America's national parks and forests belong to the people, and are managed by government agencies. When managers want to make changes, the owners get to have their say, and they often say it loudly and forcefully. That's the case with proposed changes along the 5000-kilometer Continental Divide Trail, which stretches from Canada to the border of Mexico, along the crest of the Rocky Mountains.
Breckenridge, Colorado, is near the mid-point of the trail. The resort town is probably best known for its spacious runs and deep powder during ski season, but people also flock here for another form of downhill recreation.
"For us, mountain biking is one of the main summer attractions," says Heide Andersen, an Open Space and Trails Planner for the town. "You know, it's a part of our local economy. It's one of the reasons that people are attracted to Breckenridge." She explains that the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is the backbone of the local trail system, because it's the only scenic trail in the national park system accessible to mountain bikers.
From a narrow dirt path through forested areas of lodgepole pine to wide open vistas and rocky cliffs above timberline, the CDT is a combination of small roads and dedicated trails through some of the most visually stunning parts of the Rocky Mountains. But there are uncompleted sections, and Deputy Regional Forester Richard Stem is in charge of closing those gaps. "We're at various stations of completion right now, depending upon what state you're in. We've been trying to ramp that up in the last three years to try to get that thing completed all the way from Montana to the bottom of New Mexico."
Stem is also charged with determining who may use what was originally intended as a trail for just hikers and horseback riders. "For instance, in Wyoming, … you have people with four-wheel-drive pick-up trucks going down the Continental Divide Trail and then hikers with backpacks and then horses, and they all meet. Those are the kind of conflicts that we've got going on right now." He says, no one could have foreseen the growing popularity of mountain biking when the trail was established in 1978.
Bicycling and Trail Biking were listed as allowable activities on designated sections of the trail in its 1985 Comprehensive Plan. But the new Forest Service proposal uses the words prohibitions and restrictions to describe mountain biking, and says actions that would promote or increase bike use should not occur.
That has mountain bikers like Mark Eller on the defensive. "Why would there be specific language pointing out mountain biking as a non-preferred use unless you were being thought of as a second-class citizen?" he asks.
Eller is Communications Director for the Boulder-based International Mountain Bicycling Association. He acknowledges that some riders ignore trail etiquette (by going too fast or not dismounting when horses go by), but he insists that's not enough of a reason to be singled out. "We think foot and horse travel are great," he says, and allows that there are sections where bikes don't need to be, "but for a vast majority of the trail, shared use philosophy is working out great and we'd hate to see a directive adopted that limits or curtails that access."
But access to the CDT is limited in ways that have nothing to do with philosophy. Nearly three decades after it was established "for the scenic enjoyment of those using it," only 70 percent of the five-state trail is done.
The Continental Divide Trail Alliance is the main non-governmental partner assisting the Forest Service with the trail's management and completion. Co-founder Paula Ward says compromises will have to be made at all levels to complete the trail. "There are a lot of people who enjoy that activity [biking] and there's a lot of it on the Continental Divide Trail," she points out. "Its just a matter of let's make a decision as to whether mountain biking is appropriate or not, and if it is appropriate, where is it appropriate?"
Back in Breckenridge, community leaders have written a letter to the Forest Service expressing their concerns over the proposal. Still, Heide Andersen believes it's unlikely that any changes would lead to restrictions near Breckenridge, where the trail is already completed.
"There is some animosity between hikers and mountain bikers," she admits, "and I think that there is a group of people out there that would like to see mountain bike use restricted on this trail. And we just want to be sure that they look very carefully at that, and if they are restricted or separated, that it's for good reasons."
The final say on any Forest Service directive affecting mountain biking along the Continental Divide Trail will come from Richard Stem. And he's quick to point out that the proposal at this stage is just a draft. "The worst thing we can do is make those directives so tight that it creates a very dumb situation on the ground," he says, but adds, "on the other hand, we don't want it all just kind of willy-nilly everywhere based on where people want to go, anytime, anyplace."
All parties are talking, and the Forest Service is also taking public comment on the proposal through October 12th. Stem believes they can find a solution that everyone will be happy with.