Efforts to resolve issues relating to user conflict issues on the front country trails, specifically relating to complaints that mountain bikes pose a safety problem for other trail users, have a history that dates back to the mid-1980s when Santa Barbara District Ranger Pat Pontes formed a working group to bring trail users together to see if a “solution” to the problem could be hammered out.
Not surprisingly, anger prevailed over good will, stubbornness over conciliation and pre-formed opinions over common sense. Little was accomplished. Nor has much changed over the past 20+ years, with the exception that the agencies (City of Santa Barbara, County, Forest Service) have now become actively engaged in the process.
That’s the good news. The bad is that we’re looking at a process that is going to play out over a much longer period of time. This concerns me because we need to be working on solutions now.
Throughout the years I’ve looked at the user conflict issues from a number of perspectives. As author of a hiker’s guide to the trails I’ve been a champion of foot travel on the front country trails. As a mountain biker I wrote what is still the only guide to local trail rides and added a mountain bike map as well. I also worked with the Forest Service on the first studies of trail conflict issues and I’ve helped with much of the trail work done locally through the Los Padres Forest Association and employment for a number of years as the trail crew leader for Montecito Trails Foundation.
In short, I’ve got a long established association with Santa Barbara area trails and am passionately committed to them. I’ve traveled them most any way you can: on foot, from the saddle of a mule known as Sammy, my trusty Lighthouse mountain bike and even the seat of the small Kubota excavator I use to work the trails.
Through all I’ve tried to remain somewhat neutral. I’m not in favor of closing the trails to mountain bikes, but I’m not a proponent of them either. Some will argue that since these are multi-use trails by definition mountain bikers have a right to use them. I would disagree strongly. The choice is not all or none. The trails serve important purposes and not every use may be compatible with their larger value.
Philosophically, if there is anything I would choose to stand for it would be the concept of “wild places” - open space where there is room to explore and trails close enough to town that the opportunity to be out in the mountains is just minutes away. These are things I need in my life, things I believe we need in abundant quantities in all of our lives and I feel blessed we have them so close to us.
If there is a point to be made it is this: the front country trails are like a hidden jewel. From town there is just a wisp of them to be seen, but up close they sparkle. Together they are a treasure, one to be treated with the care we give to our most precious of valuables.
Management decisions relating to the trails will not be made either easily or without a fight from those who perceive a loss of what they consider their equally precious rights. Regardless of arguments over rights, what the trails have meant to me is a place where I can still establish a personal relationship with nature, where I can get back to something that gets lost in the city, where I still have opportunities to explore the places where connections can be restored.
As such, I am wary of uses that tend to mechanize or depersonalize the experience. For this reason I would suggest by its very nature that mechanized use of the trails ought to be regulated.
Mountain bikers may howl at this concept but there are bigger issues at stake. The mountain trails serve to reconnect us to things that are being lost at a staggering pace. They provide something that we cannot afford to lose more of, if for no other reason than our children need a place to go where they can experience first hand what many of us did when we were children.
I can tell you many fine stories of the mountain bike rides I have taken. Great ones, multi-day trips through the heart of the backcountry. But I do not ride the front country trails. They are too important for too many reasons that have nothing to do with the thrill of riding down them on a piece of mechanized equipment.
It is understandable that others will want to do so but we must be careful that it does not come at too big a price.