Why Mountain Biking Should Be Allowed on the Greenbelt Trails

Submission to the National Capital Commission Greenbelt Master Plan Review

By Richard W. Woodley, environmentalist, hiker, mountain biker, snowshoer, cross country skier, kayaker

The following statement, contained in an email from an NCC representative, dated May 12, 2006, makes it clear that the current NCC policy banning mountain biking on the Greenbelt trails is unenforceable.

We know that there is a lot of interest in off-road riding on Greenbelt hiking trails. On the other hand, section (16) of the NCC Traffic & Property Regulations states..."No person shall ride a bicycle on property of the Commission other than a driveway or on a bicycle path set aside by the Commission for the purpose...". While we have not actively tried to enforce this particular regulation, we do not condone the practice. There are long-term impacts on the trails and surrounding area, particularly rutting, trail erosion, trail widening as users veer off the designated route to avoid ruts and muddy surface, and destruction of adjacent vegetation. In the winter, we want to discourage bike riders who may travel across groomed ski tracks.
What is apparent, when one examines the facts, is that there are no legitimate reasons for banning mountain biking on the Greenbelt trails. In fact, there are numerous reasons why it should be allowed, and indeed encouraged.

There is a certain irony, some might say hypocrisy, for the NCC, an organization that is known for what I call the “NCCification” of trails, the flattening and widening of natural single track trails, and an organization that regularly uses heavy equipment and tractor-like lawn mowers on the trails, to claim that mountain biking damages the trails.

Even more than my desire to see the NCC adopt a policy of allowing mountain biking on the Greenbelt trails is my desire for them to adopt a policy of leaving all trails in their natural state and to do as little damage as possible to the environment when creating trails.

It is the creation of trails that has potential to do environmental damage, not the responsible use of them. Trails should be designed and built in a sustainable manner, a practice that interestingly enough has been developed and promoted by mountain bikers, and in particular the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA).

Trails can be of great environmental benefit. First, by keeping trail users away from environmentally sensitive areas. Note that hikers are much more likely to go off the trail and do environmental damage to sensitive areas than mountain bikers are. Secondly, trails bring people into contact with the environment, learning to love and respect it and often becoming advocates for the environment.

People can be a great threat to the environment, the biggest impact being from development, bulldozing and paving it over, blasting and replacing forests and meadows with parking lots, buildings, and roads, a practice that the NCC has been known to be a party to.

On the other hand people hiking responsibly through the forest have no greater impact than deer or bears running through the forest, particularly when they are on a controlled trail system. The same applies to mountain biking where the scientific evidence indicates that hikers and mountain bikers and hikers have equivalent impacts on trails. See for example the reviews done by the International Mountain Bicycling Association and the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

The other argument against allowing mountain bikers on the Greenbelt trails is user conflicts.

In various places, including the Greenbelt, hikers and bikers regularly share the trails with each other with few problems. I can personally attest to never having had a conflict with hikers on the Greenbelt trails while riding them regularly (several times a week). I can also attest to hiking and mountain biking in the South March Highlands and always having other trail users treat me with respect, whether as a hiker or a biker.

The majority of outdoors persons considers themselves to be, and indeed are, environmentalists. The best way to raise environmental awareness is by getting people out into the environment, enjoying it and learning of it’s importance and the need to protect it. That is where the environmentalists that we need to fight the real threats to the environment - development and habitat destruction, are born.

Getting people out into the environment, onto the lakes and rivers and into the forests builds healthy lifestyles, and healthy lifestyles improve our health and reduces our health care costs. This is important at a time when obesity, and childhood obesity in particular, is at epidemic levels. We need natural spaces and trails to teach our children the benefits and enjoyment that can be had in the great outdoors. The National Capital Region is fortunate that we have a population that celebrates healthy lifestyles and rises up to challenge those that want to take our natural spaces and trails away from us. Allowing mountain biking on the trails is one more way to encourage people to get out and enjoy nature.

Young people need the type of challenges the outdoors can provide as an alternative to spending their time in a sedentary lifestyle centred on electronic devices, or other even worse, but seemingly exciting, activities like gangs and drugs. Youth can be attracted to these things by the very risks we want to protect them from. Outdoors activities such as rock climbing and mountain biking can provide exciting healthy risks that build character and a healthy body.

Mountain biking is the perfect activity to get young people active and out in the environment. It combines man and machine (or boy and machine) with a sense of adventure, all in a natural setting. The Greenbelt trails are the ideal location as many are closes to neighbourhoods and they have a wide variety of levels of riding difficulty and challenge.

The other very important reason for legitimizing the already existent practice of mountain biking on the Greenbelt trails is that it would provide an opportunity to undertake a public education program on environmentally friendly and sustainable trail use, including respect for other trail users - share the trail. The education campaign should stress that trail users should stay on the designated trails. As well it should encourage trail users to avoid wet muddy trails but advise them to use the centre of the trail, not go alongside and widen it, if they do need to go through wet muddy sections. It would be very difficult for the NCC to undertake an education campaign on the responsible way to do something that they officially prohibit.

A good place to start with trail education are the IMBA Rules of the Trail.

For more information on mountain biking see the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) website and the Ottawa Mountain Bike Association (OMBA) website.

There are, indeed, no legitimate reasons for prohibiting mountain biking on the Greenbelt trails.


Jennifer Jilks said...

"The majority of outdoors persons considers themselves to be, and indeed are, environmentalists. "

That might be true, but that does not mean that bikers respect hikers.

Similarly, just because you have had few problems as a biker or hiker does not mean that one subjective observation can be extrapolated to all. I have met a great many bikers who disrespect me, the path, those who walk animals on leashes (that's another rant!), and the rules of the 'road'.

Bikers go by too fast, do not signal, nor announce their presence, they speed and appear out of no where causing me stress and grief.

Alan said...

"Bikers go by too fast, do not signal, nor announce their presence, they speed and appear out of no where causing me stress and grief."

That, is an opinion.Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.In any group, there are a few inconsiderate individuals. However plastering an entire group with these views based on the actions of a few, is supreme prejudice.

Peter V said...

Jennifer"s comments about Bikers going to fast, I feel is a result of the design and nature of the few trails the NCC will allow Mountain bikers to travel on, these trails are all nothing more then fire roads and are fast. But what trails we should be on are sustainably designed and built tight, technical, winding single track trails. this brings the speed down to close to jogging pace and way more fun for the mountain biker. It's on these trails that there is less conflict.

Peter V

Lucas said...

Jennifer, as Alan has mentioned, your view definitely condemns all bikers to the same opinion. Most bikers who take the sport seriously follow the rules laid out by IMBA (referenced in Richard's post). However, many of the trails inside the city are used by commuters, not those who are aware of IMBA's trail standards. As such you will encounter many bikers who are not aware of the common courtesies that should be followed when sharing the path with other users.

I think that if all the trail users can be properly educated, then everyone can share the paths together without conflict. However it will require co-operation from all the users. Bikers are not the only ones to blame, here. Pedestrians/hikers/what-have-you also need to be aware of their surroundings in order to safely share the trails.

I do not see why bikers should be condemned to being rude or not courteous when often when I find myself on these trails, I encounter people hikers/pedestrians who are equally rude or unwilling to share.

The users of the trails need to learn to share, correctly, so that everyone can get the maximum potential enjoyment out of the trails without precluding other users.