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
Cows roam and graze on thousands of acres of East Bay MUD land.
Hikers and horseback riders have been using East Bay MUD’s land for decades. The utility district was established in the 1920s, when it began building dams on public land to store water pumped in from the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Forty years later, the district began allowing members of the public—hikers and horseback riders only—to use the land. More than 7,000 people currently hold trail permits for hiking and horseback riding. They share the acreage with the occasional pickup truck and the ever-present cows.
East Bay MUD’s pilot project could result in cyclists getting permanent access to eight miles of existing roads that form part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. However, allowing the experiment is not a simple process. The pilot project can only proceed if East Bay MUD makes critical amendments to its master plan—a set of management guidelines that describes the objectives of the utility district. The master plan currently prohibits bicycles. Altering it to permit limited bicycle use will require a California Environmental Quality Act review, a potentially expensive process.
How expensive that process will be will depend on how extensive the environmental review is. The pro-cycling camp believes allowing bicycles to use existing gravel roads can be done with a minimum of paperwork and fuss. After all, these roads are already subjected to cows, horses, hikers, and even the odd service vehicle. Cyclists scoff at the argument that 2-inch-wide rubber bike tires would upset any existing ecological balance on these heavily trod fire roads.
But a coalition of groups called Safe Trails, Environmental Protection—which includes the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, and the California Native Plant Society—will likely take the utility district to court if it does not conduct the most intensive, detailed environmental review possible under state law—an environmental impact report, or EIR.
An EIR would also study the potential for cyclists to create illegal rogue trails and their impacts on sensitive plant habitat and protected species, like the Alameda whipsnake. If it’s determined that cycling could have considerable unavoidable impacts, the doors might be indefinitely closed on bicycles.
Terry Noonan, a unit manager of interpretive parklands for the East Bay Regional Park District, is quick to point out that hikers cause their own share of damage to the landscape. Some, he said, bushwhack their own “bootleg” trails, and many hikers shortcut switchbacks. “We have illegal trails in the park system, and the problem is not isolated to one user group, and whoever made them, those trails have the same impacts,” Noonan said.
Environmental impact reports are usually required to assess the potential impacts of construction projects or significant changes of allowed land use—things like a new road, a new house in the hills, or a vineyard that would require felling trees. “Allowing bikes on a few miles of existing road isn’t a construction project,” said McInerny of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association.
Cyclist and multiuse trail advocate Bern Smith, who is helping lead the creation of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, envisions the trail route as an opportunity to walk, bike, or ride a horse around the entire bay. If East Bay MUD sticks to its no-bikes policy, cyclists attempting to follow the route will have to use several miles of busy highway paralleling the trail—a diversion that Smith feels is unnecessary and, in places, perilous.
He said he appreciates that much valuable plant and animal habitat exists in the hills throughout the Bay Area. “But on existing infrastructure, where there are already trucks driving around, it’s a little hard for me to believe adding a few bikes would have the kind of impacts for which we’d really need an EIR,” Smith said.
McInerny argued that it would be nearly impossible even to see the evidence of bicycles on some trails trampled by cows. “There is no way you could study the impacts of bikes with the cows out there,” he said. “There will be no discernible impacts. In that sense, the EIR is sort of a dead end.”
While cyclists fend off accusations of destroying public trails, thousands of cows, permitted on East Bay MUD and park district lands, regularly trample trails, meadows, hillsides, and streambeds. Parts of the Fernandez Ranch trail loop near Hercules, for example, have been rendered almost impassable by herds of cows.
Along some trails, the heavy-footed animals bypass switchbacks. They prefer instead to lumber straight down steep slopes, stripping away the vegetation and causing small landslides of mud that collapse onto the trails and into the area’s ephemeral creeks—apparently a blatant violation of East Bay MUD’s stated objectives of producing clean water and ensuring that grazing doesn’t degrade the environment.
But cows have been roaming East Bay MUD lands for longer than hikers and equestrians. Since the inception of the utility district nearly 100 years ago, grazing has served two main purposes—generating revenue from rancher use fees and reducing vegetation fuel loads that would otherwise create fire hazards. In the 1980s, East Bay MUD eased its focus on maximizing revenue and, instead, began rotating grazing animals from one area to the next with the idea of protecting wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Today, the utility district requires that the seasonal benefits of grazing livestock outweigh any detrimental effects on biodiversity and water quality.
While cattle graze on open hillsides and in shaded woodlands, horses use the fire roads and trails, and they have impacts, too. Some muddy sections of single-track are pockmarked with 3-inch-deep hoof prints that, come springtime, will harden into miniature potholes.
To date, cattle ranchers who pay to use East Bay MUD land to graze their cows have not stepped forward to oppose the cycling pilot project, but some equestrians feel there is no room in the backcountry for bicycles. Amelia Marshall, a board member of the Metropolitan Horsemen’s Association of Oakland, said that in the past 20 years, she has had “a hundred encounters with mountain bikers that were disconcerting.” She described one case in which a mountain biker who was “100 percent courteous” walked his bike past her and her horse. But the starting torque of the bike’s rear wheel as the cyclist rode off kicked up a small puff of dust and oak leaves. The horse spooked and jumped off a small embankment.
“That was the test case that proved that, even if both parties have the best of intentions to share the trails peacefully, it’s just a bad idea to have bikes out there,” she said.
In some ways, the battle over East Bay MUD property comes down to who started to use the land first. And mountain bikers are definitely the newcomers. The sport was born in the 1970s, when adventurous teenagers and young adults in Marin County began riding bikes down the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. It gained popularity, and the ragtag community of cyclists—some of them bicycle mechanics—began building their own bikes from scratch. They combined sturdy frames with beefy tires, high gearing to accommodate steep uphill pedaling, and motorcycle braking components for breakneck downhill racing.
By the 1980s, mountain bikes were commercially available, and the culture went mainstream. As mountain bikers showed up in new places, tensions grew on trail systems around the nation. In some places, including Marin County, mountain bikers gained notoriety for shredding trails, blazing their own ones, and buzzing past hikers.