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Born to be wild: mountain bikers collide with environmentalists

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The trails are quiet now, their trees covered with snow, but away from the forests in the towns and city where the people live a storm is raging.

At issue is whether mountain bike riders should be permitted to ride along the single track trails in the Cook County forest preserves.

On one side are restoration activists, a dedicated bunch of environmentalists who contend bike riders damage the soil and endanger a delicate ecosystem each time they swerve from the charted path.

"The mountain bikers make restoration impossible," says Roger Keller, steward of a restoration effort in the Palos-Sag Valley Forest Preserve just southwest of the city. "We are proposing that the Forest Preserve District of Cook County ban cyclists and equestrians from the single-track trails and enforce that ban."

On the other side are the mountain bikers, a group growing in numbers and influence. "Studies have shown that mountain bikes do less damage to the trails than people walking," says Bruce Glaser, a promoter of mountain bike races and owner of the Wheel Thing, a bike store in La Grange. "There's absolutely no reason to ban cyclists from a public space."

The matter is of paramount concern to both sides in part because three decades of building have stripped the Chicago area of so much of its undeveloped acreage. In the old days, bike riders, equestrians, and hikers could find acres and acres of meadows and forests on the edges of Chicago, to say nothing of the suburbs. Now the wall of subdivisions and malls stretches north to Wisconsin, and Cook County residents looking for open space have few alternatives to the forest preserves.

"There's only so much land, and everyone wants to use it," says Don Palermini, a member of the Trail User Rights Foundation (TURF), an association of mountain bikers. "We're taking most of the blame for the heavy use because we're so visible."

Restoration activists have long argued that the forest preserves are overtaxed. In recent years volunteers from the Nature Conservancy have actually been removing trees with the permission of the county. "We're trying to restore the prairie woodlands and wetlands back to what they were before European settlement," says Keller. "It's an impossible task, but that's our goal."

Much of the change in the woodlands was caused by such invaders as the European buckthorn, a tree introduced to the region by landscapers whose seeds can be spread widely by birds.

"The buckthorn has kind of infested the oak woodlands," says Keller. "They shade out all the native plants and flowers and oak tree growth. So the oak forest comes to a standstill and there's no succession. We cut down these trees and then we try to plant new trees. It's the original forest that makes the area so attractive."

Indeed, the rugged terrain and pastoral setting are what draw mountain bikers to the forest preserves.

"Mountain biking is challenging and rewarding in ways that are much different than road biking," says Palermini. "You're in a natural setting that's miles from the hustle and bustle. When I ride down Belmont Avenue, for instance, I have trucks rumbling two inches from my handlebar. But when I hop a river trail I'm looking out for an occasional deer. I can get away from cars, I can get away from people."

One of the most popular spots for biking is the hilly, 15,000-acre Palos preserve, which in addition to 30 miles of single-track trails has 30 miles of paved bike paths and unpaved multiuse trails. But the paved trails cannot approximate the thrill of bouncing through the forest.

"The whole point of mountain or trail biking is to get off the main trail," says Palermini. "Trail biking became popular in the 80s in California. Those first bikers took old Schwinn cruiser bikes and rode them down the hills or mountains."

In recent years the sport has soared in popularity. Mountain bikes, which have balloon tires and upright handlebars, now outsell ten-speeds. On warm-weather weekend days, as many as 200 mountain bikers race through the uncharted paths of the Palos preserve. "I can't tell you how many times bikers have said, "I didn't know this place existed,"' says Glaser. "It's through biking that they learned about it."

But Keller contends the forest preserves were better off without the bikers.

"I have nothing against people riding their bikes in the forest preserve along the paths--I'm a bike rider myself. My argument is when they go off-trail," says Keller. "Once a bicycle goes down, a trail gets bigger. It becomes a double-track trail. We have some trails that start as single trails and are now four separate paths winding back and forth like a spider web. The destruction is almost 20 feet wide with ruts a yard deep."

The biggest damage occurs when the ground is wet and bikers scratch away the topsoil, says Keller.

"The topsoil in most woods is no more than a couple inches deep," says Keller. "It doesn't take much to tear off that soil. You get erosion on the top and compaction of soil beneath. You also get an influx of nonnative plants, which love to come to an opening like that. We see it all the time with garlic mustard thistle. So here we have dozens of people devoting their free time to restore the forest preserve and the bikers come in and undermine all our efforts.

"The paths created by the cyclists also create small ecosystems. Some birds or insects won't cross a trail that's a foot wide. So the bikers are, in effect, dividing one larger ecosystem into several smaller ones."

The only solution, argues Keller, is to ban bikes from single-track trails. "The goal of the Forest Preserve District is to protect endangered species. Its secondary goal is to provide recreation," says Keller. "The issue is not about bikers' rights. None of us has the right to do whatever we want in a forest preserve. If horseback riders wanted to ride on the forest preserve golf course, for instance, the district wouldn't let them."

The dispute is in danger of becoming personal. Bikers are gaining a reputation among restorationists as aggressive and discourteous on the trail, often scaring horses as they zip past. And many of the bikers feel the restorationists are uncompromising ideologues who, at the very least, have exaggerated the damage mountain bikes do to the trails.

"Bikers are the new group and people don't know a lot about them," says Bruce Glaser. "If there were as many people hiking there would be just as much erosion. But would you hear people saying hikers should be banned?"

Most bikers are eager to compromise, Glaser says. "We used to have difficulties about road etiquette with the equestrians, but we adjusted," Glaser says. "We have learned that, 'Gee, these horses get scared!' If I come up from behind I say, 'May I pass?' And then I wait until they're ready to let me through. Now we have very few troubles with equestrians."

Glaser suggests that single trails be closed to bikers, horseback riders, and hikers when the ground is particularly wet. He also contends that most bikers would agree to having to buy a county license to ride in the forest preserves. The money would be used to help maintain the trails.

"You have a new large-use group," says Glaser. "And that group is willing and ready to take up financial responsibility to restore trails."

One thing the bikers will not tolerate, however, is any attempt to ban them from single-trail paths.

"We have gathered 16,000 signatures to petitions on this issue--people feel very strong about this," says Palermini. "A similar attempt was made in Wisconsin and they had to reverse themselves because of the opposition. I think we'll be even stronger down here."

The dispute must be settled by the Forest Preserve District, which is overseen by the commissioners of the Cook County Board, who, like most politicians, would rather avoid alienating either side.

"I don't know what they're going to do," says Palermini. "I'm sure they're thinking, 'If we ban the bikes, we anger the bikers, and if we don't ban the bikers we get the restoration people angry.' Either way they lose."

The district did deny Glaser a permit last year to run his annual fall mountain bike race in the Palos preserve. But so far it's withstood pressure to ban bikes from the trails. Instead, two summers ago greenway planner David Eubanks created a trail committee consisting of restoration activists and bikers to study the matter. Eubanks says there'll be a trails policy in place by spring.

"It'll be a policy everyone can live with and hopefully it will protect the environment in a better way," he predicts. Although he envisions TURF volunteers who have already helped clean and maintain the trails becoming the basis of a "trail courtesy patrol" that hands out literature discussing the rules of the trails, he acknowledges that those new rules themselves could disappoint TURF's most ardent cyclists.

Eubanks expects some of the 30 miles of single-track trails to be incorporated into the designated multiuse pathway system. But "some or a major portion might be taken out of circulation--either restored or closed off or just left there, and if people are caught there [biking] this policy might provide some penalties . . .

"The issue is those very thin trails that some people want to be able to ride up and down for the thrill of it, and maybe kill themselves. The Forest Preserve District wasn't created for these aggressive riders who want the highest challenge.

"[The new policy] may not make Don happy. A rider like that who's out there every single day may want it all."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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