August 15, 2002

Board of Directors

East Bay Regional Park District

2950 Peralta Oaks Court

P.O. Box 5381

Oakland, California 94605-0381

Re: Mountain Biking in the East Bay Regional Parks


In July I was in England to give a paper at the Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Canterbury. I allowed myself two more days after the conference for seeing two of the most famous repositories of nature and human artifacts in the world -- Kew (botanical) Gardens and the British Museum. I also saw the National Gallery of Art, which holds European art.

Kew Gardens is gorgeous. The minute you enter, you feel your whole body relax. I was reminded of the discussion in Stephen Kellert and E.O. Wilson's The Biophilia Hypothesis of savannah as the landscape most attractive to humans (presumably because it is where we evolved). Kew consists of huge trees and small specialized gardens, separated by large expanses of grass. Paved paths lead the visitor throughout the garden. My favorite "garden" was "Evolution House", a glass-encased building depicting the evolution of plants, starting with the creation of life on the Earth. As you slowly follow the path through the displays, trying to soak up every fascinating detail and concept, your presence is detected at certain points along the path, and a recording is played from speakers overhead, describing and explaining what you are seeing.

Mountain bikers claim to be mountain biking in order to "enjoy nature". So everywhere I went, I tried to imagine what it would be like to be on a mountain bike. Instead of pristine expanses of grass, the park would be crisscrossed by rutted dirt trails created by bikers who aren't satisfied riding on the "boring" paved trails that everyone else uses. In addition, to avoid being arrested, many of them would have started scaling the wall and sneaking into the park at night, so that they could ride as they wish, without getting caught. They would also bring in shovels, hoes, and other tools to construct illegal trails, jumps, and other obstacles to make biking more fun.

Because the park is so dense with botanic diversity and information, a person on a bike (there were none, by the way -- of course!) would miss 99% of the experience and learning that are available in this most famous of all botanical gardens. And, of course, it would be very hazardous and unpleasant for other park visitors, all of whom are on foot, to suddenly try to share narrow paths with large, fast-moving pieces of machinery!

Well, guess what? Parks are repositories of diversity and information just like Kew Gardens! It makes no more sense to "see" a park from the top of a bike, than it does to "see" Kew Gardens on a mountain bike.

Now take the British Museum. It contains some of the most priceless artifacts ever discovered, such as the Rosetta Stone -- the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Just to stand in front of the Rosetta Stone is an awesome experience! There seem to be three kinds of visitors. Some people carefully examine each exhibit, read the inscriptions, and also listen to a tape-recorded guide (or a human guide). Some people wander through haphazardly, often with friends and family, paying more attention to them than to the exhibits, at which they give only a cursory glance (after all, it is a huge museum!). And then there are those who fall somewhere between those extremes.

Now imagine someone on a mountain bike trying to "see" the British Museum! We would have to create a fourth category for "visitors" like that. There is no way they could learn much of anything (except how to maneuver between randomly placed glass cases and people on foot, without crashing into them) while speeding through the museum on a mountain bike! (A recent email on a mountain biker listserv admitted that they ride at 6-10 miles per hour.)

I am quite familiar with European painting, from having toured Europe when I was 19, so I didn't learn that much that was new in the National Gallery. However there was a special exhibit of drawings, including some Rembrandts. The Rembrandts weren't specially marked, so I had to carefully examine every drawing in the exhibit, in order to find them. There were two self-portraits, one in his thirties and one in his fifties. The latter brought me to tears. I don't think I can really explain why. But of all the hundreds of works in the museum, it is the only one that really "moved" me.

Of course, if I were "touring" the museum on a mountain bike, I would have had a totally superficial experience, and probably never would have noticed that one small drawing out of all the hundreds of paintings in dozens of rooms.

I think you get the point. Mountain bikes have no more place in parks and other wildlife sanctuaries than they have in Kew Gardens, the British Museum, the National Gallery, or the Sistine Chapel. Bicycles are a wonderful invention, and completely appropriate transportation tools on paved roads, which is where they should stay. That is the law in Yosemite National Park, and it should be the law in every other park, as well.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.


Foreman, Dave Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, New York: Harmony Books, c. 1991

Kellert, Stephen R. and Edward O. Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.

Liddle, Michael, Recreation Ecology. London: Chapman & Hall, c.1997.

Noss, Reed F., "The Ecological Effects of Roads", in "Killing Roads", Earth First!

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially "The Effects of Mountain Biking on Wildlife and People -

- Why Off-Road Bicycling Should be Prohibited" and "Equal Access to Our Parks".