Mountain Bikes On Private Property

Sara Godwin

Fairfax, California

June 14, 1999

About a year ago, I and two of my neighbors began negotiating to purchase a 10-acre parcel of wooded hillside that is tucked between our homes, the Marin County Open Space District Cascade Canyon Preserve, and the Marin Boy Scout Camp Tamarancho. The parcel had been put on the market, and rumors had spread that a potential buyer planned a 10,000 square-foot mansion, complete with helipad.

We made our offer and subsequent purchase with the specific intent of preventing such development. I won't say that we expected our neighbors to march up our little dirt road with a brass band, but I think we all anticipated that residents on both sides of the hill would be pleased that these lovely woods were not to be bulldozed for construction. (Both sides of this hill are filled with homes on very narrow, winding streets. If, God forbid, we were to have a wildfire, it would make the East Bay/Oakland Hills Fire look like a picnic in the park next to the devastation and destruction that could happen here.)

As it has turned out, wildfire is the least of our worries. Far more threatening are the hordes of mountain bikers who ride hell-bent-for-leather down two narrow single-track trails on our property that meet at the Tamarancho border. I have walked these trails twice a day for many years, and for most of those years rarely saw anyone else at all. The few people I did see were neighbors who lived within a block or two.

Shortly after the Marin County Open Space District bought the Wagon Wheel Trail from Camp Tamarancho, mountain bikers started riding the trails, often in large groups. Trails that were footpaths, no more than a few inches wide, have been ripped by the wheels of mountain bikes to 3 feet wide, and more. We have heard endless complaints from our neighbors about the danger that mountain bikes hurtling down the trails pose to people walking. We are saddened and dismayed by the damage that has been done to the woods we bought to protect. The trails are eroded, many tree roots exposed, whole sections turned into muddy quagmires, overarching branches broken, wildflowers ground into dust, and the pileated woodpeckers that have nested here for years have been driven off entirely.

When we decided to purchase the land I knew very little about mountain biking; I know a great deal more now. I know that the massive influx of mountain bikers in our neighborhood occurred about the same time that the MCOSD opened the Wagon Wheel Trail to public use.

I know that a large part of the mountain biking culture is an attitude of aggressive hostility that frequently breaks out into vandalism and violence. We have owned our home here for nearly twenty years, and I lived just a few blocks away for several years before that. We had never had any vandalism, and violence was unheard of. In the past year, I have received direct personal threats from mountain bikers, telephone threats from mountain bikers, one mountain biker threatened to burn my home down, our house has been broken into, and our cars have been vandalized repeatedly. (All of this is documented and on record with the Fairfax Police Department and the Marin County District Attorney's Office, including tapes and videotapes of the threats.)

My son was threatened by a biker who picked up the bike and tried to hit him with it. One of my neighbors was punched in the face. It is only a matter of time before a hiker is run down and injured or a mountain biker finally succeeds in breaking his/her neck.

We hoped that we might work things out by means of cooperation and consensus. I felt certain that everyone -- hikers and bikers alike -- would agree that we did not want anyone to get hurt. I was wrong. We posted signs asking bikers to please slow down, then to walk their bikes, and finally, 'private property, walk at your own risk'. All were torn down. Last winter we installed metal signs mounted on steel posts and set in concrete at the each of the trail entrances. Every one was ripped out and hurled down the hill into the canyon.

One mountain biker who brings groups of 20 and more bikers across my property every weekend was arrested for trespassing after months of asking him to walk his bike had no effect other than to cause him to spew invective. The District Attorney's Office chose to let him off with a warning. When a police officer recommended getting a restraining order or an injunction to keep him off my property, two friends offered to pay for it as a Christmas present. I am grateful to my friends and appalled that they believe that I need such a gift.

I have spoken with several of the leading lights of the mountain biking community including Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Jim Jacobsen. (Chris Lang checked in with a phone message that prompted the Fairfax Police to tell him to never dial my number again.) These talks have accomplished nothing by way of cooperation (or even simple obedience of the law) from mountain bikers.

I turned to those with hands-on experience in dealing with mountain bikers, the rangers of the Marin County Open Space District and the Marin Municipal Water District. To a man they told me of the damage and destruction, violence and vandalism, that mountain bikers have wreaked on public lands. I have sought help from the Fairfax Police, the Fairfax Town Council, the

Marin County Open Space District, Camp Tamarancho, the Board of Supervisors, and the Marin County District Attorney's Office. Despite a wealth of evidence, despite innumerable phone calls, letters, and e-mails, despite speaking out at endless public meetings, no significant action has been taken by any of these agencies. The law is meaningless without enforcement, and there has been no enforcement to speak of.

Quite simply, the situation between private property owners and mountain bikers has deteriorated into a range war, turning my backyard into a battleground. I feel as though I live in a combat zone. Both the police and the District Attorney's Office recommended closing the trails with fences and 'no trespassing' signs. Instead I put up a gate with a lock to which our immediate neighbors are cheerfully given the combination. The mountain bikers responded by taking chainsaws and cutting a new illegal trail across private property to access Camp Tamarancho and the MCOSD's Wagon Wheel Trail. The Fairfax Police and Camp Tamarancho have been notified of this latest act of vandalism to private property. I should point out here that there is no legal public access to Camp Tamarancho except for the fire roads: all other access requires crossing private property, a fact of which the Boy Scouts are fully aware. (They have an easement that permits access via Iron Springs Road that is restricted to "Boy Scouts and those on Boy Scout business only." That easement does not include mountain bikers.)

The cost of mountain biking to the taxpayers of Marin is horrendous. Most of the agencies that deal with them are funded by Marin County taxpayers. Ignoring the damage to the land, the costs directly attributable to mountain bikers runs easily into thousands upon thousands of dollars. This includes the wages of the rangers who must deal with law-breaking bikers, repair the bike barriers mountain bikers destroy, and replace the signs mountain bikers tear down, as well as the costs of the barriers and signs themselves.

I do not believe that Marin County taxpayers intended their tax dollars to be spent preventing or repairing the damage done by a small, politically vocal, special interest group when they voted to fund the Marin County Open Space District. I do not believe that the customers of Marin Municipal Water District would be pleased to learn that thousands of dollars are spent every month to close and restore illegal mountain bike trails on critical watershed land. Private property owners, myself among them, have been forced to spend thousands of dollars protecting their land and their private property rights against the depredation of mountain bikers.

Mountain bikes, if used precisely as the manufacturer recommends, destroy the land. That's what traction tires are designed to do: tear up the soil on unpaved roads and trails. Mountain biking is, by definition, a form of habitat encroachment that drives out birds and wildlife. The erosion caused by mountain biking causes siltation in our streams, endangering the fragile comeback of endangered species such as steelhead trout and coho salmon.

Marin County is an affluent county, but we can no longer afford the frightening cost of mountain biking: Not in terms of taxpayer dollars spent, not in terms of damage to our watershed, not in terms of the lawless disregard of private property rights, and not in terms of the destruction of the peace and privacy of our neighborhoods. Much of the law necessary to protect this lovely land already exists -- but the law must be enforced to be effective. That needs to happen now.

[Sara is a writer who's in several Who's Who books (she also has a radio show). She writes about gardening (she designs custom gardens) and has written several books about wildlife and adventure travel.]