a national organization with 450 clubs and an annual budget approaching $2 million.

And here in California, where a few bike tinkerers in Marin County popularized the sport in the 1970s, the group is tangled in the fight of its life.

State political leaders and conservationists want to designate roughly 2.5 million acres of public land as federally protected wilderness, a step that would prohibit new logging and mining and any motorized vehicles.

The proposal, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) earlier this year, would allow some forms of recreation to continue in the wilderness, such as hiking and backpacking — but not mountain biking.

Federal regulations prohibit "mechanized" activity in protected wilderness areas, and the pedals and chains of a bicycle fit that definition. Similar debates over wilderness and mountain biking also are emerging in Colorado, Idaho and Oregon.

Conservation groups that support Boxer's legislation say it is necessary because California, already the nation's most populous state, is bracing for millions more new residents over the next few decades — and new strains on wilderness.

In the past two decades, conservationists say, more than a half-million acres of wilderness in the state have lost their pure character because of logging, encroaching development and the growing popularity of rugged recreational sports.

"When you've got 34 million people and counting, there's compelling reason to keep protecting more open space," said Jay Watson, a regional director of the Wilderness Society in California. "We've tried very hard to accommodate mountain biking in some places, but we have to go forward on this."

Boxer's staff spent months in meticulous negotiations with mountain bikers over which trails would be included in the plan. Some favored routes have been spared. Aides to Boxer insist the campaign is not a crackdown on mountain biking, even though some conservationists contend the fat tires of the bikes and the aggressive style of many young riders are trampling wild lands.

"We're not targeting any group," said David Sandretti, Boxer's press secretary. "This is only about protecting important land for generations to come."

Some mountain bikers say they are prepared to make the sacrifice. A group of about 125 riders from across the state has organized to support the new wilderness protections.

"This is worth preserving, even if it means we lose trails," said Don Massie, a software company employee who is leading the rebel group.

Other mountain bikers are calling them political puppets and say Boxer's plan plainly persecutes their pastime. They say she and conservationists could have proposed other protections for wilderness, but chose the only one that bans bikes.

These are trying times for riders who roam the forests and parks of the West. In some places, land managers have become referees of recurring squabbles between mountain bikers, hikers and other groups over trail etiquette. Some disputes have forced officials to prohibit hikers and bikers from using trails on the same days.

The Bureau of Land Management recently issued its first new guidelines in a decade to help its local managers cope with the surge in mountain biking. More than 13 million mountain bikers now ride regularly on public lands, far more than a decade ago.

The plan defends the rights of riders to use the land but urges more vigilance in protecting trails — even if that means segregating bikers to certain areas. It also warns that advances in bike technology, such as stronger suspensions, are allowing riders to push deeper into the wilderness.

Meanwhile, veterans of some mountain biking clubs have been pleading with young riders who like to go to sporting extremes to stay on established trails, to tread lightly in nature and, ironically, to join campaigns to protect or enhance wilderness. Now, they also are busy rallying riders against Boxer's plan.

"This puts us in a strange and difficult position," said Jim Hasenauer, a college professor in Los Angeles who helped found the International Mountain Bicycling Association. "We're definitely pro-conservation, and we support some of the bill, but other parts would have an enormous impact on us. We would lose trails that really capture the spirit of mountain biking."

Becky Bell, a marketing consultant who leads a mountain biking group with 1,500 members near Lake Tahoe, said she is worried the sport is getting a bad rap.

"Most of us are good stewards of the land," she said. "We have some bad apples, but so does every group. Look at Enron executives. Or Catholic priests. Just the other day I was out riding and someone told me, 'I know you guys are trying to be nicer, but I still just hate seeing you on the trails.' That's what we're up against."

"The problem," said Gary Sprung, a director of the national mountain biking group, "is that some people think we're motorcycles without engines, but the truth is that we're like hikers on wheels."

Here in the Angeles National Forest, Mike Melton has strapped a clanging bell to his bike so when he rides he doesn't startle hikers using the same trails. He also just wrote his first letter ever to a member of Congress, protesting the proposed wilderness designation.

If it is approved without any more compromises, he said, riding routes that connect ridges and canyons around the forest will be ruined. That will force mountain bikers to crowd other trails, he said. And that will create even more trouble with other recreation groups.

"I know a bike can come around a bend at a good clip and scare some people," Melton said. "But I can be out here enjoying my own peace and quiet and someone on horseback can come up and scare me, too. But no one's talking about banning horses. Our culture is just misunderstood."

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