Rejuvenated partnership between U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association key to success
Special to the Tribune
In some circles, there’s still a downright disdain for mountain bikers. It’s often guided by the notion that they destroy trails with their riding or that they are loud and rowdy 20-somethings out to disrupt the peace and quiet of the mountains.
Sure, as with any group, there might be a few bad seeds. But the truth is, if you’re out on the trails this summer, you might owe the next rider you see a thank you. Because there’s a good chance he or she may have spent some time maintaining the very trail you’re hiking on. There’s also a good chance he or she isn’t in the age demographic you might expect. It’s not 20-somethings who are usually spending $3,000 to $5,000 on a bike.
With mountain biking becoming a staple for summer recreation here at Lake Tahoe, there’s a big reason why trails in around the basin are as good as they’ve ever been; and they are also increasingly receiving recognition on the national and international scene. Ask around and people will tell you, that acclaim is in large part credited to Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association (TAMBA).
“They stepped up,” said Mike Gabor, the Lake Tahoe Basin’s U.S. Forest Service engineer. “They went from a handful of participants to dozens and dozens of participants. It’s a pretty dramatic turnaround in four or five years.”
Gabor credits an ongoing partnership between the Forest Service and TAMBA as a large part of the reason the region’s already extensive trail network is in the condition it is in and continuing to grow.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, TAMBA — which reformed in 2011 after some years of inactivity — now annually logs an estimated 4,000 volunteer hours on various trail work projects. It’s a number the group aims to exceed.
But it wasn’t always that way. Founded in 1988 by a small group of enthusiastic riders that included longtime South Lake Tahoe local and Sierra Ski & Cycle Works owner Gary Bell, the group started strong in its early days — growing to over 1,500 members during the ‘90s — but then faded to obscurity in the early 2000s.
“I had run it for 13 years,” Bell said. “We needed new people to come and take over, but they didn’t quite put the energy out we’d hoped and it went dormant.”
When avid mountain bikers Ben and his wife Amy Fish moved to the area in 2003, they were surprised at the lack of involvement.
“There was nothing going on,” Ben said of the organized mountain biking scene. “There was no voice for mountain bikers back then.”
It wasn’t until 2010 when the U.S. Forest Service hosted a trails conference in conjunction with the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) — a strong advocating body for bike groups and bike legislation — that real change came.
While initially slow to recognize mountain biking nationwide, the Forest Service has since become increasingly receptive, recognizing the interest and dedicated trail volunteers.
The 2010 meeting led to a new enthusiasm for biking stewardship and what essentially resulted in the reboot of the group, “TAMBA 2.0” as Ben called it, in early 2011.
Gabor said the changes since that meeting have been impressive, crediting both Ben and Amy for their heavy involvement.
He estimated that TAMBA now annually assesses and maintains a third of the Tahoe Basin’s roughly 350 miles of trails.
As an independent nonprofit group with Forest Service-certified trail crew leaders, TAMBA now conducts trail surveys, assesses needs and manages trail work on their own on behalf of the Forest Service — with minimal Forest Service effort.
“It’s a really great experience to work with those guys,” Gabor said. “We would be struggling to maintain (trails) with our fixed budget. I think trail maintenance would be average without their experience (and volunteers).”
Seeing his group regain some of the strength it had in the 1990s, Bell said, “It’s phenomenal. It’s really grown. They’ve got some leaders in there that are really energetic and putting in the work.”
He added that the Forest Service’s more welcoming approach to mountain biking also plays a key role.
“It was almost unheard of at the time,” he said of the early days of TAMBA.
Among recent projects, TAMBA was a leading force behind the creation of the new Bijou Bike Park in South Lake Tahoe, which opened in September of 2015.
Builders of the park have said it will be a staple of the mountain biking community moving forward and a world-class attraction.
Once again firmly entrenched in the community, the group continues to move forward with expanding and maintaining Tahoe’s trails.
“The current state (of TAMBA and Tahoe biking) is well beyond what any of us thought it would be,” sports photographer, TAMBA member and avid biker Dave Clock of South Lake Tahoe said. “To see a world-class bike park put in, I never thought I’d see that.”