Downhill mountain bikers challenge trail planning at Mount Spokane
Mount Spokane State Park staff and volunteers didn’t understand the gravity of the situation during recent years of planning and work to reroute multiuse trails.
A niche of mountain bikers is seeking revisions to the master trails plan adopted two years ago. The plan offers guidance for managing more than 120 miles of gated roads and trails in the 13,821-acre park.
The plan’s approval by the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission followed years of meetings, mapping and permitting that led to a blitz of trail construction last year.
Recently, a loosely organized group of downhill mountain bikers – who wear body armor and ride heavy bikes with beefy shocks geared for high-speed descents – has been clamoring for more status on the mountain.
It’s an uphill battle for the group, since downhill bikers already are associated with illegal activity around the park.
As some of their prized fall-line trails have been decommissioned because of erosion and concerns for safety of anyone else on the trails, some mountain bikers have been carving illegal trails in the state park and adjacent private land.
Disturbing vegetation in a state park is illegal, with fines in the neighborhood of $500.
The new Trail 140, built last year by park- supervised volunteers from several groups, already is rutted from mountain bike use.
“The intent was good, but the execution was flawed,” said Jonathan Price of Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, a group that’s trying to gain a voice for downhill bikers on the mountain.
“The design didn’t engage knowledgeable people about sustainable building standards of bike trails.”
Park officials and the groups involved with planning the trail system wonder where the downhill mountain bikers were during the years of developing the master plan.
“Trail design can help to a point,” said Steven Christensen, Mount Spokane State Park manager. “But there’s a basic problem with bikes on downhill trails: the tires leave a rut down the center of the trail. After a while, the runoff doesn’t flow off the trail, it runs down the center. The trail looks like a taco.”
Christensen, who’s already let the mountain bikers create some trails, said state parks will consider amending the trails plan and take a close look at whether mountain bikes should be allowed everywhere at Mount Spokane.
“Should trails be designated?” he suggested. “Should we have trails where bikes are not allowed because of maintenance or so hikers and horse riders can relax while they’re on the trails?”
A parks survey conducted online recently seeks to identify what mountain bikers would like to see at Mount Spokane.
The cyclists have been forceful at the recent monthly meetings held by the state park’s citizen advisory committee.
The committee of 17 members representing various groups and interests generally agrees that downhill mountain biking may need to be segregated from other trail uses, said Cris Currie, committee chairman and lead volunteer in developing the park’s master trails plan.
“How that’s going to happen, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll try to make a recommendation the park (officials) will approve.”
One proposal calls for trails in the downhill ski runs, but bikers say those slopes are too open, short, hot and boring.
The advisory committee is set up to help the park make decisions from recommendations that come from consensus in the local community, Currie said. While mountain bikers are represented on the committee, gravity riders consider themselves a different breed.
“State parks have a priority to protect the safety of visitors, prevent conflict among users and preserve the resources,” he said. “All three of those priorities are challenged by the high-speed gravity riders.”
On the other hand, Currie said the committee recognizes Mount Spokane’s natural assets for gravity riding.
“The mountain offers a lot of elevation accessible by a road to the top and the longest downhill ride around,” he said. “So we don’t want to simply say no, but we can’t allow deterioration in the safety of horse riders, birdwatchers and families who look to trails as a safe place for peace and relaxation.”
Sam Deal, owner of Bear Creek Lodge, finds himself in the middle of the discussion.
The lodge, a short way downhill from the state park entrance, is connected to the park by snowmobile trails and fire roads as well as by unauthorized biking trails.
Many downhill cyclists prefer to get a vehicle shuttle to the mountain’s 5,883-foot summit and get extra riding by coasting out through lodge property rather than exiting to the Mount Spokane Park Road within the park.
Then they ride a mile down the paved road to an unauthorized parking area the cyclists created on land owned by Riley Creek Timber Company. The parking area has been called, “the beach” after truckloads of sand were dumped along the shore of the creek for a party spot.
Deal said he’s had a positive relationship with the old-school mountain bikers and has organized shuttles for riders who stage at his resort.
“It’s gotten out of hand,” he said. “I’m not anti-mountain biking, but where’s the respect for public and private property?”
Bikers riding from the park through his land have jumped ledges and smashed his wife’s garden.
Deal said he’s suffered vandalism after making comments to cyclists and at the advisory committee meetings questioning whether more trails should be built for a disrespectful user group.
He does not know who broke a window in his vehicle parked at the lodge this summer. But on a second occasion, he said a family member saw a mountain biker with lights, helmet with full facemask and body armor ride through his property at 9:30 p.m., swing a chain and break another window in his vehicle before riding away.
“I’m $700 in the hole in broken windows because I’ve asked for some respect for my property,” he said.
“It was wonderful at first. Bikers would call in advance; we’d shuttle them up the mountain and their keys would be waiting at the bar when they came down. They’d enjoy a brew or a Bear Creek Burger when they finished and it all worked out. Now there’s a different crowd.”
Deal points to Spokane Nordic cross-country ski club as a model of getting things done at Mount Spokane.
“They are incredibly organized,” he said. “They’ve written grant applications and worked within the system to create a very nice trail system specific to their needs.
“They didn’t do it overnight; they didn’t cut any rogue trails and expect people to accept them. They followed the process and got it done.”