Mountain bikers flex their political muscles

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      With his dark-blue suit, clean-cut appearance, and businesslike demeanour, Cliff Eschner comes across more as a banker than a biker. But in early February, Eschner was the man in charge of a meeting of about 35 mostly ruddy-looking mountain bikers.

      They had gathered at Jaycee House in North Vancouver, and Eschner, an avid rider and the new president of the 2,600-member North Shore Mountain Bike Association, was the only one in the room wearing a tie.

      The young business consultant told the members that 2007 would be a "transitional year". He also emphasized that the NSMBA was not a hierarchy and that everyone's input would be welcome. In addition, Eschner described how teams would be created to work autonomously on specific tasks. They would continue working on trails on Mount Seymour and Mount Fromme, as had been the practice for years, but there would also be an "ever-expanding drive for membership".

      "We want the NSMBA to grow," Eschner declared. The association has set a target of 5,000 members by the end of the year.

      Many people harbour the impression that mountain bikers are a scruffy lot. But on the North Shore, trail riders have emerged as an influential and organized lobbying group, in part because of the NSMBA's strength.

      However, a Lynn Valley resident, Monica Craver, feels that mountain bikers have gained too much power in the District of North Vancouver. Craver tried unsuccessfully to have mountain biking halted in Mountain View Park, which is at the top of Mountain Highway.

      "They have a lot of political clout," Craver told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      For more than two decades, mountain bikers were creating trails on the North Shore without the permission of municipal officials. The District of North Vancouver has created a process to determine which trails should remain in place for mountain bikers, which should be termed "multi-use", which should be exclusive to hikers, and which should be decommissioned.

      District of North Vancouver mayor Richard Walton, a trail rider himself, describes mountain biking as a "legitimate" land use that requires a district-wide approach. "To me, it's purely and simply a resource-management exercise," Walton told the Straight during an interview in his office. "We have a very valuable resource. It's a very healthy outdoor sport."

      During the NSMBA meeting, other directors spoke about their areas of responsibility. Eschner's friend Sven Luebke, a soft-spoken mountain biker, said there will be 11 "trail days" scheduled this year, when members can volunteer their time to improve paths in the forests. Board member Robin J. Harvey then described a series of upcoming events, including a Las Vegas–themed ride later in the summer. "Obviously, if you come dressed as Liberace you'll probably win a big prize," she quipped.

      On a more serious note, Harvey said that the group was committed to working cooperatively with other users of the forest. "We're trying to build a brand," Harvey said. "We want to keep a very positive image for ourselves."

      Later, Jay Hoots, a well-known freerider and a designer of mountain-biking skills parks, discussed his efforts to get youth involved in the sport. Hoots, who is not an NSMBA director, said he rebuilt the dirt jumps at Richmond's bike-skills park with the help of young volunteers. He also played a key role in the development of the skills park at West Vancouver's Gleneagles Adventure Park.

      "All we need to do is figure out a way to get the kids inspired," Hoots said. At that point, NSMBA director Richard Juryn piped up that all of the students in high-school mountain-biking clubs could become members of the NSMBA.

      Immediately after the meeting, Esc ­hner sat down with the Straight to explain why he's so keen on increasing membership. He noted that the NSMBA has a great deal of work to do in many areas, including the maintenance of trails and in government and public relations. He described those last two areas as a "high priority" because governments provide mountain bikers with access to public land. Then there are the challenges of operating an effective Web site, and recruiting and retaining corporate sponsors.

      "You can't even imagine the number of hours it takes to run an association, because there is so much politics involved," Eschner said. "It's just like running a corporation, except that when you use volunteers, you need different incentives. The bottom line is if you had an employee that worked eight hours a day, his productivity would be four to six hours. In order to get an eight-hour day's work done in a volunteer organization, you need a dozen people because...a full-time volunteer position is one to four hours a week."

      After the 2005 municipal elections, mountain-biking Web site not affiliated with the NSMBA,, crowed that riders had become a "political force". The site's editor, Cam McRae, wrote that all three newly elected North Shore mayors-Walton in the District of North Vancouver, Darrell Mussatto in the City of North Vancouver, and Pamela Goldsmith-Jones in West Vancouver-had been supportive of mountain biking and the North Shore Credit Union World Mountain Bike Festival & Conference.

      In addition, McRae wrote, the mountain-biking community's preferred council candidates in the District of North Vancouver did exceptionally well. "With four councillors we supported occupying the top four positions in terms of votes cast, the future of mountain biking on the Shore is looking brighter than it has for some time," he claimed.

      According to documents filed with the Canada Revenue Agency, the NSMBA generated revenues of $65,273 in 2005, which included grants of $10,000 from both provincial and municipal governments. As a registered charity, the NSMBA is prohibited from getting involved in partisan political activities. But in November 2005, the Seatpost Newsletter, published by the North Shore's John Henry Bikes, stated that "the NSMBA has compiled a list of trail-friendly candidates." Walton was the only mayoral candidate identified this way. The previous month, the newsletter ran a strong endorsement for Walton's mayoral campaign.

      During the 2005 campaign, Walton proposed creating a mixed residential/business bicycling-based community in the Maplewood area that could attract bicycle manufacturers, retailers, tourists, and cyclists. "We have had two large mountain-biking companies approach us about trying to move their manufacturing and production facilities to the North Shore," Walton told the Straight.

      Walton ended up winning in a landslide over his two major competitors on council, environmentalist Jim Cuthbert and Maureen McKeon Holmes, who both voted against a $4,500 grant to the North Shore Credit Union World Mountain Bike Festival & Conference. Council later reversed that decision. North Shore political activist Liz James told the Straight that she thinks Walton won the mayoral race in large part because of his support for the mountain bikers' agenda, though he absented himself from the second vote on the community grant.

      It was a dramatic change from several years ago, when local residents began deluging District Hall with complaints about mountain bikers' behaviour in neighbourhoods at the base of the trails. "Four years ago when I came on council, I think the biggest issue-the most controversial, the one that had the most e-mails coming in-was mountain biking," Walton recalled.

      Hundreds of riders would visit Mount Fromme on sunny weekends, which increased demand for streetside parking. Other residents, including James, expressed concerns about riders barrelling down trails also used by hikers.

      A cranky former district councillor, Ernie Crist, routinely castigated the mountain bikers in public comments and in his e-mail correspondence with his then-constituents. "Let me reiterate again," he wrote in a February 18, 2005, e-mail reprinted on McRae's Web site, "trail biking on rainy Mount Fromme, with its impact on the community, is a NO WINNER and sooner or later the exercise will come to grief."

      Crist also let his constituents know that the North Shore Black Bear Network had complained that mountain biking was a "very destructive activity". In the spring of 2005, however, the conservation group's cochair, Tim Condon, told the Straight that he was not engaged in a campaign to ban riding on mountain trails. He also said he recognized that the North Shore "is one of the world's best places to go mountain biking". Crist decided not to run in November 2005, which reduced the amount of opposition to mountain biking at District Hall.

      In an interview with the Straight at Jaycee House, Juryn, a mountain-bike events organizer, said that "a few bad apples" created problems, and it will take some time for the acrimony to die down. He maintained that the industry is worth $25 million to $30 million to the North Shore economy. NSMBA members have also done work on the Baden-Powell Trail, which is used exclusively by hikers.

      Juryn noted that people who can afford mountain bikes costing $5,000 or $6,000 generally have a high disposable income. And he said they were willing to speak up when it appeared as though they would lose access to the mountains.

      "I think the current councils in West Van, North Van, and the District of North Van are a testament to this," Juryn said. "If not pro mountain biking, they are very aware that mountain bikers are a force. The biggest user group in mountain bikers are 30- to 40-year-olds. They're a very integral part of the community. They are business leaders. They are professionals."

      Juryn, a Lynn Valley resident, compared the growing mainstream appeal of mountain biking to the development of the snowboarding industry. Both initially attracted rebels, and both were frowned upon by other user groups. But now, he said, snowboarding and mountain biking appeal to broader segments of society. He said that he goes mountain biking with his kids, who are 12 and 14 years old, as well as with his mother, who is 75.

      "I want more beginning and intermediate mountain biking [trails]," Juryn said. "I think there is a huge lack-not just on the North Shore but everywhere-for trails like Whistler has around Lost Lake...I actually went up with Richard Walton, James Ridge, who is CAO [chief administrative officer of the District of North Vancouver], Susan Rogers, who is the head of parks. And we went and rode the trails of Whistler, hosted by the mayor of Whistler, Ken Melamed."

      Tabetha Boot, a regional public-relations supervisor for WhistlerBlackcomb, told the Straight in a phone interview that there has been huge growth in the number of visitors to the Whistler Bike Park. In 2003, she said, there were 62,000 "rider days", which was a 100-percent increase over the previous two years. By 2006, the number had reached 250,000, a fourfold increase over the figure for 2003.

      "It's helping to increase the reputation of Whistler to be a four-season resort," Boot said. "It's a huge draw in the summertime."

      Juryn said that after running the Whistler Summer Gravity Festival in 2003, he figured it would be a good idea to create a similar event on the North Shore. He recalled sitting down with Walton for sushi in a restaurant on Lonsdale in early 2004, which led to the creation of the North Shore Mountain Bike Events Society. Walton told the Straight that the society was created to provide a "positive focus for mountain biking" by bringing together experts in tourism, trails, and land use.

      For his part, Eschner said he thinks the media have overblown mountain-bike conflicts, likening them to a fire in a wastebasket. He claimed that reporters have often framed the issue as "residents versus mountain bikers" or "hikers versus mountain bikers". But he said that he and many other mountain bikers are also residents, hikers, and trail runners. "I ignore the naysayers," Eschner said. "And I ignore people who blow things out of proportion."

      One naysayer who is not impressed is Craver. In a March 1 written presentation to a consultant working with the district's Alpine Recreational Reference Group, she stated that the protection of the forest watershed "should be the highest priority". Therefore, she claimed, "no erosive use such as off-road vehicle operation should be allowed."

      In addition, she suggested that nonmotorized activities, such as mountain biking and horseback riding, must be "carefully managed" because they have "significant potential" to damage the soil and vegetation. "Illegal mountain bike use is an ongoing problem on Fromme and the North Shore Alpine area," she alleged, "and officially sanctioning it will only increase the probability that mountain bikes would end up on trails not designed for their use, or off the trails altogether."

      Craver also claimed that the district's "multiple use philosophy" has created environmental and social problems. "By allowing private recreational groups, especially the NSMBA, to police themselves is akin to having the mice guard the cheese," she wrote.

      In her concluding paragraph, she declared: "Our forests should not become amusement parks for the limited demographic the extreme sport of mountain biking proves to serve."

      The district's Alpine Recreational Reference Group includes representatives of community groups, businesses, and cycling and dog-handling organizations, plus park users and members of an equestrian association. According to the minutes of the group's November 7 meeting, district CAO James Ridge said that the goal was to create a trail-classification system.

      The district's section manager of parks planning and environment, Susan Rogers, told the Straight that the municipality has retained Lees and Associates Consulting to oversee a team of consultants to offer advice. One member of the team is David Diplock, a former NSMBA director. "David is not managing the program," she said, noting that there is also a wildlife biologist on the team.

      Walton said he hopes that within five or six years, there will be a series of "very well articulated trails". He also suggested that the district might create a "very clear code of conduct" for mountain bikers on public land.

      "Most people I know who mountain-bike have a deep respect for nature, and a love and passion for the woods," Walton said.

      Craver told the Straight that she is skeptical about the district's claim that some trails might be decommissioned because bikers continue working without municipal approval. "I don't see that happening in good faith because there are still trail builders building on a trail that opened up a couple of months prior to the consultants doing their assessment work," Craver said.

      In February 2005, the chair of the U.S. Sierra Club's Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, Ann Webster, wrote to the district mayor and council to suggest bike use should be limited in most cases to wide dirt roads or pavement. "The American Hiking Society, a prestigious organization which originally supported mountain bike use on narrow trails, has drastically changed their position and no longer supports multi-use on narrow paths because of the impact on the environment, the safety aspect for all users, and the infringement on the enjoyment by other users," Webster wrote.

      The International Mountain Bicycling Association has pointed to various scientific studies to advance its claim that the sport doesn't have a greater impact on trails than other users. In a paper on the IMBA Web site ( ), Gary Sprung cites a 1994 study by John Wilson and Joseph Sweeney, then of Montana State University, who concluded that there was "no statistically significant difference" between the effects of hiking and biking on trails. Sprung cites several other studies to reinforce the IMBA's contention that land-use managers have "no scientific backing" when they try to protect trails by prohibiting bicycle use while allowing access to hikers and horseback riders.

      In 2004, U.S. transportation activist Michael Vandeman wrote a 15-page rebuttal to Sprung's paper, claiming that several studies overlooked the fact that bikers have a greater impact because they travel greater distances than hikers.

      Regardless of what the science says, it appears that on the North Shore, at least, the mountain bikers are in the ascendancy, judging from Diplock's appointment and from the creation of the Gleneagles Adventure Park in West Vancouver. And as long as Richard Walton remains mayor in the municipality with some of the most popular trails, the mountain bikers will continue to have a supportive voice at the table.

      For Eschner, Juryn, and the other NSMBA directors, things have never been better on the North Shore for their sport. The jury is still out on what this means for other forest users and for the forest itself.