Trails: The case for sharing

The debate over whether to allow mountain bikes on parts of the East Coast Trail has been ongoing all summer. Maybe it’s time to shift our focus.

Being a mountain biker on the Avalon is starting to feel like being on trial in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. When the defendant points out that nothing links him to the main evidence for the prosecution, the judge (who is also King) responds: “That only makes the matter worse. You must have meant some mischief, or else you’d have signed your name like an honest man.” But the quality of the evidence is irrelevant anyway, as the Queen decrees: “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

What is it with this place when it comes to bicycles?

For those who missed it, the latest palaver about pedal bikes started in a dispute over a commercial company’s proposal to include two sections of the East Coast Trail (ECT) in guided mountain bike tours. The East Coast Trail Association’s (ECTA) response was a flat no. When plans for the tour continued anyway, ECTA raised the alarm: “Sacred Rides Mountain Bike Adventures… has, without the approval of the East Coast Trail Association, scheduled a mountain bike tour on several ECT paths. Hikers should be alert for mountain bikers and exercise caution.”

In fact, the Province may have given Sacred Rides the okay. ECTA says the Department of Tourism reneged on assurances that it would reject the company’s request, saying it had no legal right to refuse trail access. For its part, Sacred Rides confirmed that ECTA never consented, but also that ECTA rebuffed all attempts at reaching accommodation, including offers to contribute to trail maintenance and development. Meanwhile, the tourism minister, citing the “tourism potential of mountain biking,” called for compromise.

If the story started in a dispute over a tour company’s plans to use a couple of sections of the East Coast Trail – though not, as initially reported, any segments crossing Nature Conservancy of Canada land – those details are becoming lost in what has increasingly been spun as an all or nothing debate about “bikes on the trail.”

We all stand to lose if that’s where it ends.

Time to change the terms of engagement

Rather than prolong the false idea that cyclists are set on “squaring off” with hikers over “the” East Coast Trail as if any of these – hikers, bikers or the trail itself – is an undifferentiated entity, I want to take issue with the adversarial narrative itself, albeit from an interested perspective.

So, full disclosure: I am an executive member of the Avalon Mountain Bike Association. Like many other cyclists, I have been by turns disheartened and enraged by comments depicting mountain bikers as freeloading hooligans with no regard for other trail users or the local environment.

But also, along with most of the AMBA executive, I am a paid up member of ECTA – which should right away disrupt the “us versus them” framework that has dominated the reporting of this issue. As a trail organization, AMBA’s mission has much in common with that of ECTA – notably, a commitment to sustainable public trails, used in a socially and environmentally responsible way. We respect and admire what ECTA has accomplished over the last 20 years. We also agree that cycling is best done on trails approved for biking.

Unfortunately, few such trails exist on the Avalon. Pippy Park, where AMBA volunteers have put in thousands of hours of trail restoration work over the past two years, is one notable exception.

The case for sharing

As the Pippy Park example shows, approving trails for biking does not necessarily mean biking-only trails. AMBA is affiliated with the International Mountain Bike Association. We subscribe to IMBA’s view that with certain exceptions, it’s better to share trails than to hoard them. Ironically, many of the arguments being used against mountain bikes are precisely those that make multi-use trails desirable. These focus on environmental damage, user conflict, and safety.

First, sharing makes good ecological sense. By a large margin, the biggest environmental impact of any kind of trail activity, including hiking, comes from creating a trail, followed by the first few uses. Additional use adds marginally to the damage. Telling bikers “go build your own trails” is an invitation to disperse users over an entire wilderness area, with all the attendant impacts of increased trail construction and hinterland access.

Moreover, while recreation ecology is an understudied area, the weight of existing science says that the environmental impact of mountain biking on a given stretch of trail is similar to, or less than, that of hiking. Trail design, not type of use, matters most.

In short, trails that are not built to prevent erosion from cycling are also likely to be vulnerable to erosion from hikers. Of course, good trail design should address concerns specific to particular activities, for example by building in features to moderate speed and discourage tire skidding and slipping or clawing of hiking boots. But the core principles of sustainable trail building – such as avoiding drainage paths and sloping the trail tread to shed water – are equally important whether users are cyclists or hikers.

Most mountain bikers are not arseholes

Mountain bikers have been particularly upset over the last few weeks by commenters presenting them as aggressive and disruptive menaces. That’s because the vast majority follow IMBA’s Rules of the Trail. Among others, these instruct cyclists to control their bicycles, treat other users with courtesy and always yield to pedestrians. I have never seen a mountain biker be rude to another trail user; in my experience, 99 per cent of hikers and others respond in kind.

Photo by Darren McDonald.
“I have never seen a mountain biker be rude to another trail user; in my experience, 99 per cent of hikers and others respond in kind.” – Robin Whitaker. Photo by Darren McDonald.

Of course, it’s possible that some cyclist or other trail user will be a jerk or simply unaware of trail etiquette. That’s where good role models and education come in, both of which are easier to accomplish on shared than separate trails.

Nor do trails have to be wide for hikers and bikers to coexist safely and happily. IMBA argues that singletrack is not just more interesting to ride (or hike). It also tends to foster safer riding practices, as cyclists moderate their speed and intensify their focus.

As evidence of the possibilities, in 2010, Parks Canada approved mountain biking as an acceptable activity in national parks. While not all Park trails are open to cyclists, more and more are – including singletrack such as that found on the Stuckless Pond trail in Gros Morne. Gros Morne Park itself – described in Canadian Cycling Magazine as “one of Canada’s most progressive for mountain biking” – also shows the potential for mountain biking on shared use trails in what Douglas Ballam rightly identifies as a much-needed strategy for nature-based tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

And yes, some hiker someday might be hit by a bike. I haven’t heard of a single such case here to date, but it’s not impossible. However, most people engage in far riskier activities on a routine basis – driving, for one – that few people propose banning. Besides, the health risks of inactivity in this province vastly outweigh the risks associated with pedal biking of any kind.

Strength in numbers

None of this is to say that every trail must be shared. For example, some designated nature trails may be better restricted to foot traffic (although it’s worth noting that hikers are often significantly more disruptive to wildlife than cyclists, as animals interpret bikers’ relatively faster and more constant speed as an indication the cyclist does not intend engagement). Other trails are simply not feasible or desirable for biking. In general, however, the more trails can be shared, the better for us all.

In the end, as any outdoor enthusiast on the Avalon over a certain age can tell you, the biggest enemy of trails is development. How many of us get a sinking feeling when we pass a new or impending subdivision, boxstore or quarry on land that we remember biking, hiking, or just fooling around on when we were kids?

In the circumstances, we simply can’t afford a trail community at war with itself.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.


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