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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Landers: Urging mountain bikers onto a sustainable track

After successfully hunting in the Umatilla National Forest where motorized traffic is restricted, Jim Kujala happily hauls his elk meat back to camp by muscle power. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
After successfully hunting in the Umatilla National Forest where motorized traffic is restricted, Jim Kujala happily hauls his elk meat back to camp by muscle power. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Bicycling – a force against nature? I never thought I’d see THAT day come. But I have.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s recent ruling to authorize battery-boosted bikes on roads and trails closed to motorized vehicles is another misstep down a slippery slope. It ignores the growing trend of recreation joining development as a threat to wildlife on public lands.

Mountain bikes have advanced wildly in recent years. They can go just about anywhere, and therefore some mountain bikers think they should.

It’s time to reel in that mindset to mesh with the real world of shrinking habitat. E-bikes only exacerbate the growing impact the mountain biking community already is inflicting by building trails wherever they want, with impunity.

Hiking on Spokane’s Beacon Hill recently, I met a mountain biker at a junction. We were chatting when a whitetail doe and fawn darted across a trail just ahead. Running into another trail above, the deer turned and sprinted past us the other direction – where they ran into another trail.

I pulled out my camera to snap a photo as the whitetails froze. Then another biker coasted by on a trail up the slope, sending the deer fleeing downhill. I could see them cross at least one more trail before disappearing into the pines where even more trails had been carved into the slope.

Observing those deer trying to find a place to hide was merely a glimpse at the issue that’s affecting public and private lands from city and state parks to national forests. Beacon Hill’s tight web of trails is generally not authorized. They’re focused on making fun out of the terrain without being scrutinized for impacts to resources.

Enlightened public access management – including trail making – can concentrate human activity in spaces or corridors and leave the larger landscape function with less disturbance. For example, riparian areas are important to a wide range of wildlife, including birds and fish. It’s best when possible to build trails above them rather than through them.

Wildlife biologists get it when they’re in the driver’s seat. Just 3,200 acres of the 22,000-acre Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge are open to public access. The Endangered Species Act gave U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists the rare clout to call for gates on many North Idaho forest roads to protect grizzly bears.

Meanwhile, wildlife is depending on the rest of us to set limits on human access since we have been failing in human management. Washington’s population alone has nearly doubled since 1980, from 4.1 million to 7.7 million.

I love bicycling. I’ve pedaled through Greece, Finland, and across the USA. For 40 years, I commuted to the office on two wheels for eight months a year. I wear my broken clavicle like a mountain biking badge of honor.

But there’s a trap in assuming that this quiet, clean, healthy mode of travel is all good. Even hunters get caught up in the euphoria of an easy ride to success.

Roads closed to motorized traffic have factored heavily into my choice of Blue Mountains elk hunting spots. While open to periodic timber harvest, the Umatilla National Forest gates are locked in this particular area during the fall hunting seasons.

I leave camp and hike about 7 miles round trip every day to access the prime hunting spots. Other hunters hike in, too, but we all make the effort with some assurance that only the occasional off-road vehicle rider will sneak around gates and foul our hunts.

I’ve enjoyed those closed roads immensely for hunting, and also when pulling elk meat out on a game cart.

Every year I see more mountain bike traffic where I hunt. That’s fine. They’ve been nonmotorized, legal and legit. Up to a few years ago, I might see a mountain-biking hunter in the road-closure area once or twice. Last year I saw one cycling hunter four times in one day. He was on an e-bike.

That observation isn’t scientific, but it pans out in logic. A mountain biker will cover more ground than a hiker. E-bikes, which are improving by the month, have the potential to vastly increase the number of users, trips and mileage. That translates to more impact.

If I’d have caught up to that e-biker, I’d have pointed out that the Umatilla National Forest is laced with 4,577 miles of roads. Only 46 miles of those Blue Mountains roads have seasonal closures during the hunting seasons. With 99 percent of the roads OPEN to motorized use, there’s no NEED to break the rules on a motorized ORV or e-bike, except to be greedy and disrespectful of those to who heed the signs.

Consider the perspective of Oregon research wildlife biologist and mountain biker Mike Wisdom.

In 1987, he started working with the Starkey Experimental Forest out of La Grande in association with legendary wildlife biologist and former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. In one of many studies, Starkey researchers tracked the movements of radio-collared elk as the forest was exposed to controlled doses of human activity. Hikers, equestrians, mountain bikers and off-road vehicle riders were allowed into the forest’s road and trail systems on separate blocks of days. Each group’s activity was followed by periods of no human disturbance. This was repeated spring through fall for three years.

The study documented that recreational disturbance displaced elk into less preferable habitat and cut into their opportunity to forage. Given a nine-day reprieve from human access, the elk would resume normal behavior.

ORVs had the most impact and hikers had the least impact while mountain bikers were in the middle, researchers found.

“The elk spent more time running while expending more energy and less time gaining essential nutrients,” said Wisdom, team leader of the Starkey Ungulate Ecology Team.

Among the lessons learned: Minimizing disturbance, especially motorized and mechanized entry, can help elk store more fat and energy reserves. That can translate into better reproductive success and better odds of surviving drought conditions, predators and a tough winter.

“The 1990s research results were very clear that closing selected roads could provide strategic benefits to wildlife even if just seasonal,” Wisdom said.

Environmentalists joined scientists and lawyers in the 1990s to curb destructive large-scale logging and road-making into national forest roadless areas. But with bulldozers tamed, another beast became the rage. All-terrain vehicles were taking outdoors enthusiasts where they had never ridden before. New unauthorized trails were being pioneered like crazy, and conflicts with nonmotorized recreation spiked.

In 2005, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth made a gutsy stand for natural resources by initiating the Travel Management Rule to curb cross-country ORVing. The rule essentially prohibited motorized vehicle use on all national forest roads, trails and open areas except where ORVs were specifically allowed. The rule stemmed from years of efforts to post road closures only to have the signs ripped off so ORVers could ride in and, if caught, simply say they didn’t see a notice.

The rule has helped reduce unauthorized motorized traffic, but not completely. ORV damage continues in many areas largely because plausible Bigfoot sightings outpace public contacts with Forest Service law enforcement.

“The question is no longer, ‘Can my ATV make it to the top of that ridge?’ but rather, ‘Am I willing to take my ATV to the top of that ridge?’ ” wrote Matt Sheppard, Idaho Fish and Game Department conservation officer, in a 2005 media release. “Unfortunately, plenty of people are willing to try and this is where the problem begins.

“All it takes is one person heading toward a ridgetop to create a trail. Other irresponsible riders follow not considering the impact their actions may have on the land, the wildlife, or another hunter.”

The point is, we’ve been down this trail before, and here we are again.

Wisdom says he regrets the proliferation of legal and illegal trail networks he sees expanding in Oregon mountain biking hot spots such as Bend and Eugene.

“They’re receiving unbelievable amounts of mountain biking use, which has been a little surprising to recreation managers,” he said. “The thinking on nonmotorized recreation has often been the more the better, but now we’re seeing a lot of undesirable resource effects of unmanaged recreation.”

User trail-making, once considered beneficial with the reduction in agency-funded trail crews, has become too much of a good thing in some areas.

“Mountain bikers are a user group that’s growing rapidly,” Wisdom said. “They know the country and they’re developing it.”

They’re physically fit and capable of moving a lot of earth with a pulaski.

They’re tech-savvy so they share their routes like wildfire over the internet.

And then along comes the new wave smitten with its e-bikes adding to the wildlife impacts of drones buzzing critters and trail cams monitoring wildlife movements 24/7 with notifications to our smart phones.

It’s always something else. And that’s why we must harness the work of passionate trail builders for good rather than just for thrills.

And we must always be ready to draw the line. My body is older and highly susceptible to being seduced by easier transportation. But e-bikes are powered vehicles and therefore should be included when motorized travel is restricted.

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