Telling bikers to take a hike

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Cyclists left in limbo by letter from Historic Trust

“No mountain bikes if they can’t stay on the trail!”

“Bikers are leaving the trail and tearing up the soil.”
“Sprocket heads should stay in Durango!”
“Stop slandering bikers. Hikers do just as much damage!!”

Comments in the trailhead registry at Sand Canyon, one of the most popular areas of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument west of Cortez, are sometimes lively, debating everything from whether pet dogs should be allowed in the area to the merits of recreational-user fees.

For the most part, the debates are rhetorical, having no direct effect on monument policy.

But questions about the appropriateness of allowing mountain bikes in the delicate area suddenly gained legitimacy in January, when a national nonprofit group dedicated to historic preservation sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the monument. The letter argued that permitting bikes off-road is inconsistent with the presidential proclamation that created the national monument in June 2000.

Since then, monument officials and cycling aficionados around the area have been in limbo, waiting for a decision from the Interior Department’s regional solicitor as to whether mountain-biking is indeed permitted on anything other than actual roads.

A decision was expected in mid-March, but had not arrived as of press time. Even after the decision is made, the issue could wind up in court if the losing party decides to pursue that avenue.

“It’s nowhere,” said Monument Manager LouAnn Jacobson. “We’re still waiting for the solicitor general. They’re making an interpretation.”

Whatever the decision, the debate raises broader questions about the impacts of different types of recreation upon the monument, an area that has the nation’s richest concentration of archaeological sites.

The monument’s proclamation states, when describing permitted uses: “For the purpose of protecting the objects identified above, the Secretary of the Interior shall prohibit all motorized and mechanized vehicle use off road, except for emergency or authorized administrative purposes.” The monument’s interim guidelines, however, allow existing uses to continue on established trails.

Clear language?

Mountain-biking has always been allowed on the monument, but the number of cyclists used to be small. However, in the past few years, the winding network of trails that includes a 7-mile path from McElmo Canyon to Sand Canyon Pueblo and a route through East Rock Canyon has become enormously popular among fat-tire enthusiasts.

The issue of whether the practice is consistent with the monument’s proclamation was raised in a Jan. 15 letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

In the letter, attorneys Anita Canovas and Michael Smith, wrote: “In particular, mountain bikes, and the unfettered proliferation of new trails, are threatening to destroy the integrity of the landscape in the Monument, and are causing damage to standing structures, archaeological sites, and other fragile cultural resources, especially within Sand Canyon.”

Contacted in Washington, D.C., Smith , the trust’s public-lands counsel, said he is sympathetic to the bikers’ situation but that the monument’s proclamation is clear.

“I absolutely understand that mountain-bikers want as much access and as much area as possible, especially for trails that were previously considered open,” Smith said. “It just so happens that how they’ve written the proclamation is with the closure of mountain bikers and off-road vehicles to areas considered off-road.”

Smith said the trust’s concern was sparked by conversations he and Canovas had with Jacobson in which issues surfaced about mountain-biking on the Sand Canyon trail.

“By and large, mountain-bikers are very environmentally conscious, but there’s a mix of resources that make this area different from other areas,” Smith said. “The National Trust is concerned with cultural and historic resources on public lands just as it would be concerned with the preservation of historically significant buildings.”

Amber Clark, public-lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based nonprofit environmental group, said the cycling issue is a tough one.

“It is really a dilemma right now,” Clark said. “If you read the proclamation, it pretty clearly states that mechanized travel is only on designated roads, not trails.

”We believe it’s really important to protect the integrity of the proclamation, but that’s a really popular area for mountain bikes and it’s been used by them for a number of years.”

The San Juan Citizens Alliance has taken no formal position on the biking issue, but Clark – who grew up a quarter-mile from the trailhead — said the explosive increase in recreation in general and mountain-biking in particular at Sand Canyon has created concerns.

“The (monument) designation increased visitation,” she said. “That’s a positive and a negative. More people fall in love with the monument and those people could be a voice for protection of resources, but it also means the potential for increased damages because recreation is not always sufficiently managed.”

Build it and they’ll come

Up through the 1980s, Sand Canyon saw a few hundred visitors a year. Today, that number is more than 18,000.

But the BLM does not have the funds to hire substantial numbers of personnel to do outreach or law enforcement.

“That’s one of the reasons I was kind of opposed to the monument (designation),” said Scott Clow, a cycling enthusiast and member of the Kokopelli Bike Club. “This is like ‘Field of Dreams’ – build it and they’ll come. The use of that place has just gone through the roof.

“I get a little bummed out when I go to park at Sand Canyon and there are 30 cars. I go, why did they ever designate this thing?”

But the area was growing in popularity even before the monument designation, although that drew even more users. Visitation jumped 2,000 percent from 1986 to 1996.

The trail network, which winds past numerous ancient ruins, is popular with hikers and horseback riders as well as cyclists. Over the years, all those users have taken a toll. The potsherds that once littered the landscape have largely disappeared, and new trails regularly appear, branching off existing trails.

Jacobson said it’s the overall growth in use that concerns her.

“My concerns are probably of a broader nature, not just focused on mountain-biking,” she said. “We’re concerned with the proliferation of unauthorized trails that could be or are impacting natural and cultural resources. We’re concerned with off-road vehicle use. It’s not pointed at one particular user group.”

Clark agreed, but also pointed out that mountain bikes, which create a continuous track, can be particularly damaging. “Hikers can be a problem, but mountain-bike trails get proliferated more quickly because a bike track lives a more obvious trail and you have things like turning and braking,” she said. “It can cause more of an imprint in the soil.

“Mountain bikes are not the only problem out there, and all types of recreation need to be managed better.”

A devastating loss

Management of Canyons of the Ancients is being addressed by an 11-member advisory committee that has been working since May 2003 to create a plan for the monument.

Dani Gregory, president of the Kokopelli Bike Club, an official International Mountain Biking Association club based in Montezuma County, has been following the committee’s meetings. She said the group is waiting to see what the solicitor general says about mountain-biking, but that it has supported the principle of multiple use.

“The planning committee agreed to submit an opening statement for the entire plan that says they were for multiple uses, supporting existing uses prior to the designation,” she said. “That was encouraging, but the reality is I don’t know what it’s worth. If the solicitor’s decision is not in favor of bikes, I don’t think what the committee said is going to change anything unless it goes to court.”

Gregory said cyclists would still be allowed to ride on roads through the monument, but that the experience wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. “People who really enjoy mountain-biking seek out single-track (paths),” she said. “We want to do it in a good area where the scenery is pretty and the trail’s good.”

She said the Sand Canyon-East Rock trails are outstanding. “They’re world-class. I think it’s some of the best biking I’ve had anywhere.

“To lose Sand Canyon would be huge, huge – devastating – in a recreational sense.”

Only a minority

Clow, who helped found the Kokopelli Bike Club, is optimistic that won’t happen. “We’re pretty confident the existing uses are going to be preserved.”

Clow and Gregory maintain that cyclists do no more harm than other users. Clow said his official public comment at the time the monument designation was being considered was that mountain-bikers do not have a tremendous impact on cultural resources.

“Everyone I ride with is into going out and riding because of the tremendous trails,” Clow said. “We’ll stop and check out a ruin, but we’re not inclined to mess with stuff because our focus is more on the excitement of riding the trails.”

And as for the many off-trail bike tracks, Clow said they’re not as numerous as the braided foot paths. “I’m not denying I’ve seen spurs, but I’ve seen more foot spurs.”

Gregory agreed, saying serious riders don’t want to go off-trail because they wind up in sand. She said most riders who cut across delicate cryptobiotic soils do so out of ignorance, and only a small minority flout the rules on purpose.

But Clark, of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the “only-a-minority” argument isn’t really good enough.

“I know the mountain-bike club is really responsible, but a lot of people don’t have that respect,” she said. “I do think most people are the good guys, but there’s a few that say, ‘I can do whatever I want’ and it has the potential of messing it up for other users.”

The International Mountain Biking Association, for its part, says no scientific studies have demonstrated that cyclists cause more damage than hikers. On its web site,, the association cites different studies. One found that hikers and cyclists cause equal amounts of trail wear, except for skidding tires, which do have significant impact. Another found that, on wet trails, horses caused the most erosion, while motorcycles were also a problem.

Other studies have found that hikers and cyclists have similar effects on vegetation and wildlife.

“What science does demonstrate is that all forms of outdoor recreation – including bicycling, hiking, running, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, bird watching, and off-highway-vehicle travel – cause impacts to the environment,” the web site states.

Gregory believes a “hikers-are-best” mentality may be at play. “Pretty much any user group that’s not hikers comes under fire at some time,” she said.

But the National Trust’s Smith said he has mountain-biked himself and knows the damage the activity can do.

“I can’t look to affirmative scientific evidence,” he said, “but two treaded tires traveling on dusty trails, I think, has much more impact than hikers would.

“Certainly the evidence of new trails created by mountain bikes speaks for itself. I think those are much more noticeable than two or three people skipping off the trail.

“I spent a lot of time mountain-biking in Moab and can tell you firsthand that the evidence of bikes on trails is pretty dramatic.”

Nebraska license plates

Clow said residents of Southwest Colorado need to be grateful for what they have and learn to share the trails. “We have to face the fact that things are changing,” he said. “Even in our priceless little slice of the Old West, they’re changing. As our population explodes and people get more frustrated with being confined in cities, they’re going to want to have open spaces to go to.”

He said mountain-biking trails in Montezuma County, such as the “Phil’s World” area near the county fairgrounds east of Cortez, are growing more popular with non-locals.

“We have to face the reality that people have discovered us. People come from Telluride every single week to ride Phil’s World now, and Durango people are there all the time.

“We may not like seeing Arizona and Alaska and Nebraska plates at Sand Canyon, but that’s the way of the future.”

Gregory agreed. “You have to remember they have just as much right to be there as you do and sometimes they’re great, wonderful people.”

She said cyclists can be a boon to the area by helping protect cultural sites from vandalism. “Bikers cover more land than a hiker, so there are more eyes out there,” she said.

Clow said the Kokopelli Bike Club is dedicated to encouraging responsible trail use and to helping the BLM with trail-management on the monument.

“Right now we’re shaking in our shoes for fear of moving a single rock, but we look forward to the day we can be stewards out there.”

That is, if the monument remains open to off-road use by cyclists.

“This decision is going to have a huge impact on mountain-biking on a national level,” Gregory said. “If the ruling isn’t favorable, we could get booted off everything and that’s really not fair.”

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From May 2004.