Wilderness restricts trail work and access
On a cold early morning one week ago, more than 70 men and women from around the United States gathered at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park. Via dusty hazardous fire roads and steep overgrown foot paths, they trekked miles down into the South Yuba Canyon with tools in hand. Braving ubiquitous poison oak and ticks, these volunteers collectively cleared brush, repaired eroded areas and removed safety hazards on a four-mile section of the South Yuba Trail. Under the supervision of Tahoe National Forest Service, these individuals provided a valuable public service that our federal agencies simply do not have the budget to accommodate. What did all these people have in common? They were all mountain bikers.
This effort was part of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) Epic program. In cooperation with Bicyclists of Nevada County (BONC), IMBA organized this trail maintenance project that benefits all users of the South Yuba Trail. One U.S. Forest Service official estimated that this section of trail would remain available for recreation for 10 or more years as a result of the weekend’s work.
Historically, BONC has provided invaluable trail maintenance for local areas recently targeted for federal wilderness restrictions. These considerable efforts are documented and recognized by the Forest Service and other public agencies. The unfortunate irony is that proposed wilderness regulations bar cyclists from the many of the very trails that they have helped maintain for many years. Does this seem right? Is this how we reward those who dedicate their weekends to trail work that benefits all users of a public area?
As much as any local group, local cyclists recognize the need for conservation designations for areas such as Grouse Ridge and Castle Peak. These beautiful wild areas need to be set aside for low-impact recreation and conservation. So the question that Nevada County must answer is this: what is the appropriate form of protection for these areas? Upon close inspection, it is clear that federal wilderness restrictions do not meet important criteria for suitable protections for these enormous areas of Nevada County. There are alternative federal conservation designations that meet the need for permanent wildland protection, but do not impose inappropriate, absurd restrictions.
Any such set of regulations must strike a balance between the need to conserve wild areas and the right of the community to practice benign forms of recreation on our public lands. At Grouse Ridge and Castle Peak, there are vast networks of trails used by mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians and backpack campers. Local mountain bikers recognize the incredible recreational opportunities provided to us by these trails. As a result, BONC and other bike groups have sought to keep up these trails under the stewardship of the National Forest Service. We have installed signs to prevent visitors from becoming lost and worked to keep the trails sustainable and usable for everyone.
Yet, federal wilderness restrictions would eliminate all of this. Cycling opportunities would be eliminated and as a consequence, these erstwhile trail users would no longer have the motivation to donate any trail work in these areas. Who suffers? Obviously cyclists, but the public suffers as well, as backcountry visitors will no longer benefit from trails that are maintained as safely and properly as they could be.
Trail work is not everyone’s cup of tea. It involves donating precious free time. It requires hiking into remote areas that are often hot, cold, wet, dusty or generally inhospitable to the work at hand and comfort in general. It is arduous, sweaty work that requires physical effort to remove or move brush, dirt, rock, stumps and more. But local mountain bike volunteers know that it is satisfying work. Once you have made the contribution, it is an incredible feeling to ride the trail you just improved and to know that hikers and other trail users can enjoy the fruits of your labor as well.
Wilderness restriction sponsors claim that cyclists should step aside and make way for supreme forms of wildland protection. But how effective is such protection if it bans those who help maintain access to wildland in the first place? Perhaps local members of the Sierra Club, Audubon Society and other wilderness restriction advocates will step in to fill the void of trail maintenance created by future federal regulations. If so, they will certainly need to improve on their past record of trail maintenance at Grouse Ridge and Castle Peak. It leaves much to be desired for folks who so ardently promote the backcountry experience for the rest of us. Or do they mean just some of us?
John J. Gardiner of Grass Valley is a member of Bicyclists of Nevada County.
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