EBMUD Considering Lifting Trail Ban on Mountain Bikes

At the moment, mountain bikers can’t ride on East Bay Municipal Utility District trails, but the district is thinking about ending the restriction, much to the dismay of some equestrians, hikers, and dog walkers.


EBMUD may lift the ban on mountain bikers, allowing two-wheelers on its trails.

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Hundreds of miles of trails crisscross the East Bay, enough to accommodate the millions of residents who may wish to use them. At least, that’s how it works in theory. But at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, a showdown is brewing between those who are allowed to use the trails and those who are not.

On one side is the region’s growing mountain biking community, eager to gain access to EBMUD’s 82-mile trail system. On the other are equestrians, hikers, and dog-walkers, who are worried about the dangers of sharing the district’s trails with potentially reckless cyclists.

Mountain bikers are banned from riding on EBMUD trails, and they have been ever since the district opened its trails to recreational users in the 1960s. But in August, EBMUD officials decided to re-evaluate the ban as part of the district’s effort to update its 20-year old master plan.

Agency spokeswoman Abby Figueroa said that a public forum was held in August to solicit public feedback on the master plan, which attracted roughly 60 or 70 attendees. Once the board of directors receives a staff report on this feedback and other recommendations, it will make a draft available for public viewing in 2016.

Although it’s too early to discuss details, Figueroa noted that if the ban is lifted, it will apply to only a fraction of the watershed’s trails.

“We first and foremost have to protect water quality,” Figueroa said. “Anything that might have an impact on that, we should avoid it.”

Winning limited access may seem like a small-potatoes kind of victory, but mountain bikers are happy to take what they can get. Just ask Mike Udkow, president of the East Bay Bicycle Coalition. First of all, it will make cycling safer, because mountain bikers won’t have to bypass EBMUD land on busy car-filled roads. Secondly, he argues that the environmental concern regarding mountain bikes has been seriously exaggerated.

“What really destroys the trails and causes erosion are not the bikes,” Udkow said. “It’s the fact that the trails are so steep, that when it rains, you get erosion. They’re poorly built trails.”

Udkow and his organization have a history of rebuilding and maintaining trails, which may assuage the fears of EBMUD officials. But current trail-users are frightened that permitting mountain bikes in the watershed could have a more immediate impact on their lives.

“I have friends who have been personally run off cliffs and almost killed by bikes,” said JoAnn Gillespie, an experienced East Bay equestrian who runs the Rawking Horse Ranch in the township of Briones.

Gillespie noted that some cyclists listen to music on earbuds while they ride, making it impossible for equestrians to communicate with them. Others don’t bother identifying their presence to equestrians when they pass them at high speeds, which can spook the horses and result in serious injuries.

She has been working with the mountain biking community to establish proper trail etiquette. Unfortunately, she said, the bikers are far and away the best-organized group competing for trail use, and they’ve aggressively expanded their access to East Bay parks. While she is open to finding a compromise that allows mountain bikers to share EBMUD trails with other users, she worries that it will lead to an exodus of equestrians.

“You’re going to see, unfortunately, a lot of the equestrian people stop riding trails because they get scared,” Gillespie said. “I think maybe it’s time the county or state looked into putting in a mountain biking park.”

The East Bay Regional Park District recently added a flow moutain biking trail in Crockett Hills Regional Park that is a big hit.

While Gillespie is a reluctant compromiser, not everyone is willing to share the trails. Norm La Force, chairman of the Sierra Club’s East Bay public lands committee, stated in August that things in the EBMUD were “fine the way they are” and that mountain bikers could find other places in the East Bay to ride.

Of course, not all hikers feel this way. Stan Dodson, an Oakland resident who has spent the last several years leading tours from Oakland through EBMUD land, said that he wouldn’t mind sharing trails with mountain bikers.

“They’ve got some full-on fire roads that are just ridiculous that they’re not letting bikes use,” Dodson said, noting that he also doesn’t think mountain bikers cause more trail problems than any other users he’s encountered.

While the fate of the ban is uncertain, Udkow is optimistic that the EBMUD board of directors will take it down. He noted that watershed districts in Marin County and San Francisco have relaxed bans on mountain biking without disastrous consequences, so why not the East Bay?

“Slowly but surely, we’re making progress,” Udkow said.

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