Rogue Riders

Mountain bikers hack trails in Peninsula parks

Michael McCabe, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, December 2, 1999

Like raccoons and beavers -- or maybe termites -- they work night and day in their destructive way, staying just ahead of the rangers.

For months now, a determined group of mountain bikers has been hacking away with shovels, hoes and mattocks to build bike trails deep within the Peninsula's parks and open spaces.

Park rangers say they are hot on the bikers' trail.

``It shows an incredible lack of respect for property rights and the natural land,'' said Patrick Congdon, supervising ranger for the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, as he surveyed a single- track trail carved into the side of a hill near Woodside. ``What these people are doing is wrecking the land.''

Since last summer, rangers from the open space district have discovered six illegally built trails at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve near Woodside. Rangers with the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Department have also discovered a two-mile-long illegal trail in nearby Huddart County Park.

``We're not pointing to the entire mountain-bicycling community, but it seems clear that the individual or individuals responsible for this destruction of public property did so in order to create more trails for radical mountain biking,'' said Craig Britton, the district's general manager.''

Britton said the way the trails are built and evidence of bike use on them makes it ``pretty clear that thrill-seeking mountain bicyclists'' are the culprits.

But if the vandalism continues, Britton warned, he will recommend stronger measures to the district board, ``up to and including closure of the regular trails which provide access to these illegal trails.''

``Closure of the entire preserve until restoration efforts are complete may be the only way to protect the natural resources,'' he said.

The district manages nearly 250 miles of trails, of which about 75 percent are open to mountain bikes. Yet illegal trail-building is increasing, Britton said.

The outlaw trails in El Corte de Madera vary from one-tenth of a mile to a little more than a mile, totaling 2.5 miles. Entrances to many of the trails were camouflaged. In at least one case, a homemade sign was posted just inside a trail entrance explaining how to keep the entrance from being spotted by casual observers.

``The sign said, `Make sure to cover this entrance when you pass through,' '' said Malcolm Smith, the district's public affairs manager. ``There seems to be an element of addiction here. Obviously, these people are very committed.''

The illegal trail at Huddart Park was discovered in early October. The trail runs roughly east to west, starting just inside Teague Hill Open Space Preserve, with an elevation drop of about 1,000 feet.

The construction of these trails damaged vegetation and topsoil and included cutting into steep hillsides, rangers said. In addition, branches were cut from trees, brush was removed, and natural drainages were filled with rock, creating the potential for serious erosion.

Restoration work is estimated to cost at least $25,000 to $30,000, although some rangers wonder whether trying to repair the damage might cause even more destruction to the fragile woodlands.

The Peninsula is not the only area where illegal trails have been frustrating park rangers. Renegade bicyclists still occasionally carve their own illegal trails in the Marin County Open Space District.

After the National Park Service banned mountain bikes on narrow single-track trails in 1992, the situation turned ugly in Marin. Three booby traps, possibly set by angry bicyclists, were found in 1993, when rangers began obliterating an illegal single-track trail built by bicyclists on county watershed near Pine Mountain.

Marin open space officials say that although the situation appears to have been under control in recent months, they continue to discover unauthorized trails dug by mountain bikers working at night -- with lanterns on their helmets.

Congdon said rangers staking out Peninsula trails at night have seen mountain bikers bouncing through the woods, some presumably on trail-building missions, others just out for an illegal night ride.

``They ride along with very powerful lights on their helmets,'' Congdon said. ``When I first saw them, I thought it was a UFO or a plane coming in for a landing or something. We've issued citations but never actually caught anyone in the act building trails, not lately, anyway. But we've found trail-building tools stashed in garbage cans.''

Last month, San Mateo County rangers spotted two men emerging from a trail who looked suspiciously like trail builders, said Dave Moore, a San Mateo County parks superintendent.

``They apparently had hid their tools,'' Moore said. ``They were wearing work clothes and boots, and they were very dirty and dusty.

``All this reminds me of the old marijuana groves hidden in the forests. It takes about the same amount of work. I've been a ranger 17 years, and I've never seen anything like this, though.''

The open space district is working with a local mountain bicycle group, Responsible Organized Mountain Pedalers (ROMP), to try to plan legal trails and to get the word out that illegal trail building is bad news for law-abiding mountain bikers.

``ROMP is definitely against this kind of vandalism,'' said Kathleen Meyer, the group's president. ``I don't know what makes me more angry, the vandalism itself or the fact that someone has so much more time than I that they can waste it digging illegal trails in the woods.''