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Some trails lead to trouble

Forest Service tries to put brakes on freeriders’ illegal trail blazing
By: Martin Griffith & Todd Mordhorst AP Writer & Journal Sports Editor
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Mountain bikers with a need for speed and thrills have made Lake Tahoe the latest front in an ongoing battle over the illegal construction of bike trails in national forests and other public lands. The U.S. Forest Service is cracking down after renegade bikers secretly cut up to 30 miles of trails in the Tahoe backcountry over the last decade. Agency officials said a hardcore group of bikers seeking access to steeper, more demanding terrain is to blame for bootleg trails in national forests across the country, including in California, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Utah. “It’s a national problem,” said Garrett Villanueva, engineer for the agency’s trails program at Lake Tahoe. “Some places the problem is more pronounced than others.” The Auburn State Recreation Area has been the site of illegal trail building in years past. “We have had some rogue downhill mountain bike trails constructed here,” ASRA Superintendent Mike Lynch said. “In one case someone went and sprayed Round-up where they were going to build a trail. We haven’t caught anyone in the act, but when we find them, we go out with a crew and break them down.” Forest Service officials said illegal trails cause erosion, threaten water quality and disturb vegetation and archaeological sites. The trails also pose a safety threat. They said a rider was hospitalized this summer with head and spinal injuries after crashing on a jump on an unauthorized Tahoe trail. The financially strapped agency has been forced to spend $29,000 to close three miles of illicit trails at Tahoe this year. Mark Eller, spokesman for the International Mountain Biking Association based in Boulder, Colo., attributes the problem to a demand for more challenging trails by thrill-seeking bikers known as freeriders. Freeriders, who enjoy downhill runs with jumps, steep drops off rocks and higher speeds, don’t find the 255-mile bike trail system in national forests around Tahoe exciting enough. The association, the leading advocacy group for the nation’s estimated 40 million mountain bikers, does not condone the illegal activity, and is working with the Forest Service to step up construction of environmentally sustainable trails for freeriders, Eller said. “The pirate trail builders believe they have to build them under cover because they won’t get the riding experience they want if they go through the right channels,” Eller said. “We’re working hard to show that’s not the case.” Joel Baty, an avid mountain biker and rental manager at Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City, said freeriders want trails like those at Whistler Mountain Bike Park in British Columbia, one of the world’s premier mountain bike parks. “The existing trails just aren’t challenging enough for more advanced riders,” he said. “So what happens is they go out and build stunts and bigger jumps, and the Forest Service doesn’t tend to like that sort of stuff.” ASRA Ranger Jon Brandt said altering existing trails in any way, including building jumps, is illegal. It’s also against the law to build new trails. “The biggest thing is the environmental issues — the erosion from the construction activity,” Brandt said. “It’s also a safety issue and the liability of those dangerous activities. ” Lynch said the ASRA does not have a budget for trail building or maintenance, but relies on volunteer groups to keep the trails maintained. Near San Francisco, three men were ordered to pay $34,360 in restitution and to perform at least 200 hours of community service after they pleaded guilty to destroying federal property to build an illegal bike trail in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 2001. One of the men was arrested again in 2008 on suspicion of building an illegal bike trail in China Camp State Park in San Rafael, Calif. At Tahoe, the Forest Service has cited six offenders this year and urged bikers to cooperate in building sanctioned trails. Offenders risk fines up to $5,000, six months in jail and restoration costs. On the Net: U.S. Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us International Mountain Biking Association: www.imba.com