Controversy over growing downhill biking craze reaches boiling point
Law enforcement was jolted to take action on issues related to downhill mountain biking recently, thanks to a group of particularly perturbed Felton residents.
Residents of the Forest Lake community in Felton held a heated meeting on Tuesday, June 14, aimed at putting the controversy between residents and downhill riders on law enforcement’s radar.
An officer from the UC Santa Cruz Police Department and representatives from the Santa Cruz County State Park Mountain Sector were at the meeting. However, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office—the target of most residents’ frustration for inconsistently responding to calls—was not represented. (Lt. Craig Wilson tells GT this was because the department is stretched thin—there are 28 unfilled positions in the county, and 20 will not be filled until budgets begin increasing.) One mountain biker that lives in Forest Lake and is familiar with both sides of the issue stopped in to represent the mountain bikers’ point of view, causing tempers to momentarily fly. The flare up, however, eventually led to some mutual self-reflection and a decision to find middle-ground solutions.
Meeting goers said they are fed up with trucks shuttling the heavy weight bikes to the top of Scenic Drive, as well as aggressive responses from a few riders when residents have told them they are trespassing.
“We have no constructive way of talking to these people … I look out my front porch and see a stream of bikers [most of the day],” said Forest Lake resident Bill Anderson. “At first I was on the fence … The tipping point for [me] was when I saw the damage to the trails and some of the ‘improvements’ they have made, [such as] building jumps.”
Tickets have been given to riders exiting Henry Cowell State Park onto Highway 9, but Sheriff Sgt. Jim Ross says there are very few signs to alert bikers coming from legal trails on UCSC’s upper campus that they are entering closed trails under state park control.
“You get up in that land and some of the signs have been removed,” said Ross. “It’s unclear whether it is illegal.”
Despite the confusion, Ross says using Scenic Drive or other private roads to shuttle riders is illegal. Reports of vandalism and violence from both sides of this debate have spurred Ross to look into what the Sheriff’s Department can do to cool down the escalating situation. One resident at the meeting said a biker smashed a resident’s windshield after they told him he was trespassing, but also admitted that a different biker was recently shot at with a pellet gun for riding on a road in Forest Lake.
Mark Davidson, president of Mountain Bikers Of Santa Cruz (MBOSC), says he is aware of these issues with use private roads and has spread the word to “just not drive up there.” He says he doesn’t shuttle, but also says it is usually unreasonable to ride or hike the bikes—which weigh more than 30 pounds on average—to the top of courses to begin a ride.
Northstar-at-Tahoe lets users ride the chairlifts with their bikes, which Davidson says some local riders take advantage of when they can afford to make the four-hour drive and pay the $40 per day lift fee.
In addition to staying off of private roads, Davidson believes that part of the solution to the growing conflict will be to have more legal places to ride. He uses the popular comparison to skateboarding in the ’90s, when the sport’s popularity quickly outgrew the amount of legal spaces available to practice it. Currently, the only legal trails in the county that satisfy downhill bikers, according to Davidson, are in the Soquel Demonstration Forest. The tracks in that area are built and maintained by volunteers from the MBOSC.
“It’s got the best legal, technical mountain biking terrain in the area,” says Davidson.
Officials and riders are also eyeing federal land near Davenport, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, but a park there would be years away, even if talks began now. Davidson says this planning is difficult because the MBOSC is a volunteer organization. After jobs, families, and helping organize the many community events that MBOSC participates in, he says it is near impossible to make it to government meetings.
Their volunteer work would be crucial in the development of new downhill courses, because the state has been draining parks’ budgets to help balance its own books in recent years.
“We’re not getting more rangers, but we are getting a lot more bikers,” said Sheila Branon, acting superintendent of the mountain sector of state parks in the county.
Biking-induced damage to the watershed—which supplies the water to the entire neighborhood—is a large concern among residents in Forest Lake.
“A hydrologist that lives in the tract says the bog up there—near our well—has completely disappeared since bikers have been up there,” says Bob Wolf, president of the Forest Lake Mutual Water Company.
The building of illegal jumps and their subsequent removal by agencies like Cal Fire is “a cat and mouse game,” says Davidson. Cal Fire crews recently helped removed lumber and nails from downed trees in Wilder Ranch State Park, but the problem only moved further into the park.