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A call for research and expertise

By Tim Blumenthal, International Mountain Bicycling Association
An editorial from IMBA Trail News

Wanted: Scientifically sound soils studies that analyze the impact of off-road cycling and other trail-based activities on the land, plants, animals and water. These studies should be geographically diverse and should evaluate carefully designed and constructed trail systems as well as networks that have developed from game and cattle paths.

You won't read an ad like this in any newspaper or scientific journal. But if IMBA Trail News had a classified page, we'd run it, because mountain biking sorely needs these type of studies.

IMBA is asked almost daily to provide information about the physical impact of mountain biking. Unfortunately, we don't have enough contemporary, meaningful research to pass along. At this moment, a study performed in 1990 by soils scientist Joe Seney of Montana State University stands as the best research on the impact of mountain biking. Seney concluded that biking causes slightly more erosion than foot travel and significantly less than horse or motorcycle use. Are Seney's finding applicable to trails everywhere or just to those of Montana? It's hard to answer this question because we don't have reputable, independent studies that have been conducted elsewhere.

Meanwhile, poorly researched, biased pseudo-environmental studies are still being used-incorrectly-as justifications for mountain bike trail bans. In our opinion, these studies need to be challenged and replaced by credible, independent research. (And if good research finds that mountain biking is causing environmental damage in a particular area that is out of proportion to the percentage of total trail use that is mountain biking, we'll accept this finding and deal with it.)

The most notorious of these studies was a paper produced last year by a U.S. Department of Agriculture county extension agent in Essex County, New Jersey. This report was used by the county's Board of Chosen Freeholders to justify a comprehensive mountain biking ban at South Mountain Reservation near New York City. The paper was seriously flawed-it was blasted by IMBA and by a New Jersey representative of the Sierra Club-and seemed as if it were written not to analyze the situation but to justify a preordained management decision to close all trails and fire roads to bikes.

About 150 miles to the south, Baltimore Watershed officials have cited potential water quality concerns as one of the key reasons they're seeking a complete ban on off-road cycling near the city's reservoirs. Meanwhile, horse riding, dog walk
ing and keg parties continue unabated along the shoreline. The Baltimore officials say there is no evidence that bicycle use is degrading the water, only a fear that it might happen.

Where's the science? The headline and lead paragraphs of a recent New York Times article suggested that recreational use (hiking and mountain biking) in Middlesex Fells Reservation near Boston was the primary culprit in a significant decline of the number of plant species found in the area today compared to 100 years ago. The story did not mention the impacts of an interstate highway that bisects the area, a reservoir which inundated more than 300 acres, the construction of two hospitals, a nursing home, a high school and a zoo at the edge of the Fells, and quarrying and mining at the turn of the century.

As we all know, the impact of any kind of trail use is influenced by weather, amount of use, type of soil, and perhaps most important, the way the trail is constructed and maintained. A well-designed, well constructed, and well maintained trail will stand up well to heavy non-motorized use of all kinds, including mountain biking.

When we say "well designed and well constructed," we're talking about careful routing, appropriate switchback curves, durable waterbars, special attention to low, wet spots, and a sensitivity to how the trail will be used. Also, mountain bikers will stay on marked trails and off social trails and open fields as long as the official network is well marked and the unofficial routes are either posted closed or barricaded with brush.

The New Jersey, Baltimore and Boston situations reinforce our sense that mountain bikers must build our base of knowledge about trail design, construction, and maintenance. We must encourage and support more studies that evaluate the impact of off-road cycling on trails, adjacent land and wildlife. We must stand tall against poorly prepared research.

Knowledge and expertise have a way of compensating for youth. Other trail users have long traditions. (Of course, after 20 years, our tradition is building, too.) We have tremendous energy, passion, plus a commitment to volunteerism and the trail community. These traits will carry us far, but we still need science.

IMBA is committed to supporting environmental research on the impact of mountain biking. If you know of a study that has been performed in the last five years, send us a copy or tell us where to find one. If you're a soils scientist or graduate school student focusing on trail issues, contact us. We may be willing to help you.

return to TrailTracks Fall '96 index