Whose Trails?

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.


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Photo By Alastair Bland

Austin McInerny argues that it will be nearly impossible to study the impacts of bikes on trails that have been trampled by cows.


“And I get the impression that mountain bikes have been bad ever since,” said Maurice Tierney, an Oakland mountain biker who moved to California from Pennsylvania six years ago. Tierney said he receives dirty looks almost every time he parks his car with his bike at the trailheads of the East Bay Regional Park District.

“Hikers look at me as though I’m about to do something illegal,” added Tierney, who is the publisher of the Pittsburgh-based mountain biking magazine Dirt Rag as well as Bicycle Times, a magazine oriented toward bike commuters and tourists.

Tierney said that in Pennsylvania, mountain bikers, hikers, and horseback riders share trails in a communal system that is far more welcoming than that of California. He also noted that in many parts of the country, mountain bikers are a dominant labor force in trail maintenance. As a result, trail systems benefit overall from the allowance of bicycle use, he said. “A lot of users are thankful that we’re out there on the trails, because we’re also the ones maintaining them,” he said. “Out here, mountain bikers are willing to do the work, but there’s this old guard that won’t let us in.”

Sean Dougan, trails development program manager with the East Bay Regional Park District, is also an avid cyclist. Like Tierney, he grew to love mountain biking in an area where the sport is generally an accepted form of recreation. “Coming from Tahoe where you have these amazing single-track experiences all over the mountains, it broke my heart to move here and not be able to ride,” he said. “It’s something I’ve been hoping will change ever since.”

In theory, the Sierra Club should be willing to at least discuss possibilities for local single-track cycling opportunities. A national policy of the organization directs local chapters “to identify places and situations where bicycles are clearly not appropriate, to recognize opportunities where bicycle use can be encouraged,” and “to foster cooperation between trail user groups… .” The same policy also states that “[s]ingle track trails can present difficult management, safety, and environmental protection situations, but may be acceptable for bicycling as determined on a local, case-by-case basis.”


Norman La Force of the Sierra Club wants a full EIR on bike impacts.

Alan Carlton, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter’s federal parks committee, said his organization recognizes the national policy and, far from violating it, has simply decided that no single-track trails in the Bay Area are suitable for bicycles. “There just isn’t room for both bikes and people,” he said.

But Dougan said things are changing in cyclists’ favor. “It’s just happening so slowly that no one seems to be noticing,” he said. Dougan said a group of park managers, including himself, routinely meets several times each year to discuss mountain bike issues “and a path forward.”

“Our approach is, people are going to ride where they want to ride—there’s nothing we can do to stop that,” he said. “What we can do is make it safer.”

The park district, in fact, has publicly promised that it will open up its more of its own trails to cyclists to create connectivity on routes that cross into East Bay MUD land—but only if the utility district does so first. That puts the ball squarely in the water agency’s court.

Gary Fisher is just one of many cyclists waiting for East Bay MUD to make the next move. Fisher was among the original group that designed and built the first mountain bikes below the flanks of Mount Tam. Considered a father of the sport, Fisher today sees mountain biking as more than just a pastime but a powerful vehicle for connecting people with the outdoors and healthier lifestyles. He believes cyclists shouldn’t only be allowed on some existing trails. “We actually need more trails,” he said.

Fisher hopes that bicycles eventually replace automobiles as Americans reconnect with their environment. From this perspective, opposition to trail biking is an impediment to progress. “These hikers are being selfish,” Fisher said. “There are millions of people in the Bay Area who have a deficiency of vitamin-N—nature.”

Photo By Alastair Bland

Mike Udkow and his group hope to one day ride throughout East Bay MUD lands.


East Bay MUD has scheduled a public planning meeting for this month to further discuss the bike pilot project. But not all cyclists are pushing strongly for allowing bikes to ride throughout the East Bay hills. Josiah Clark, a consulting ecologist in San Francisco who has pedaled thousands of miles on Bay Area fire roads and trails while tracking wildlife, said that while there is no doubt that mountain biking can forge new bonds between people and the outdoors, the sheer numbers of people in the region are precisely what land managers must be wary of. 

“These islands of native plant habitat are all that’s left after we’ve destroyed everything else,” Clark said. “They’re the very last holdouts for Mission blue butterflies, burrowing owls, rubber boas, the Jerusalem cricket, the brush rabbit. All the native plant people are asking is that we don’t tread on these last patches of intact habitat, and the mountain bikers are saying, ‘Give us more trails.’ ”


On the Fernandez Ranch, a stream of urine exits the rear end of a cow, soaking the thick mud at the animal’s feet as it walks with its herd, silently eying the mountain bikers grouped behind the gate. The cows are using a muddy fire road on which hikers are allowed but not bicycles. Several of the animals have broken away from the group onto a ribbon of pathway faintly visible across the flank of a steep green slope.

“Look,” one cyclist jokes, “they’ve made a rogue trail!”

The trail runs level, along the elevation contour of the earth, and disappears around the back of the hillside. 

The cyclist speaks again, but this time without sarcasm.

“That’s actually a pretty nice trail.”


This report appears in the February edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

Published online on Feb. 8, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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