A rift that's been brewing for years between mountain bikers and the East Bay Regional Park District hit a boiling point last week when the two parties converged at a boisterous meeting detailing future plans for the Pleasanton Ridge.
Nearly 150 people attended a park district-sponsored meeting March 25 at the Veterans Memorial Building downtown. A large percentage of bicycle advocates, some of whom rode their bicycles to the meeting, didn't hold back their frustrations with how the 5,000 acres of land at the Ridge are being managed.
At issue is what trails are authorized for mountain bike riders to use and how the park district should handle that. Included in the district's 30-mile trail system are 8-foot-wide bulldozed multi-use trails for hikers, equestrians and bicyclists. But there are also a number of narrow single-track trails that mountain bikers prefer for the challenge and opportunity to ride separately from other park users. Just days before last week's meeting, the park district laid hay and put up barriers on some of these single-track trails, a move that angered the cyclists.
Longtime Pleasanton resident and avid mountain biker Chris Beratlis Jr. said those who ride their bikes on the challenging terrain at the Ridge often get a bad rap. He said cyclists, hikers (many of whom bring their dogs) and horseback riders all use the Ridge trails, but the parks district seems to want to force all three groups to use the same trails, rather than allowing cyclists to ride narrower trails.
"We're trying to make them understand that a single-track trail, something really narrow, is fun," he said. "It does spread out the crowds more because a lot of people use the park, and it's ultimately safer and endangers less animals because you're not building a fire road."
Beratlis, who used to be on a city of Pleasanton mountain bike patrol in the 1990s, said mountain bikers who don't ride the fire roads know the Ridge better than most, enabling them to help in emergency situations, such as finding a lost person, dog or notifying parks officials of any hazards.
Both parties agree that an increasing number of park users are mountain bikers. Beratlis said he believes they make up 50 percent of the users.
After giving a PowerPoint presentation on Measure WW, which was passed by voters last November and gives the park district more funding to acquire land and build trails, the meeting turned a little rowdy, with some audience members asking pointed questions about the district's management practices.
Some mountain bikers question that they're the only ones to blame for the creation of single-track trails. Ranchers contract with the parks district to offer cattle grazing on the upper portions of the Ridge, and Laura Comstock, interpretive parks manager for EB Parks, said cows do sometimes create narrow trails. But, she said, the land requires grazing and restrictions have been imposed on the amount that's done so as not to further contribute to erosion.
John Escobar, who is the assistant general manager for the park district, said he estimates that one-third of the trails system at the Ridge consists of "bootlegger" or unofficial trails, or in mountain biker terms, the single-track trails.
Escobar said the district put up the barriers and hay blocking the narrow trails so riders would know which trails were illegal and should not be used. But that incensed some in the audience.
"The problem isn't the barriers," one man said. "It's the symptom. All you have to do is embrace this constituency. You have to get a good development plan going."
Escobar countered that the district is just going by the law--that hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers must be on official trails. Not putting up barriers sends an unintentional message that it's okay for riders to go off the beaten path, he added. But, he said, that's not to say that things can't be changed down the road.
That's where future planning comes into play. Park district officials explained that they want to have the future of land management at the Ridge to be open and include all voices in the community. That's why they rented out the Vets Hall for last week's meeting.
A number of public meetings will be scheduled over the coming months--next a scoping meeting to hear different points of view, followed by the drafting of a plan, a revised draft plan and final approval. All in all, it could be an 18-month to two-year process, estimated Julie Bondurant, a senior park planner with EB Parks. The park district will soon embark on a Trails Survey, which consists of interviews given at the Ridge to see what users like and don't like.
Ayn Wieskamp, who is on the East Bay Regional Park District Board and whose region of influence covers the Ridge, said she and other board members are open to hearing the mountain bike community's concerns.
"There's a group, fairly small, who can't get past some stuff, but we're hoping that in this process they will--that we will honestly lay it out, that this is a new land use plan," she said. "There are opportunities to build real trails that are single-track, but (they) will be designed so that all users can use them."
Wieskamp said she's hopeful that the scoping meeting, where the public is encouraged to share its input on a land use plan, will be held in June, before many residents may go on summer vacations.
Of course, anything that will come out of the plan will have to go through environmental approvals certified by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
"We have to make sure that we're not hurting the habitat, whether it's creatures or plants," Wieskamp said. "I think we can build safe trails that will be good and exhilarating enough.
"I am a strong supporter of cyclists," she added. "I think they deserve that opportunity, but I expect them to discipline themselves, and mostly they do."
For more information on the East Bay Regional Park District, visit www.ebparks.org.