COMMISSIONS, SPEAKERS REJECT ODD/EVEN PLAN

If there is one thing on which hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers can agree, it’s that any sort of odd/even plan on front country trails by bikers is unfeasible. But that was just about the only consensus reached at an April 6 meeting sponsored by the City Parks and Recreation Commission and County Parks Commission, with participation from U.S. Forest Service staff.

The commissioners involved also agreed that the Trails Alliance, an informal organization led by Ray Ford that has formulated ideas for trails reform, would be prevented from pursuing trails managements and setting trails policies. The odd/even plan, which called for alternative day use by bikers, was a major part of the proposal set forth by the volunteer-based Trails Working Group (TWG), which was closely allied with the Trails Alliance. TWG had also considered solutions such as creating a county masterplan for all front country trails and setting up education programs.

An overflow crowd packed the David Gebhard Meeting Room at the Community Development Building, with a few mountain bikers showing their solidarity by wearing helmets, and others brandishing posters that read “Educate, Don’t Regulate.” Approximately 150 people attended the meeting.

Most of the informational portion of the meeting was taken up by Kerry Kellogg, front country trails manager for the U.S. Forest Service, and the TWG proposal that was presented by Ray Ford, where he showed several slides of maintenance projects on Montecito trails that the Trails Alliance had taken credit for.

In about four hours of drawn-out discussion, dozens of speakers approached the podium, many arguing in the name of multiple causes – from safety to equality – but few striking precise agreements.

Ed Easton, chair of the Santa Barbara Group of the Sierra Club, along with Sierra Club board members Tony Biegen and Jim Childress, showed compelling video footage portraying bikers as aggressive and dangerous thrill seekers. The video filmed from a helicopter showed mountain bikers speeding down local trails. The Sierra Club members pointed out that their chapter comprises one of the largest groups of local trail users.

“For the Sierra Club, which takes people on outings on these front country trails, the issue is public safety and the responsibility of public agencies to use their police power to protect the public who uses these trails,” Easton said. “Solving this problem will not happen by contracting a volunteer educational program to a trail maintenance group.”

Most of the mountain bikers who spoke stuck to a few basic themes: that they don’t think their presence is a danger on the trails, that education is the answer, and that the use of warning bells on bikes will prevent accidents. Most of the hikers and horseback riders said that in their experience, only a small percentage of mountain bikers actually wear bells.

John Bolton said biking can be a safe discipline and that “not all mountain bikers are kamikaze downhillers” who have dominated headlines and captured the attention and ire of safety activists.

MTF Weighs In

John Venable, president of the Montecito Trails Foundation, approached the microphone carrying a stack of 300 letters he had received from Montecito residents and local trail users, each asking for a wheeled vehicle-free “Safe Trail Zone” on Montecito front country trails

Venable said the Montecito Trails Foundation spent $68,000 last year on trail repair and has spent $400,000 on trail maintenance alone since 1993. “We raise a lot of money,” he said. “We do not write grants, we have no FEMA money…it’s all from memberships and donations.”

“I’m a little remiss about having the Trails Alliance take the coattails of the Montecito Trails Foundation and say that they were responsible for all the trail repairs and so forth,” Venable added. “We hired them. We hired Ray Ford to do the work. I don’t know what the Trails Alliance did – they didn’t coordinate it with me. It’s our money. We asked him to do it. We still hire him to do it. We have lent them money to buy equipment.”

As far as trail use solutions, Venable said, “We’ve made suggestions to look at other trails for the slalom, or downhillers. We’ve suggested the Baron Ranch – the property’s for sale right now, it’s restricted; it has to be developed for trails for the county. Why not use that? Why do we have to stay in Montecito? Those are residential trails.”

While biker groups have claimed that safety problems on trails had been exaggerated, Venable said the perils were real and needed to be recognized.

“We’ve had two bikers die in Romero Canyon,” he said. “People say you don’t have any problems with bikers. You do have problems with bikers. And they know that. So, my suggestion is, find a safety zone, support the safety zone, and let’s look for alternatives for other disciplines.”

Disagreements about safety on the trails prevailed throughout the proceedings. Tammy Maramonte, whose horse Rocket fell to its death last October after a near collision with a biker, lobbied for immediate trail reform, saying both disciplines could not coexist.

“I have not used the trails since October 30, trails that won’t be used until they are made safe,” Maramonte said. “The trails were made by hikers and equestrians for hikers and equestrians, and they must remain that way.”

Philip Kirst, former Montecito Trails Foundation president, recounted his own near miss story about a biker who skidded to an abrupt stop almost hitting his horse’s legs. Hiker Stephen Dougherty said his relatives visiting from out of town feared for their lives after nearly being hit by a mountain biker on Cold Springs Trail.

“We have heard of a lot of near misses tonight,“ Dougherty said. “It’s just a matter of time until a near miss turns into a hit. The issue really comes down to speeding mountain bikers wearing body armor versus people who are dressed like this (he pointed to his khaki pants and tennis shoes). So it’s unarmed pedestrians versus armored bicyclists.”

Dougherty’s observation generated laughter from mountain bikers in the audience, to which he responded: “You can laugh about it, but that’s really the issue. I think it’s extreme sport versus a peaceful activity.”

But biker coalitions were steadfast in their assertions that the appearance of danger was subjective. In the last two decades, the County Sheriff’s Department, a primary rescue authority on the trails, said only two accidents involving bikers had been recorded – the Rocket incident and a 1993 crash when a biker ran into a hiker.

“There’s a perception that this is a very dangerous situation, but we don’t have hard facts to back that up,” said Cort Flinchbaughs, who serves on the board of the Multi-Use Trails Coalition, whose slogan is “equal trail access for all.”

Biking advocates also said they felt mischaracterized in the effort to maintain trails. Chris Orr, president of the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers, said his group had invested more than 2,000 hours to repair trails.

After the public comment period none of the City or County Parks commissioners supported the odd/even plan. Most commissioners mirrored speakers’ concerns that the Trails Working Group proposal was derived with inadequate public involvement.

After talking about what a good sport mountain biking was for her son, City Commissioner Beebe Longstreet stunned equestrians in the audience when she declared, “I don’t love horses. I’m afraid of them…I think who was really left out of this discussion and maybe had the least amount of representation was possibly the mountain bikers.”

Out of 40 speakers, 23 advocated for mountain bikers, 12 for hikers and the remaining five for equestrians.

What Next?

The commissioners agreed that the best way to move forward is by forming an ad-hoc committee, which will be composed of two County Parks Commissioners, two City Parks Commissioners and various community members.