Ten years ago, a horrible bike crash ended up helping the bike community. A man in the Kingsbury Grade area ate it hard, suffering head and spinal injuries, which required a helicopter life-flight out. He was on a “user-built” (aka illegal) trail, with 20-foot gap jumps, and thus not on any maps — which wasted valuable time for first responders trying to locate him.
He ended up being okay, but it was the final straw for the Forest Service. They actively shut down riding in that zone, and the incident illustrated a gaping potential for improvement between user groups and land managers. Folks in the Forest Service like Jacob Quinn, who was trail program coordinator for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit at the time, had been seeking new avenues for working with bikers for several years. The near-fatal tragedy was the catalyst to kickstart a new chapter.
“We needed to figure out how to develop new relationships that aligned management with what the mountain bike needs were,” said Quinn, now engineering technician for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
What a Decade Can Do
Fast-forward to the present, and the mountain biking landscape looks far healthier. Certainly there are more trails, but perhaps more significant is the improved collaboration between riders, nonprofits, and land managers.
“This is almost a golden era of collaboration between land managers and the mountain bike community,” said David Reichel, executive director of Tahoe Area Mountain Biking Association.
How did we get here from there? TAMBA had been instrumental as the main regional mountain bike advocacy organization, and was relaunched in 2011 after being inactive from 2003-2010. In that time, members of TAMBA educated themselves on the oft-difficult bureaucracy of government agencies, and they continued to build an armada of volunteers.
In a similar vein, the Forest Service moved toward utilizing their resources for getting more trails open to the public via building, rerouting, or maintaining them versus finding and closing user-built trails.
Quinn outlined the simple but powerful agreement between the Forest Service and mountain bikers that enabled them to change course:
“We asked them to show up and get involved in building legitimate trails with our full support, and we will completely focus on supporting that work with all our resources, rather than closing unauthorized trails.”
Additionally, as the Forest Service budget for trails continues to decrease, it continues to implement creative (and often complicated) ways to be more efficient with money. For example, while the Forest Service is ultimately responsible for the maintenance of a trail on its land, they meet regularly with volunteer groups to prioritize where resources are best spent. As a result, the volunteer groups commonly shoulder the upkeep and maintenance of trails, filling the workforce void from decreased funding.
Reichel discussed a handful of trail improvement projects going into summer 2019 such as a new 2.1-mile trail from Lily Lake (Glen Alpine parking area) to the Angora Lakes trailhead, extensive work near Stanford Rock, and the building and realignment of several trails in Kings Beach.
Overall, a big and admittedly lofty goal for Reichel and his coalition is to create a system of trails that allows mountain bikers to ride all the way around the lake, which currently isn’t legally possible. The West Shore has the largest remaining gap in trails, and environmental studies are being carried out regarding the section from Stanford Rock to the northern end of Emerald Bay — although construction is likely a ways out in this area, according to Reichel.
TAMBA isn’t the only group with eyes on the mountain bike trail scene. The Truckee Trails Foundation is actively working on a handful of projects as well, see p. 38. Among others, they opened the 7-mile Big Chief Trail in 2018 and they’re planning improvements to the popular Jackass (A1) Trail. TAMBA is also a third of the way into designing the ambitious Pines to Mines Trail, which will connect Truckee to Nevada City via a “multi-use, nonmotorized earthen trail,” according to their website.
What About that Pesky Wilderness?
Not everyone is thrilled with the current state of affairs, however, and some see a glaring barrier to completing trails around the lake: wilderness.
Wilderness areas are designated by Congress as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” according to the Wilderness Act of 1964. If untrammeled isn’t in your vocabulary, it means as untouched by man as possible — and thus completely closed to mountain biking.
Closest to the lake this includes Desolation, Mt. Rose, and Granite Chief wildernesses, with hundreds of miles of established trails. Mt. Rose is often cited as the place where the ban makes the least sense, as when bikers are riding the Tahoe Rim Trail, for example, they simply have to stop and turn around when they hit that wilderness boundary.
The debate is a veritable spider web that has been spun in the community for decades. It has pitted those labeled as conservationists against mountain bikers, creating spirited infighting amongst outdoors-loving stakeholders. The Sustainable Trails Coalition, a nonprofit based in Colorado, is a strong proponent of allowing bikes in wilderness. They have written legislation that is currently in congress which would amend the Wilderness Act to remove the blanket ban and would allow local agencies decide on a case-by-case basis.
STC board member Jeff Barker shares the commonly-held opinion that when the laws were written in 1964 (and then revised in 1984 to finalize disallowing bikes), it was well before modern mountain biking took hold, and that bikers were unfairly lumped in with the other restrictions. “Bikes were getting kicked out in the ’80s, and now 30 years down the road things should be changing,” Barker said.
However, the aforementioned legislation is “going nowhere,” said Barker, due to the political makeup of Congress (the spider web reaches far). The movement to open wilderness is on a de facto pause, but the embers remain burning.
Gotta Pick Your Battles
TAMBA donated to STC in 2018 and would support opening wilderness areas to bikes, although being active in that cause is not central to their mission. “We don’t have the capacity to fight that fight,” Reichel said. “We are focused on nurturing good relations with land managers, and we have succeeded in that.”
Fundraising remains a main focus of attention, an area that Reichel sees as the biggest challenge to increased biking access in Tahoe.
Quinn agrees that creative solutions are needed, and there are many other paths to opening up more trails to biking outside of the wilderness debate. (He noted also that there are no single-use trails in the Basin, and that the goal is to always have multi-use trails).
An under-utilized area he mentions are the hundreds, if not thousands, of overgrown and abandoned trails that exist in places like the Tahoe and El Dorado national forests. While cleaning up these trails may not be as sexy as building new trails, he recognizes this as a huge, yet-to-be-tapped opportunity for access.
“If there’s a ton of trails that could be maintained, why make brand new trails when we could rebuild old ones?” Quinn said.
Whether it’s constructing a brand spankin’ new single-track, shaking the dust off old neglected trails, or even challenging Congress to amend laws, bikers are eager as ever to keep their growing sport accessible to everyone who loves to pedal knobby tires on some dirt.