Activists Call for Lift on South Mountain Reservation Mountain Bike Ban

Date Published: 
Tue, 09/14/2010

The mountain biking community in Essex County has been relentless in prompting the county to lift the mountain biking ban in South Mountain Reservation.

Three years ago, mountain bikers began volunteering with the South Mountain Conservancy Group that works with the county to upkeep the park. They have since poured more than 1,500 hours into the maintenance of the reservation — picking up garbage, fixing up old trails and dedicating every first Sunday of the month to sustainable trail construction.

This commitment by cyclists garnered the support of the South Mountain Conservancy Group for an 18-month pilot program to permit mountain biking on a section of the reservation.

"We've really convinced some pretty difficult people of the merits of trying a pilot," said Don Schatz, who began as a cyclist and is now a board member of the South Mountain Conservancy Group.

While the Conservancy Group may have jumped on board, county officials aren't quite coaxed.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said in a statement, "Volunteer groups like the Conservancy and the Bicycling Association have demonstrated their commitment as stewards of our open space by contributing an invaluable amount of time and energy to restore trails, address erosion problems and enhance the natural beauty. We have made significant progress in South Mountain, but there is still more that has to be accomplished before we end the moratorium. We will continue to keep an open mind about expanding recreation opportunities in the reservation to include mountain biking."

Since the program was proposed in 2008, volunteer cyclists have built nearly four miles of new multi-use trails, made to withstand hikers, bikers and equestrians. Yet, mountain biking activist said the county's been lethargic in responding to the pilot program.

"They still haven't taken any action, no response, no assertion, no time frame," said Michael Feldman, another cyclist from the South Mountain Conservancy Group. "They don't want to do anything now because it's too politically sensitive."

Feldman said he last met with DiVincenzo and Dan Salvante, director of the Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, in May to discuss the proposal but since then has not received an official response.

Salvante could not be reached for comment.

Arguments against mountain biking list trail erosion and the incitement of conflict between different users.

Activists said it's not users that damage the trails.

"Erosion is caused by poor trail design, not by users," said Schatz. He said the Conservancy Group has been working with expertise of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) and the Jersey Off Shore Bicycle Association (JORBA) to build trails that will last regardless of the user.

"There's a science to building sustainable trails that requires minimal maintenance and is multi-use," said Schatz.

Mountain biking was banned nationwide in the 1980s due to its "young, macho" image, said Frank Maguire, regional director of IMBA, based in New Jersey. "Tear down, do bad things — that sort of perspective was a popular one and there was trail closures all over the country."

South Mountain Reservation, a 2,040-acre property bordering West Orange, South Orange, Millburn and Maplewood, was one of the earliest parks to close on the east coast. Currently, mountain biking is banned in all parks owned by Essex County.

Contrary to the general perception, mountain biking can be positive for the community, said Maguire, and reaches a broader spectrum.

"Bikers tend to be a younger and more involved demographic and, so for park managers, they provide a lot of maintenance that's needed for trails and they're able to bring a new constituency to actually advocate for open space," he said.

Right now, about 80 to 90 percent of South Mountain's volunteers are mountain bikers. But Feldman said he worries the county's inaction will dissuade the reservation's volunteers.

"There's frustration among them," he said. "The number of volunteers has been cut in half in recent months. I expect more volunteers to drop out if the county does not quickly take explicit steps to adopt the Conservancy's proposal."

Jeffrey Mergler, executive director of JORBA, said the volunteers have been working on the reservation "without even being allowed to ride in the park."

The proposal addresses policing, user conflict, trail maintenance and trail construction, in addition to mountain biking.

"It's been a little slower than we'd hoped, but we're confident that the county will make the right decision for the residents," said Mergler.

Source: West Orange Patch