The trials of illegal trails
July 24, 2009
When the snow melts each year in the Lake Tahoe Basin, mountain bikes become the preferred method for turning the area’s abundant slopes into the adrenaline-infused recreation residents and visitors crave.
But with illegal, user-created bike trails and terrain features popping up around the basin, U.S. Forest Service officials are asking for mountain bikers’ help in protecting the basin’s bountiful natural resources – and themselves.
The illegal trails often contain shoddily constructed jumps, give no indication of their difficulty and often don’t give riders an escape route if they encounter a feature that is beyond their skill level, according to a statement from the Forest Service.
“We’re very concerned for the safety of unsuspecting bikers using these unpermitted trails,” said Forest Service law enforcement officer Laura Clarke. “In one incident earlier this summer, a mountain biker riding an illegal trail on Kingsbury Grade crashed on a jump and was airlifted out with head and spinal injuries. Because unpermitted trails do not appear on maps, and builders have not planned for emergency access, injured riders risk not receiving timely medical attention because they can’t be located or are inaccessible.”
The unpermitted trails also threaten water quality and wildlife habitat, according to the statement.
“We’re seeing illegal trails built right through sensitive stream environment zones and archaeological sites,” said basin Forest Supervisor Terri Marceron. “Public lands belong to all of us, and the decision to build new trails needs to be made with participation from all.”
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Although the issue of user-created bike trails isn’t a new one, the Kingsbury Grade area has been a hot spot for the outlaw trails this summer, said Garrett Villanueva, U.S. Forest Service assistant forest engineer. The Forest Service has rehabilitated about four miles of trail in the area since June, Villanueva said.
Several individuals have received notices of violation for constructing the trails without a permit and could face up to six months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000, according to the statement. Whether the trail builders will be held responsible for the costs of rehabilitating the damage is under discussion, Villanueva said.
Wattabike bike shop owner Kent Wattanachinda said he doesn’t agree with people going out and building their own trails or features, but said it’s not uncommon for expert mountain bikers to mention a clandestine set-up in the woods, built to give themselves challenges that aren’t available on forest system trails.
“If you don’t have anything for them, guess what, they’re going to start building,” Wattanachinda said.
The bike shop owner pointed to Oregon’s Black Rock Trail System as an example of the kind of terrain that serious mountain bikers are looking for and an illustration of what can be accomplished when mountain bikers and government agencies step up to the plate. The extensive system of freeride terrain and singletrack outside of Salem, Ore., is built on state lands but maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers.
Whether basin regulations would allow such an undertaking is unknown.
And, while extremely large jumps and features might find a home at mountain bike parks at area ski resorts, they aren’t likely to be approved on trails in the general forest, Villanueva said.
Although Villanueva acknowledged getting trails built is a process likely to take years, projects at High Meadows, the Fallen Leaf Lake area and Daggett Summit could include the more challenging terrain expert mountain bikers covet.
But more challenging trails will only get built by the Forest Service with the participation of mountain bikers, Villanueva said, something that was echoed by Forest Engineer Mike Gabor in the statement.
“Mountain bikers who would like to help build better trails can work for the Forest Service on our trails crew, volunteer with us or the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, or consider forming a new organization to advocate for local mountain bike trails,” Gabor said.
Villanueva, an avid mountain biker himself, acknowledged the need for mountain bike access in the basin, but noted that access comes with conditions.
“It’s a valued and good thing to be doing in the forest, but we need to do it right,” Villanueva said.