Five shovels, five rakes, and ten of us sweating and smiling as we worked to restore trails in UCSC’s Upper Campus Natural Reserve. For a few years in the mid-1990s, UCSC undergraduate volunteers joined me, Campus Reserve Steward, one Saturday a month to reverse the harm that hundreds of mountain bikes were causing. We spent the most time along 7 Springs Trail and the Interpretive Trail. Both trails were off limits to bicyclists and clearly signed; they still are. These are very sensitive ecological areas replete with wetlands, springs, and highly erosive soils. They have been set aside for teaching and research, visited by classes and sites of long-term forest research. While we worked, we frequently encountered bicyclist after bicyclist, some skidding to avoid hitting the volunteers. Our team was trained and eager to inform the bicyclists about the trails being closed and why. More than half of the bicyclists were aggressive and unfriendly, unwelcoming to such an interaction. We were yelled at, called all sorts of names, and there were occasional threats of violence, and even spitting. I was thrown to the ground and stepped on once by a particularly aggressive individual. Our work to close the trail was regularly and expertly vandalized and signs frequently defaced. This is a dominant culture of mountain biking. These instances are not outliers, the behavior far too common. I have been hearing similar stories from many people for years. Once, I told a person with his son that I would call a ranger if they jumped a gate headed into a closed, sensitive natural area. He responded, “I AM A RANGER!” And I recognized him as one of the head rangers for State Parks…and off he went, a fine example for his son.
Givers Vs. Takers
I recommend reading Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael; one of the things I recall from the book is a characterization of humans as being either “givers” or “takers.” Santa Cruz County has been fortunate to have a historic giving culture. A very large percentage of the County has been set aside as parks or is stewarded by large private landowners who take very good care of their land. There is little area for urban sprawl, but now we are facing the next biggest threat: natural areas recreation, one of the top threats to biodiversity on the planet. Leading the assault are trails advocacy groups, some of which have been at this for decades. There will apparently never be enough new mountain bike trails for the funders of these groups. These groups and others like them around the world are being funded by industry through organizations such as the Outdoor Industry Association. Mountain biking trails-building volunteers working for these advocacy groups are spending their free time expanding corporate profits while repairing a small fraction of the damage they’ve collectively caused with their thrill-seeking sport. These are what Ishmael would call ‘takers.’ Together, mountain biking (aka ‘trails’) advocacy groups and the outdoor recreation industry are pressuring every public land management agency in the Bay Area to expand mountain biking trails in an apparent bid to turn every inch of natural area into a high-speed playground, maximizing profits at the expense of the wildlife and the quiet walks once enjoyed by families with small children, bird watchers, and contemplative hikers. On this subject, someone urged me to consider Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
The Corruptors’ Rule: Keep Them Stupid
I suspect that a fraction of those building new trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies innocently think they are doing the right thing. The groups organizing these events certainly won’t educate the volunteers about the dubious nature of their work. They won’t share with them the long and expertly crafted critiques of the park’s planning process by the region’s leading biologists. They won’t tell the volunteers already riding mountain bikes on the trails that a broad coalition of conservation groups oppose using the trails before a biological baseline is collected. They won’t tell the volunteers that their sponsoring group has, without expertise, testified in contradiction to conservationists during the planning process in an apparent bid to gain points, and a sole-source trail building contract, with the BLM. The volunteers, knowingly or not, have become active participants in the commodification of nature. So, they are “takers.”
Conservationists (aka “givers”) point out that we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at Cotoni Coast Dairies to collect a biological baseline before trail use commences. With this baseline, we can better understand how trail use affects wildlife, plant communities, soils processes, and the spread of invasive species. The property has been very lightly visited by humans for more than 100 years. Because the property is designated as part of the California Coastal Monument and as part of the federal National Conservation Lands network, there are extensive policies that support and even require such a baseline…this level of policy support is absent with any other conservation land in the County. Do the trails building volunteers know that, through their work, they are supporting BLM in shirking critical land conservation responsibilities?
I have put these arguments to volunteers of trails groups working at Cotoni Coast Dairies and have been reminded of a series of fallacious arguments that have been trotted out for decades. The most common statement is: “It’s a done deal, trails were approved and are under way, get over it!” This statement ignores the ongoing and active appeal to the planning process by a coalition of conservation groups. And, even without such an appeal, the statement overlooks the need to manage trails forever and land management agencies’ responsibility to adaptively manage trails to avoid impacts to protected natural resources and user conflicts that would favor certain user groups (such as mountain bikers).
Avoid the Trap
In a bid to trap the unwary, some of the leaders of the trails advocacy groups have suggested that their groups are ‘conservation’ groups. If you are confused, ask the leaders of these groups about what is ‘enough’ and what is ‘too much?’ For instance, when will there be ‘enough’ mountain bike trails? What specific metric would indicate too much soil erosion on a given stretch of trail? What, specifically, is too much user conflict- such as how much displacement of families with small children who fear their 3-year-olds getting hit by mountain bikes (like one person recently reported to me)? How specifically will we know when there has been too much wildlife loss due to natural areas recreation? If the trails advocacy group truly had a conservation platform, they would have answers, created through methods of carrying capacity analysis and they would be able to offer threshold limits of acceptable change (‘enough’ or ‘too much’). I have long interacted with these groups, and this is where I see evidence favoring ‘malice’ instead of Hanlon’s razor ‘stupidity.’ With this kind of experience, one might discover which groups are primarily interested in the commodification of nature, and are, thereby ‘takers.’
In the 1990’s, one of these trails advocacy groups began their ugly but organized, well-funded campaigns to expand mountain biking trails in this region. I was at the table when the group negotiated the opening of the U-Con trail from UCSC to Henry Cowell. They promised volunteers to close and keep closed the myriad of unsanctioned trails bleeding tons of sediment into the San Lorenzo River; they said that they would post volunteers at trail heads to “self-enforce” closure. They did no such thing. I was also there when mountain biking representatives showed up at the first Gray Whale Advisory Committee meeting, having worked with State Parks for a year to prepare detailed plans for an extensive network of new trails through that property (now part of Wilder Ranch State Park) without any understanding of/interest in the extensive areas with sensitive ecology and erosive soils. Because of their intransigence at coming to agreement with Parks and the Committee, there is still no long term trails management plan and no plan for protecting critical sensitive species. A group consulted with me when Nisene Marks State Park General Plan was being drafted and mountain biking advocates were aggressively advocating for more mountain bike trails, in contradiction to permanent deed restrictions against such use….wasting extensive State and private resources and, once again, needlessly dividing our community. More recently, I countered a mountain biking group publicity campaign that sought to educate the public falsely about the ‘need’ for more mountain bike trails because of the purported paucity of such in the County. After correction, they walked back the campaign and it subsequently disappeared. These situations are, in my opinion, more evidence of ‘malice’ rather than ‘stupidity.’
We are Winning
Despite all of this, the ‘givers’ are winning, pushing forward protections for Nature in parks around Santa Cruz. We realize that the vast majority of us want healthy wildlife AND access to natural areas where we can recreate without fear. We reject the politics of division that those whose object is the commodification of nature so enjoy. Together, we won protections for Nisene Marks State Park. We expanded protections prohibiting mountain bikes in extensive wilderness areas of Castle Rock State Park. We created extensive Natural Preserves at Wilder Ranch State Park, thwarting miles of new mountain bike trails. We have (thus far) maintained prohibitions against mountain biking on single track trails at UCSC. A coalition of conservation groups has recently made great headway in improving the poor recreational planning at Cotoni Coast Dairies. With community support, the San Vicente Redwoods conservation coalition is enacting the most progressive recreation and conservation adaptive management regime our region has ever seen. Expanding awareness even forced one mountain biking advocacy group to change their name to seem more PC. And soon, we may have Congressional representative Jimmy Panetta instead of Anna Eshoo- a massive step forward in leadership to better manage the impacts of natural areas visitors to our communities and to wildlife. I have been fielding so many requests to help on these issues that I can’t keep up. Together, we are turning the tide: there is hope that future generations will be able to enjoy peaceful strolls and see sensitive wildlife in our natural areas, after all.
Meanwhile, when you consider how to spend your outdoor volunteer time, focus your attention on groups that know how to help you to truly become a ‘giver’– groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the California Native Plant Society.
-this essay originally published in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com