The Future of Our Trails

Most residents of Colorado have one thing in common and that is a respect for the outdoor playground that lies right outside of their front door.

The need for trail conservation and preservation has people from all user groups representing different types of outdoor recreation advocating for protection of trails. While there is a unifying goal of preservation among trail users, there remains a conversation on whether or not activities like mountain biking ruin certain trails for others, and whether mountain bikers should have access to every trail.

A large portion of the outdoor community enjoys mountain biking, but there has been concern that mountain biking has more negative environmental impact than other outdoor activities. However, studies show that this may not be the case.

Researches in a study conducted by Thurston and Reader (2001) on how mountain biking and hiking effect vegetation shows that mountain biking and hiking generally have the same effect. The study measured plant stem density, soil exposure and species richness two weeks before the experiment, two weeks after the experiment and then one year after the experiment, and the results showed that there was little difference in impact from hikers and bikers.

If there are small differences between mountain bikers and hikers on the trail, then what needs to be done in order for trails to be preserved for both hikers and bikers?

Mike McCormack, owner of Uncommon Communications and an advocate for building sustainable mountain bike trails, stresses the importance informed trail building has on trail preservation and creating less environmental impact.

“Build trails for sustainability so that 10 years down the road it sheds water well and needs little maintenance. Trail building has evolved over the past 20 years, builders used to find the straightest line from point A to point B. Now builders look at what the terrain offers and they strive to make a natural experience, and let the land determine where the trail wants to go,” said McCormack.

The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) also acknowledges the importance of building and maintaining trails in order to preserve the environment.

Brady Schlichting goes for an evening ride on the Bone Yard, in Eagle, Colorado. Photo credit: Jeff Cricco
Brady Schlichting goes for an evening ride on the Bone Yard, in Eagle, Colorado. Photo credit: Jeff Cricco

In a literature review on the environmental impacts of mountain biking written for IMBA, Dr. Jeff Marion, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, summarizes the importance of building the right trails.

“Trail design and management are much larger factors in environmental degradation than the type or amount of use. Many studies have demonstrated that poorly designed or located trails are the biggest cause of trail impacts,” wrote Marion in his review.

Even if an environmentally conscious trail is built, members of the hiking and biking community debate who should have access to it. The American Hiking Society’s (AHS) policy toward mountain biking opposes mountain bikes in designated wilderness areas and areas under consideration for wilderness designation, and that bikes should continue to not be allowed on sections of the National Scenic Trails such as the Pacific Crest Trail. However, experienced trail builders believe that trails and access should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“Cyclists represent a new generation of backcountry stewards that will uphold the conservation of the land and the older community doesn’t like it, but for long-term preservation, cyclists are going to be the ones flying that flag,” said McCormack.

No hiker wants to encounter a biker flying down a blind corner and no biker wants to lose access to their favorite trail, so is there a way to accommodate both?

Luis Benitez, the first director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office, says that, “I think we are rapidly reaching a point where the days of ‘management by closure’ or ignoring a significant portion of the outdoor recreation economy are ending. When it comes to emerging tech and trends in our world, we have two choices: Have it done to us or with us. It’s important to have a shared conversation to find the best way forward for everyone.”

Places like Eagle, Colo., are incorporating mountain biking into everyday commuting through an initiative called Singletrack Sidewalks. The program synchronizes mountain biking with other forms of commuting. The project started in November 2015, and its primary initiative is to connect schools and neighborhoods with singletrack that allows kids and adults a fun way to commute by mountain bike. The singletrack is built next to already existing paved bike paths so people commuting by foot and by bike can enjoy the same trail. This is one example of how biking and hiking can be harmonized so both parties can enjoy the same path.

The Vail Valley Trail Connection is another trails organization whose mission is to create a soft-trail connection throughout the Vail Valley that enables people of all physical capabilities to enjoy the outdoors, whether it’s by foot, bike, horse, or motocross.

Rich Carroll, founding board member and president of Vail Valley Trail Connection states that there absolutely is a place for all user groups, from hikers and trail runners to mountain bikers and motocross riders.

“We know that we will only be successful in our endeavor if we represent all user groups and give everyone a voice,” said Carroll. “Collaboration and cooperation are the keys to our success.”

AHS believes that bikers should have trails and space designated for the sport, however AHS also advocates for bike-free trails, which they consider a sanctuary for hikers. IMBA also agrees that some trails aren’t built for mountain biking and thus have no desire to bike these trails, but the organization believes mountain bikers have the right to access sections of National Scenic Trails and other trails that currently ban mountain bikes.

These two communities might not agree on who can access what, but they do agree on the collaborative effort by all who enjoy these trails to do their part in the conversation effort to keep the trails wild like they were intended to be.

“Success looks like linking arms with backcountry stewards in order to work together to protect these places,” said McCormack.

The cooperation and collaboration between the two groups show that there is a common ground, and success isn’t too far off in the future.


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