Balancing Act 

As mountain biking becomes more and more accessible and inclusive, stakeholders consider what it means for proper stewardship

click to flip through (5) PHOTO BY BRUNO LONG
  • Photo by Bruno Long

In her younger days, Tara Llanes was an absolute mountain-biking marvel.

She won the American downhill national title in 2006 to top the list of her many accomplishments in the sport. But the following year, in Beaver Creek, Colo., Llanes suffered a crash during the dual slalom event at the Jeep King of the Mountain festival that left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Though the West Covina, Calif. native hasn't been able to walk in the decade since the accident, she has subsequently returned to the trails as adaptive mountain biking has started to emerge as a possibility for paraplegics and quadriplegics.

Speaking during Western Mountain Bike Tourism Symposium in Revelstoke, held Sept. 14 and 15, Llanes explains how challenging it was for her to be separated from the sport she had dedicated her life to.

At that time, there wasn't any equipment available that was suitable for the type of terrain she wanted to ride. Only a few years later did it start to emerge.

"You could get back out, up into the mountains and just go be connected with nature and your community again," she says in front of a crowd of about 200 mountain-bike industry figures at the Revelstoke Community Centre.

But even with the equipment now starting to become available, there were several other pieces of the puzzle still missing. First off, there were few places where Llanes could actually go and ride her brand-new steed.

"When I was going out in the beginning on my bike, I wasn't really sure if I was going to fit from start to finish," she says. "There was a lot of going into trails, getting stuck, turning around, coming back out.

"There are all these steps that I wanted to eliminate for others."

After starting to gain confidence in her riding again, Llanes looked to find other ways to make the sport more accessible, including teaming with Mark Wood, currently of Trail Holistics, to help figure out how to retrofit North Van's Bobsled trail so other three-wheelers could ride it safely. Now, brand-new accessible trails are being built as part of networks in the villages of Nakusp and New Denver, B.C., and Llanes hopes to see adaptive mountain biking see the same rise as sit-skiing, which a decade ago was rare but is now offered at every major mountain resort.

Creating accessible trails and equipment are just a couple of the numerous prongs the industry is hopeful will lead to a greater number of participants in the sport.

But the focus on inclusion is coming at a time when clubs, land managers and other stakeholders are facing myriad problems associated with overuse. Here in Whistler, and the Sea to Sky corridor as a whole, it's one of the many symptoms of overtourism that has left the resort — and by extension, its renowned network of bike trails — busier than ever.

Western Mountain Bike Tourism Association (MBTA) executive director Martin Littlejohn, who along with MBTA co-founder and market research consultant Donna Green analyzed the economic impact of mountain biking in the Sea to Sky, called the region a flagship for the sport in a province with the highest concentration of mountain bikers.

Though new megaprojects are either recently completed, like the Into the Mystic and Lord of the Squirrels trails as part of the Sproatt Alpine Trail Network, or well underway, such as the Whistler Mountain Bike Park expansion in Creekside, Littlejohn emphasizes the importance of drawing tourists to various spots in British Columbia.

"Part of our goal is to spread (mountain-bike tourism) around the province," he says shortly after the conference's final speakers had wrapped. "Our approach has always been to not overpromote one area over another, but try to provide an (outline) of every region of the province and all of the opportunities."

Many of the presentations at this year's conference mark a tonal shift from the previous symposium in 2015 in Williams Lake, where the theme was collaboration, with the industry looking to create new connections for attendees to help build and grow mountain biking. This year, with a focus on stewardship, several clubs expressed dismay with the challenges associated with keeping their trails safe and environmentally sustainable given the number of riders drawn to them.

Some of the problems are only now starting to receive attention and study, with solutions still seeming like a steep climb away.

Trail troubles

Though the Sea to Sky corridor is facing a phalanx of issues related to overtourism, with mountain biking serving as just one of several attractions to the region — and Whistler Blackcomb's ambitious $345-million capital investment, Renaissance, on the way — other hotspots in the province are pumping the brakes on mountain-bike tourism.

Stewart Spooner, the trails manager for the Kootenay Columbia Trails Society (KCTS), which represents the interests of not only mountain bikers but horseback riders, runners, hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers in Rossland, expressed frustration at the podium during his roughly 20-minute presentation.

Spooner — who oversees a 60-trail network spanning 150 kilometres and maintains relationships with 30 different landowners — says mountain bikers can be hard to work with at times if they believe they are leaving no trace. However, with bikes swifter and sleeker than ever before, coupled with more people taking more runs, the effects are becoming more pronounced year after year.

"Mountain bikers like to feel like they're not damaging the trails, not like horses or ATVs, but when you get enough of us, we damage the trails," Spooner says.

"We often behave badly. We're riding our bikes in beautiful, natural places on trails that are sometimes works of art. But we ride hard and fast whenever it suits us, even when it's too dry or too wet or too busy. We skit around like hooligans."

Spooner takes care to stress that not all bikers contribute to the destruction of trails, but blames the culture around the sport, which he says is focused on making sales and creating growth while promoting "risky and destructive behaviour."

"It seems like there's a whole mountain-biking industry that's profiting off the hard work of communities that are out there building and maintaining these trails. I have the same reservations about tourism," he says. "It's great that all these people want to ride our trails, but they just add wear and tear (and) they don't contribute back in any proportion to the wear that they cause.

"Sure, all the tourism-related businesses cash in, but we've yet to find any meaningful way to get that money back into the trails."

While the KCTS represents four in five Rossland residents, making it generally a breeze to access its $100,000 a year in local and regional government funding, Spooner explains the City of Rossland kicks in only $30,000 of that total while funding the local hockey arena to the tune of $500,000 — even though trail ridership outpaces use of the rink. He believes trails should be treated as a community facility like a rink or swimming pool. As well, he adds while destination-marketing organizations can leverage the trails to draw visitors, his organization doesn't receive any funding from them. (In a separate presentation, Destination BC's Kim Hood outlined the Destination Development Program, a 10-year plan that looks to identify priorities in 20 corridors across the province to help "close the gap between marketing and sales folks and the folks in the communities that are working on the trails.")

That noted, Spooner would like to see private business with an enormous stake in boosting participation, from bike manufacturers to the auto industry, help with the infrastructure to handle that increased ridership.

"It's immoral that volunteers and taxes in small-town B.C. are subsidizing multimillion-dollar corporations," he says. "It would be great if there were an industry-wide program and if we shame them all into making meaningful contributions."

Spooner says the club is considering limiting ridership on some trails and is especially taking a hard-line stance on events. When the Singletrack 6 stage race wound its way through the region this summer, using the Seven Summits Trail as one of its stages, the KCTS levied a charge of $5 per rider per day. He adds, however, that amount would need to roughly triple to account for the race's true impact on the trails. Additionally, in the future the club will restrict events from running during extreme wet or dry periods.

Though receiving more funding and resources can lead to positive outcomes, like paying trailbuilders to make them more accountable and responsible, it can also potentially alienate volunteers who may be unwilling to donate their time while others receive a paycheque.

Jay Darby, president of the Mountain Bikers of the Central Okanagan in Kelowna, also notes a prevalent attitude that many riders believe they don't need to contribute because their friends are already in the club.

"They think we do a lot more than we actually get accomplished," he says.

A charged debate

With their ability to keep older riders in the game, Spooner cracks that e-bikes are "the new Viagra," noting every rider over 60 in Rossland owns or has inquired about purchasing one.

And during her presentation, Llanes notes that the three-wheelers are equipped with electric pedal assist to help the hand-cyclers with the uphill portions of the trail.

But alongside the inclusivity aspects were concerns that the extra horsepower, combined with the riding ability of young, able-bodied people could further compound pressure on the trails.

During a panel discussion, moderator Ray Freeman notes an International Mountain Bicycling Association study from 2015 that found that even the least-powerful e-bikes had similar effects to a regular mountain bike. Of course, with users' ability to ride more laps in the same amount of time, those impacts could be felt two to three times as often.

With varying degrees of excitement, the five panelists acknowledge the emergence of e-bikes as inevitable, and say finding the best way to implement them is of the utmost importance, though more data is necessary to tone down the emotional, subjective elements of the debate with objective facts.

According to Recreation Sites and Trails BC trails manager Tennessee Trent, Victoria is working on a policy for e-bikes on Crown land that is expected to be ready by next spring. The department is consulting with other land managers in North America and Europe, where e-bikes have significantly greater popularity, and stressed that nothing in its policy, which will balance "social, environmental and economic factors," will be unprecedented.

Given that Recreation Sites and Trails BC has a greater mandate than departments like the U.S. Forest Service, overseeing all recreation on public land outside of parks, it must make accommodations for e-bikes, according to trails specialist Daniel Scott.

"We support motorized and non-motorized recreation on Crown land in British Columbia," he says. "We had to take that into consideration."

Roughly 10 representatives in the audience raise their hands when polled if their clubs have started working on a policy, and many more express a desire to collaborate on a fair approach in the future.

Cooper Quinn, the director of advocacy for the North Shore club, explains they can't set policy, but will work with land managers to get the proper rules in place.

"(The electric motor) changes it into a different user group and that's just a user group we manage like any other. There are places that any user group can and can't go," he says. "We can have motorized and non-motorized users mixing in the same areas perfectly well, so we can just move forward from there."

Though there are practical considerations, there are also philosophical questions around e-bikes. Some audience members and panelists wonder about the culture change e-bikes will bring about, with the issue coming all the way down to the core identity of the sport itself. Some, like Kranked Bikes founder Bjorn Enga, whose stock includes e-bikes, opine that the ends of exploring more and going further justify the electric means. Others, like Spooner, argue that accepting the human body's limits should come part and parcel with the sport.

Scott, however, appreciates how e-bikes can push beyond those limits.

"Right now, most of us are limited by our own incapacity or capacity to go places. I'm limited by my own lungs, my own beer drinking, my own legs as to where I can get on a bike. An e-bike is going to extend that range, which is very exciting for a lot of people, myself included," he says. "If you can get out and do an alpine loop in an hour instead of it requiring you to plan the day, getting up at 5 a.m. and having to have a shuttle ready and all the rest, the appeal of convenience is certainly there."

Enga, appearing via Skype from the Sunshine Coast, hammers home that only three decades ago, mountain bikers themselves were seen as "disrupters" in the eyes of other trail users. Now 49, he says he's enjoying the best ride of his life every time out.

With the downhill portions of trails being essentially the same as a manual bike, he asks why it's problematic that climbs will become easier.

"I'm like I'm 20 riding my bike again," he says.

During the open-floor portion of the session, Burnaby's Brian Berg explains his engine-powered background as a motocross rider, but says he noticed more problems once ATVs grew in popularity.

"The lowest common denominator showed up, too. A motocross bike was hard to ride, but you could sit on an ATV, (throw) back a six-pack and get out there without falling over — for a while," he says.

Similarly, newer, easier-to-ride jet-skis have allowed operators to drive carelessly, he says, hitting boats and ducks and buzzing swimmers and creating other problems. Thus, the barriers to entry are a necessary gatekeeper.

"How many people do you know have bought a mountain bike, were like, 'Holy crap, that's a lot of work. Craigslist!'" he ponders. "These people a lot of times hit a sport and then they leave a sport, but then they leave a mess behind.

"My question to everybody here is 'Are you willing to lose your access to all these great trails?'"

Maintaining backcountry access

Berg's question verbalized one of the threads found in many of the presentations: If access to trails is ultimately revoked, there is no mountain biking, for locals or tourists.

During a panel on backcountry access, Cory Legebokow, a Revelstoke-based ecosystem specialist with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, explains that recreational users, mountain bikers or not, should know the impact their actions have and should strive to mitigate it.

"Pretty much anything anybody does in the alpine does have an impact on the ecosystem and the species that inhabit it," he says. "Those impacts range from physical structures, like trails or roads and the associated impacts that come along with those, things like soil displacement, changing water courses, increased erosion, physical disturbance of wildlife, habituation of wildlife, disruption of noxious species, the list goes on.

"Every time we take a step into the ecosystems out there, we do affect something one way or another."

Legebokow explains his responsibilities keep him in the office and out of the backcountry more often than he would like, and stresses how shared stewardship can help maintain a healthy environment while also ensuring locals, tourists and businesses can retain access.

He cites the example of the Revelstoke Caribou Rearing in the Wild program, which brought together representatives from all levels of government, First Nations, timber industry, outdoor clubs and environmental groups as they sought to revitalize the caribou population. Most of them had different views on the causes of the decline and the solution, but they started to work together and ultimately decided on a maternity-penning project, where pregnant females were caught and allowed to give birth in safety.

Legebokow later explains the success of the project is paramount, as the federal government is keeping close watch and could take over land management if it feels the caribou population does not return to where it should be.

"Their approach is likely to be less considerate (than) ours," he says. "Things like illegal, commercial mountain biking has the potential to not only affect the person who is doing that, but it has the chance to affect the entire industry.

"If there is illegal guiding going on out there, be concerned about it."

A legal but pressing issue is heli-biking, which can provide easier access to more sensitive alpine environments, according to Rec Sites and Trails director John Hawkings. As newer, better bike racks make it more feasible to carry bikes on a helicopter, the industry could be set for a boom.

"Wildlife is going to take precedence. First Nations rights and titles are going to take precedence. Recreation is going to fall beneath those somewhere," Hawkings says. "If the mountain-bike community and the industry doesn't regulate itself, and even if it does, I think government — at least I'm suggesting — that we take a very proactive approach and use the tools available to us."

In her keynote, Jane Koepke, the founder of the Singletrack to Success program in the Yukon, explains how some recent troubles caused her to second-guess the decade-long mission of helping youth at the Carcross Tagish First Nation reconnect with their lands by building bike trails.

Although ridership eventually quadrupled on the lands about 45 minutes south of Whitehorse, with the project receiving widespread publicity through a feature on CBC's The National as well as a visit from Prince William and Kate Middleton last year, there were unintended impacts as well. People started driving dangerously on the roads in and around Montana Mountain, riders were caught going "mach-speed" down the climbing/beginner trail, and there has also been a sharp increase in drinking and partying on the mountain. This past May long weekend, 60 people camped on the mountain, roasting pigs and disrespecting what many consider a sacred place.

The incident led to a conversation about courtesy and respect, requiring riders to realize the opportunity to ride there is a privilege, not a right.

"Those pig roasters felt horribly and they approached CTFN to apologize," she says. "It's not hard to find mountain bikers who represent the good way."

Littlejohn closed the symposium by reminding attendees that, deep down, each and every one of them is essentially a tourist on the mountain-bike trails. Koepke, meanwhile, reminded them, as well as any others who partake in mountain biking, to respect not only unceded First Nations land, but those who build the trails, as well as those who may not necessarily welcome the sport in the public space.

"We're all recreating on borrowed land."

Every presentation from the 2017 symposium is available at www.rideguidelive.com.

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