Mountain bikers dream of one day riding throughout the hills on East Bay MUD land. But hikers, equestrians, and plant lovers want to stop the cyclists in their tracks.
Cyclists say it’s unfair they're excluded from sections of the East Bay hills, while cows turn them into a sloppy mess.
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Several mountain bikers skirt single-file across an emerald hillside. The riders disappear briefly into a gully of oaks, pass over a bald hilltop and, after just several miles of single-track trail, come to a stop at a metal gate marking the boundary between property managed by the John Muir Land Trust and that of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. Hikers can continue onward, but cyclists cannot.
“By law, all you can do is bike out here, look over the fence, and then go home,” says Mike Udkow, a retired Oakland physician and president of the Bicycle Trails Council, a local group advocating to expand cyclists’ access to public trails.
It’s late December, and Udkow has led several friends on a short ride across the Fernandez Ranch, a 7,000-acre property a few miles directly east of Hercules. If they were to continue past the gate, they would wind up back at the trailhead where they started—a 5.5-mile loop that Udkow hopes East Bay MUD officials will one day permit cyclists to ride.
Udkow and the group look past the gate at a small herd of cows. The animals—explicitly permitted by East Bay MUD to graze here—have turned a green meadow into a messy, sloppy, slurry of mud and dung. “And they say we’re the ones causing erosion,” Udkow says with a bitter laugh.
The utility district’s foremost priority is to provide clean water for millions of East Bay residents, and for the agency to prohibit bicycles while allowing cows seems like a glaring inconsistency in its land management practices, cyclists say.
But it’s not unusual. In fact, cows graze on thousands of acres of East Bay MUD property, while all unpaved surfaces in the agency’s jurisdiction are off-limits to bicycles. The East Bay Regional Park District, by contrast, is more lenient, allowing bikes on several hundred miles of dirt fire roads. However, most of the park district’s single-track trails are open only for hiking and horseback riding, as cows graze nearly everywhere in the district.
Now, the local mountain biking community, led by Udkow’s group, is pushing to gain access to lands that have historically forbidden their entry. Part of the interest comes from volunteer trail builders who are creating a 500-mile-long, car-free route encircling San Francisco Bay. Critical links on the Bay Area Ridge Trail pass through East Bay MUD land, and the utility district has proposed opening up several miles of unpaved fire roads to mountain bikers as part of a two-year pilot project. The experiment would help agency staffers assess whether cyclists can coexist with other user groups and might be the prelude to a permanent easement for bikes.
But a well-organized group of hikers and naturalists is fighting back. Hoping to keep local trails bike-free, they have argued that there simply isn’t room for bikes on single-track paths. They also warn that cyclists will spook horses, injure hikers, damage plants, and disturb or kill wildlife.
Though the pilot project would only allow cyclists on unpaved roads on East Bay MUD property—not the single-track trails that so many mountain bikers relish—opponents contend that the plan represents a slippery slope. They argue that expanding access for cyclists will accelerate trail erosion. This, they say, is partly why they’re pressuring East Bay MUD to complete an extensive environmental impact report, or EIR, before the utility district opens any roads to cyclists.
Norman La Force, chair of the Sierra Club East Bay Public Lands Committee, said he is concerned that mountain bikers, if allowed access to the proposed fire roads, will then create illegal trails that leave the permitted roads. “It’s been demonstrably proven in Marin County that once cyclists get access to a park area, they go rogue, and they engage in seriously destructive activities,” he said.
Mountain bikers like Austin McInerny think the Sierra Club’s demands for an EIR are unreasonable and disingenuous—a delay tactic. EIRs are normally done for new construction projects. “They aren’t moving dirt or building some new facility,” said McInerny, executive director of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a Berkeley-based organization that introduces mountain biking to teenagers. “So why do they need a $100,000 review on trails and roads that are already there?”
Douglas Wallace, East Bay MUD’s environmental affairs officer, said in an interview that the EIR process will not delay the agency’s plan to allow mountain bikers to ride segments of East Bay MUD fire roads by the summer of 2018.
As for Udkow, his group has no interest in settling for eight miles of fire roads. They view the pilot project as just a small step toward their ultimate goal. “The trails are what we want—the fire roads are what they might give us,” he said. “But at least this way, we’d get a foot in the door.”
A short segment of the Skyline Trail between Tilden Regional Park and Highway 24 in the hills above Berkeley and Oakland may be Glen Schneider’s favorite place to walk. It runs about a mile in length, parallels Grizzly Peak Boulevard and offers sweeping views of Mount Diablo and, on the clearest days, the Sierra Nevada. The immediate vicinity—a 250-acre parcel of East Bay MUD land that Schneider calls Skyline Gardens—is also home to hundreds of native plant species, many of which grow immediately adjacent to the trail.
Schneider, a member of the California Native Plant Society’s East Bay Chapter who has spent months with volunteers trying to rid the area of invasive plant species while repairing sections of deteriorating trail, said that, inch for inch, this spot is the most botanically diverse in the East Bay. “It’s like a Noah’s Ark of native plants,” he said.
Schneider welcomes the presence of bicycles on fire roads, but not on single-track trails—and definitely not here. The trail is narrow and in places passes inches from rare and protected plants. He said it simply cannot accommodate mountain bikers. “There’s just no way—it’s an extraordinarily sensitive area environmentally,” said the Berkeley native.
Photo By Alastair Bland
Glen Schneider has extensively studied trail erosion caused by bike riding illegally on East Bay MUD property.
However, cyclists do ride here. Schneider guessed that several cyclists every day, and perhaps 20 per week, illegally ride the Skyline Trail, and their impacts are adding up. During a recent walk on the trail, he stopped at a muddy depression. There were a few shoeprints stamped in the muck, as well as a faint horse hoof track. But primarily there were bike tracks grooved into the mud—what Schneider said is clear evidence that bicycles are eroding this piece of the trail.
Schneider submitted a report last summer to East Bay MUD containing photos of such trail erosion. His report documented 233 native plant species in the area—including 13 that are strictly protected by state laws—and extensively illustrated the evidence of illegal cycling.
But cyclists are adamant that they cause no more erosion than hikers and horses, and, in some places, definitely less than cattle. Poor trail design—especially segments that are too steep or pass through small basins where water tends to pool up—is the source of most erosion issues, they say. In places where erosion is persistent, horses and hikers contribute to the problem just as much as bikes do, Udkow argued.
“When you see a puddle with tracks in it, it wasn’t the bikes that made the puddle,” he said. “It’s a badly placed trail.” A good trail, he said, follows the contours of the land while avoiding dips and basins where water may collect.
Still, Schneider’s report made a strong impression on Wallace of East Bay MUD. “The Native Plant Society made a persuasive case that the intensified use by bikes wouldn’t be compatible with such biodiversity,” Wallace said.