Bikers Leave Wake as They Break Trails

Wilderness: Thrill-seekers wreak havoc on sensitive habitat in O.C.


Tom Maloney is losing his battle with poachers on wheels. Too many mountain bikers at Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park in south Orange County flout the law by riding unauthorized trails or cutting their own, damaging some of the park's most environmentally sensitive areas.

And Maloney--the park's only ranger--admits he can't do much about it.

Thrill-seeking mountain bikers shun the wide, rolling fire roads as too boring and, instead, force their own paths through the pristine wilderness. The problem is especially acute in Orange County, where rugged coastal hills lure some of the professional sport's biggest daredevils and led one local guidebook to dub Orange County "the mountain-biking capital of the world."

Unlike in neighboring Los Angeles County, where a vast network of mountain-bike enthusiasts voluntarily patrol their own ranks, in Orange County, rangers at more than a dozen off-the-beaten-path parks struggle to keep bike riders on trails.

Examples are commonplace:

* Last year at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, three mountain bikers were observed hacking through the brush with machetes, clearing an illegal trail that had been closed for replanting.

* At nearby Crystal Cove State Park, renegade riders rig barbed-wire fences to more easily slip onto restricted trails. Officials post warnings, but the signs are routinely ripped down.

* Exasperated rangers at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in remote South County recently resorted to calling out sheriff's deputies to cite a man they say is an especially persistent offender. He pleaded guilty to trespassing last month and was fined $27.

The problems are most pressing at Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, more than 4,000 acres of coastal hills and canyons bounded by Laguna Beach, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel. The park's remoteness attracts more than 100,000 users annually--hikers, trail-runners, equestrians and mountain bikers.

In the region, most visitors stay on marked trails within the nearly 200,000 acres of wilderness parkland, including the sprawling Cleveland National Forest. Some, however, sporting souped-up bikes and cycling gear that allows them to tackle more rugged terrain, seek greater challenges. They stray onto off-limits trails or race down untrammeled ridgelines, creating new routes. Maloney estimates illegal trails--with fresh ones springing up weekly--outnumber legal ones 3 to 1.

"I can see a remarkable decrease in quality of the habitat just from all the ridge-top trails," he said.

Many riders don't realize they are breaking the law by straying off marked trails. Others don't care.

The results are especially destructive: Nesting raptors are frightened off when knobby tires mangle native vegetation. Habitat for the endangered gnatcatcher, already in critical condition, is further fragmented.

"I could catch them every day if I wanted to," Maloney said of illegal mountain bikers, "but my time is limited and the results are sometimes discouraging."

Rangers don't have authority to write citations. And sheriff's deputies are called in for only the most belligerent offenders.

A proposal to give park rangers the ability to write tickets is under review. Another possibility, Maloney said, is hiring deputies to ride with rangers.

But catching scofflaws is a whole other issue. The park is so huge that cyclists easily elude Maloney in his pickup. Cyclists who poach tend to ride when rangers are off-duty.

Stepped-up law enforcement is only part of the answer, said John Gannaway, lead ranger at Caspers Wilderness Park.

"We know we're not going to be able to stop everybody," he said. "But the mountain-biking community is really close-knit and we hope that when the word gets out that rangers are citing, most bikers will stop riding the illegal trails."

Most riders heeded that message long ago, said Jim Meyer, executive director of Trails4All, a group made up of Orange County equestrians, hikers, trail-runners and mountain bikers who work on volunteer trail-maintenance projects. Groups such as Trails4All and the International Mountain Bicycling Assn. urge riders to behave responsibly by sticking to established trails and believe the vast majority do just that.

"It's not a mountain-bike issue," Meyer said. "It's a people issue. I get really sensitive as a mountain-bike rider when everyone is pointing the finger at us."

Other users cause problems as well, Meyer said: Bird-watchers and native-plant people trot off trail, and runners and hikers often cut switchbacks and cause erosion problems.

Mountain Bikers Train on O.C.'s Steep Terrain

Mountain bikes are a fairly recent addition to the recreational landscape. They were invented in the late 1970s and by the mid-'80s, mountain biking was a full-fledged fad that edged out road biking. By 1993, 90% of bicycles sold for adults were mountain bikes.

Orange County's downhill trails attract some of the sport's top downhill professionals, who live and train here. Among them: Laguna Beach's Brian Lopes, who last month wrapped up the 2000 World Cup championship in men's dual slalom, and Newport Beach's Tara Llanes and Capistrano Beach's Leigh Donovan, who finished second and fifth, respectively, in the women's dual slalom.

Along the way, bike technology improved, allowing riders to handle increasingly severe terrain and, in the process, tear up more parkland.

With wider tires and full-suspension, shock-absorbing systems, the rigs have more in common with motorcycles than their motorless predecessors. Downhillers in full-face helmets and protective body armor rocket down severe trails, some with drop-offs as tall as a freight train.

Aliso, Wood and adjacent Laguna canyons are among the favorite playgrounds. They offer a thrill ride for amateurs and necessary practice for professionals, but the trails that test a downhiller's skills the best are illegal.

Donovan, the 1995 world downhill champion, said she has stopped riding unauthorized routes, but does so reluctantly because the alternative is to drive hours to ski resorts in the local mountains.

"We all want to ride the trails, but if we can't ride them, we can't ride them," Donovan said. "We'll make it happen somewhere else. We don't want to because this place is so great."

Other riders aren't so cooperative. They argue that developers have destroyed most of the area's habitat to make way for housing, golf courses and roads. By comparison, bikers--even those on unauthorized trails--are treading lightly, they argue.

"I've been doing it since '87," said Keith Eckstein, vice president of the Orange County-based SHARE Mountain Bike Club, "and the only damage to the environment has been the . . . toll road."

Eckstein also downplayed concerns about the damage done by cyclists.

"At the end of all things, it's just a bike ride," he said. "You are just out there in the woods enjoying nature. You're not damaging it, no more than a horse or hiker is."

Mountain biker Dave Wonderly of Silverado Canyon challenges claims that the trails need to be closed because of damage.

"They are perfectly good trails, not overused," said Wonderly. "It's not turning into a big rut. It's not getting thrashed."

Land managers disagree, saying they have good reasons to close off areas, although those reasons are not always evident.

Crystal Cove State Park is home to many archeological sites with artifacts from settlements 800 to 2,000 years old, said ecologist David Pryor. A biker straying off a trail could seriously damage these precious ruins. Unauthorized bike trails often slice through sensitive habitat, with fast-moving bikes possibly running over or scaring away animals, Pryor said.

One encroachment might not cause irreversible harm, but the effects are cumulative.

"They're all little hits, little chinks out of the thing," Pryor said, "but when you add them all together, what are you going to get?"

That's what a five-year study by the Nature Reserve of Orange County's Recreation Ecology Committee will examine next spring. A public-private partnership that presides over 37,000 acres of Orange County open space, it is mandated by federal and state law to help threatened species thrive.

The study will map area trails, measuring how they widen or narrow over time and the effects on plants and animals.

Mike Reeder, the committee chairman and ranger at Peters Canyon Regional Park, said Orange County land managers will have to address the study's findings.

Teaching to Save Trails Can Be an Uphill Ride

Some trails might be temporarily closed as a last resort.

"We need to preserve the habitat and preserve the visitor experience," Reeder said, "and at the same time not make it so difficult for somebody to have fun that they can't find anyplace to go without breaking a rule."

Meanwhile, at Aliso and Wood Canyons Park, Maloney fights a lonely battle, mostly by trying to educate people to the damage done when they ride illegal trails.

The trails give predators such as raccoons an easier path to attack endangered animals.

"It's like a grocery store for them," Maloney said. "It's like they say, 'OK, it's gnatcatcher eggs today and cactus wren tomorrow.' "

The lessons Maloney tries to teach don't always take.

Rogue mountain bikers ride right over the vegetation--even prickly pear cactuses--commonly replanted to block illegal trails. Signs identifying closed trails are "taken down faster than I can put them up," Maloney said.

Even friends ignore his pleas to stay off illegal trails during mountain bike outings. So he no longer rides with them.

"It's like kids; they know it's wrong but they do it anyway, because it's fun," Maloney said. "Except these kids are 20, 30, 40 or 50 years old and they should know better."