Trails and tribulations
WORCA’s growing role in the battle to protect access and preserve trails
By Andrew Mitchell
To this day, Joe Breeze can’t explain what possessed him to plunk down $5 to buy a sturdy 1941 Schwinn Ballooner bicycle and ride it down the railway grade of California’s Mount Tamalpais. He went up for the view and came down for a laugh. In the process he came up with a concept that would forever change the way people looked at bicycles, trails and the terrain as a whole. The year was 1974.
Over the next decade, some leftovers from the ’60s scene in San Francisco moved out to Marin County to get closer to the mountains. One of these transplants was Gary Fisher, who used to compete with Breeze in road races. Another was Tom Ritchey, who needs no introduction. Another was Mike Sinyard who went on to found Specialized. And the list goes on.
By the time 1984 rolled around, mountain bikes and knobby tires were rolling off the production line, albeit in limited quantities. The scene that began in Marin County was slowly catching on across California. There were regular races that were starting to draw the curious, and incredulous media coverage that fell into the "what will they think of next" category. Mountain biking was just starting to break through.
It was at this time, however, that mountain biking faced its first major conflict. The race that began all races — a 4.7 km track down the Cascade Fire Trail that dropped half a kilometre — was shut down by local authorities after injuries started piling up. They ruled that the bike race did not comply with insurance requirements and conflicted with other public uses of the area.
Gary Fisher still holds the record time of 4 minutes and 22 seconds on that course, although it remains closed to mountain bikers.
Since then, as the popularity of mountain biking has exploded around the world, off-road cycling enthusiasts have been in a constant battle with governments and park officials to keep trails open.
There are conflicts with other trail users, such as hikers and horseback riders, who feel that the bikes are ruining both the trails and the outdoor experience.
There are problems with public lands and private landowners regarding erosion and liability issues.
Most of all, there is a huge concern over acceptance — a combination of the above factors and the widely-held perception that mountain biking is bad for the environment has some people suggesting that it might be time to close off some trails.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and, to a lesser extent, the International Cycling Union (UCI) have made it their objective to ensure that cyclists are represented at the table whenever there is a discussion concerning land access.
In Canada, the Canadian Mountain Bicycling Alliance (CMBA) deals with access and advocacy issues at the federal level. Locally, those responsibilities fall on the shoulders of the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA), which has been involved in trail access issues for the last decade.
Whistler bike trails – one man’s labour is everyone’s responsibility
Whistler was a very different place when Dan Swanstrom started building mountain bike trails 16 years ago.
"I used to cut firewood where the Marketplace is," he says. "There was nothing there at that time, and literally nothing to ride."
Bored with the limited number of short trails in the valley, Swanstrom went into the woods around Whistler armed with chainsaws, picks and a vision of what the trail would eventually look like. Everything that wasn’t municipal property was, in his eyes, fair game.
During that time he built an incredible 17 trails almost single-handedly, including Danimal, Shit Happens, A River Runs Through It, White Knuckles and No Girly Mans. Today, all of his trails are well-travelled and many are in need of maintenance.
"A couple of years ago I handed out some flyers asking people not to use the trails after a rain storm. Some people took it seriously, but some went riding anyway and tore them up. After a while I got sick of spending every Saturday of my life fixing the damage that other riders made," says Swanstrom.
Swanstrom feels that one day a special tax might be necessary to cover the growing costs of trail maintenance. The tax would apply to everything from bike purchases to visitor bike rentals.
"If people are going to ride a trail, they should be expected to look after it. And if they can’t find the time, they should drop in some coin to pay someone else to do it. WORCA’s doing a pretty good job so far, but to be honest they’re going to need more money if they ever want to see these trails properly looked after."
User fees are already in effect in areas of Ontario and Quebec, and across the US. Even Moab, the gravitational centre of the mountain bike universe, asks mountain bikers to shell out US$7 a day to cover trail maintenance costs.
"There’s a lot of people that are coming to Whistler to mountain bike, and it’s time the municipality and tourism industry as a whole realized that," says Swanstrom. "Once they’ve accepted it, it will be a lot easier to find funding for things like trail maintenance and nobody will even think about closing trails. I don’t see why it’s taking so long to figure that out."
Swanstrom has also noticed that some riders have blazed or "braided" new paths off his trails, many of which don’t fit in with his vision for the trail, confuse riders, or are potentially dangerous.
"There has to be a standard for this kind of thing, and if you don’t meet that standard, get out of there," says Swanstrom. "I don’t build trails to kill riders, but to challenge their ability — so people can learn and get better without getting hurt."
Swanstrom’s latest project takes place a little higher up the mountains, where he has spent the last four years working on downhill trails for his new business, a heli-bike operation called Extreme Descents Mountain Biking of Whistler. Groups will have the option of taking long winding routes down or "extreme plunges through rocks and dirt."
"The idea is if someone can make it through these trails, they will become better riders," says Swanstrom. "They’ll go back to the stuff that they used to ride and everything will seem so much easier in comparison."
Swanstrom acknowledges that his clients may cause some erosion, but he is willing to undertake the cost and labour to maintain the area. "I’ll pick up after myself, and happily. It’s these other jerks that don’t put anything back into the trails they use that are giving the sport a bad name."
WORCA – keeping trails open since 1990
WORCA was created in 1990 when a discussion began that could have resulted in the ban on mountain bikes on the trail up to Cheakamus Lake.
"A land access issue brought the group together and the potential for the closure of trails that mountain bikers had been enjoying for some time," says WORCA president and municipal planner Chris Bishop.
Not only did WORCA convince other parties to keep the trail open, in the process the group established itself as a strong political voice wherever land access issues and mountain bikers are concerned.
In time, WORCA also took on the responsibility of trail maintenance, encouraging volunteers to participate in regular maintenance nights and using membership dues to hire trail crews. By 1994, the membership had grown to over 200 mountain bikers. By 1998, it had grown to a high of more than 1,000 cyclists, each paying $20 for an annual membership.
This year the membership has dropped to under 600, but Bishop believes this is largely due to the growth of downhilling and the recent wet weather rather than apathy on the part of local riders.
"We need to get the word out that we’re not just about the Loonie Races, although they are certainly our most visible event," says Bishop. "We’re about trail maintenance, mainly, and land access issues. That’s where the money goes, and those are the issues that I think every rider in the valley should be concerned about."
Two blips that are currently prominent on WORCA’s radar screen are the management plan for the Emerald Forest and the Lillooet LRMP. Both are potential land access issues involving multiple users and both have environmental concerns.
The Emerald Forest – where recreation meets conservation
The Emerald Forest has been a topic of debate in Whistler since the municipal parks department recommended acquiring and protecting the area in a 1990 newsletter. The newsletter states:
"The success and development of Whistler as a community and as an international destination resort is contingent on the inter-relationship between development and recreational facilities. The attractiveness of the Whistler experience can be protected through the establishment and review of a Recreation Master Plan. The plan or vision will ensure that the natural splendors and the recreational opportunities of Whistler, and beyond, are preserved and enhanced."
At the time the newsletter was released, the Emerald Forest belonged to the Decigon group, which was attempting to develop the area for housing. The municipality turned down proposals in 1989 and 1994. Last year a deal involving Intrawest, Decigon and the municipality finally came together that protects the 139-acre area.
Intrawest purchased the Emerald Forest — which was appraised at $9.8 million, for $6.8 million and two lots at Taluswood — then transferred the land to the municipality in exchange for $1 million and 476 new bed units over and above the existing bed unit cap. Intrawest plans to use the new bed units for a hotel development on Lot 5.
Now that the municipality has acquired the Emerald Forest, the job of protecting the area has just begun. The parks department is currently drafting a long-term management plan for the property that could, in WORCA’s view, result in trail closures and limit access for mountain bikers.
"The Emerald Forest has been a destination for mountain bikers since the beginning," says Bishop. "It contains a lot of the original single track in the valley. It’s definitely not the only place to ride, but there are some good trails already in place. We don’t want to see any new trails built, but it’s worth preserving what’s already there.
"WORCA will be working with the municipality on the long-term management plan. We don’t want to see the trails braided, and we definitely don’t want to see the existing trails closed."
WORCA’s vision of the Emerald Forest may conflict with the vision of conservationists, who point out that the reason the municipality wanted to protect the Emerald Forest is because it is the last link in a continuous strip of wetlands and forest between Alta and Green lakes, and habitat to numerous species of wildlife.
While the parks department works out the details of the management plan, the area will fall under the auspices of the Land Conservancy of B.C., which is more inclined to conservation than recreation. Land Conservancy has previously opposed mountain bikes in other areas of the province it is involved in, but will allow the municipality to decide which trails are allowed to remain open.
In order to ensure that mountain bike interests are represented in the management plan, WORCA has increased lobbying efforts and maintenance work on Emerald Forest trails.
This year, for the first time ever, WORCA has also started to close trails in the area.
"I personally think it was necessary," says Bishop. "Just walking through the area, you could see trails that didn’t go anywhere. The major trails needed to be refocused to get people to stay on the same routes and arteries rather than wandering off into the bush."
Tony Horn, WORCA’s director of trails, believes that mountain bikers have to get used to the idea of following the main trails through the Emerald Forest if they want to keep the trails open.
"This year we closed a section of A River Runs Through It to put in a riparian zone, but when we went in there the next time we saw that some riders had built this awesome bridge right into the closed area," says Horn. "We moved the closed sign in a little further to accommodate it and blocked the area off with some deadfall, but some riders are still biking past the sign.
"People have to understand that the area was closed for a reason. You can’t ride anywhere you want without some kind of repercussions. One log stunt like that could cause council to close the most popular trail in the valley. It also discredits a lot of what we’re trying to do."
Horn is encouraged that record numbers of members have been coming out to participate in trail maintenance nights, but he would like to see those numbers increase. "Every rider in the valley isn’t going to come out, but at least they should be aware of what’s happening."
If WORCA can show council that they can be responsible stewards, Bishop and Horn believe that the group will have a much better chance at protecting access for mountain bikers.
"It’s certainly a start. It also doesn’t hurt that there is a long-standing WORCA member on municipal council, who frequently comes out to our trail maintenance nights with his family and who sees what we do first-hand," says Bishop, referring to Councillor Ken Melamed. "At least it shows that we’re as serious about protecting the trails as we are about keeping them open."
"Right now we just want to be a party to the land covenant in the Emerald Forest. WORCA has to be involved in that process, whatever it is — whether it’s a matter of politics or conservation. Mountain bike trails have been a part of the area for a long time."
The Lillooet LRMP – a conflict of interests
For the past three years, diverging interests have met to discuss the terms and implementation of the Lillooet Land Resource Management Plan, a document that will ultimately determine how over a million hectares of mountains, valleys, lakes and forests will be managed.
First Nations, logging companies, ski area developers, horseback riders, motorized recreationists, pro-environment organizations — representatives from almost 30 different user groups — have been at the table since day one of the process. Off-road cycling organizations, however, were not invited.
"I only really found out about (the LRMP) when I noticed an ad in the paper in November of last year," says Bishop. "It was clear that there was nobody there who was going to represent mountain bike interests, and we thought that was a little unfair."
WORCA — combined with SORCA in Squamish, PORCA in Pemberton, and the newly-formed BRORCA in Bridge River — realized that something had to be done quickly to preserve mountain bike access to some popular trails around Spruce Lake and in the Chilcotins.
"We weren’t formally invited to the table, so we’ve had to make inroads and get things going as quickly as possible," says Bishop. "It’s late in the process, we recognize that, and we can take part of the blame — but not 100 per cent of it. It just made sense to include us from the beginning."
Mountain bikers and horse lovers have been butting heads over trail use for years, with horse lovers complaining that the cyclists spook their horses and cause erosion on switchbacks, and the cyclists complaining that horse manure is ruining the outdoor experience and that horse hooves are causing most of the damage. Most cyclists feel it is this animosity that has kept mountain bikers out of the LRMP process.
Although the horses currently outnumber the bikes in the Spruce Lake and Chilcotins areas, Bishop feels there are enough mountain bikers to warrant an equal place at the table.
"We’ve rattled our chains pretty loudly, so I’d say people are aware we’re there," he says. "Depending on who you talk to, we’re either getting too much attention or not enough. Either way I think we’re definitely making an impact.
"Whenever you have multiple users on a trail, there’s bound to be conflicts. While we haven’t been around as long as horses or hikers, we feel we’ve been around long enough to have some weight in these discussions regarding the use of trails. We feel we have a stake in the debate, and should be on equal footing with horseback riders when the decisions are made."
To show the other parties at the table how important the trails are to mountain bikers, WORCA recently flew 30 volunteers and their tools into Spruce Lake by float plane to do some needed trail work.
"There’s a perception out there that mountain bikers are trail users and abusers that don’t have any respect for the trails or other users," says Boyd McTavish, a long-time WORCA member and a contractor that the group hired to handle this year’s trail maintenance.
"Even in Whistler we have to deal with the same kind of perception. It’s important to show them that they’re wrong — we do care and we’re willing to put in the time and money to prove it. Anyone who doubts that should talk to someone like Don MacLaurin, who has been coming out to trail maintenance nights in the interpretive forest for years."
For his part, MacLaurin says that WORCA has always pitched in to repair a trail whenever he’s asked, even if the trail has a low value for mountain biking.
"They get so little recognition for the work they do, but I think the people who make the decisions know what’s going on," says MacLaurin. "They’re better caretakers of the trails than they’ve ever been given the credit for."
Battling the negative perceptions about mountain biking has become more difficult in recent years with the growth of free-riding, where mountain bikers seek out the most extreme mountain terrain they can find and ride it. There is a concern that the resulting tracks will lead to erosion.
"There is a huge difference between free-riding and the type of cross-country riding and racing we promote," says Bishop. "I’m sure most people appreciate that difference, but there are people who look at what these guys are doing and say ‘that’s mountain biking’.
"My personal opinion is that it’s a powder snow mentality — you find an area and you ride it and ride it until you wear it out, and move on. That’s not how we think. You have to maintain the trails and keep them in shape."
Although it could be years before the Lillooet LRMP process is completed — and even then it’s doubtful it will have the support of all the parties involved — WORCA and other local groups have at least succeeded in keeping mountain biking interests on the agenda.
"I’d be surprised and disappointed if our interests were overlooked in the process at this point," says Bishop.
WORCA’s expanding role
In addition to addressing access and maintenance issues, WORCA is also focusing its efforts on working with the community. For example, WORCA currently holds three free dirt camps for kids during the summer months to help new mountain bikers develop skills and to build an appreciation for the sport — including the importance of trail maintenance.
When the Ministry of the Environment, Lands and Parks decided to decommission the road up to the old Singing Pass parking lot, they asked WORCA if they would be interested in developing the road as a bike trail, building bridges over the water bars and taking over maintenance responsibilities.
"It’s great that they came to us," says Bishop. "We’d like to do more of this kind of thing, developing low-impact stuff that is good for the tourists and getting beginners out there."
Bishop would also like to see WORCA become more involved in the development of the sport as a whole, assisting in next year’s World Cup mountain bike events and helping to establish Whistler as a mountain bike destination in the same league as Moab.
"The potential we see here for mountain biking is huge," says Bishop. "There’s a lot here now, but it could be taken to a whole other level. If the mountain biking community will support WORCA through volunteer efforts and membership, we can take it to that level.
"Managing trails is like managing a crop. You have to tend to it. You get the occasional flare ups that are more urgent that you have to put more attention to, but that’s more of a maintenance thing. Our goals are to make sure landowners are happy and consulted when there’s a potential for conflict, and to grow the sport as a whole."