Position on West TSA CCG Recommendations

Open Space Board of Trustees
January 17, 2011
Dear Board Members:

Friends of Boulder Open Space has followed the West Trail Study Area process from the start. Despite some hiccups along the way, we believe that the Community Collaborative Group process has resulted in the most representative public participation of any of the Trail Study Areas so far. By participating in e-mail communications and in-person meetings, the Conservation Caucus has gained input and garnered support from the conservation community. The outcome is a set of compromise recommendations that balance the interests of the entire Boulder community, while fulfilling our responsibilities for stewardship of the unique landscape and ecosystems in a way that is sustainable over time.

FOBOS supports the consensus recommendations of the CCG, while recognizing compromises made by the CCG in many areas that we see as less than optimal:

  • The consensus recommendations constitute a delicate balance between the many interests that were represented on the CCG. Altering specific items could risk upsetting the community support that has been achieved.
  • The TSA-wide recommendations on Education, Enforcement, and Adaptive Management (p. 6) are particularly critical in our view. Monitoring actual results and making needed adjustments when required will be essential if the Department is to achieve the objectives envisioned in the recommendations.
  • We therefore recommend that the Board adopt the CCG recommendations.

With regard to the non-consensus issue of mountain bikes, we have carefully examined each of the mountain bike routes that has been proposed for the West TSA, and we have concluded, as detailed in the attached position, that biking is not an appropriate use in the WTSA, with the exceptions noted. We would caution the board that only specific proposals can be considered responsibly. The actual environmental consequences and user-conflicts of any proposal are only apparent when examined in detail and on the ground. Planning for the West TSA is now beyond the stage where vague proposals are truly meaningful.

Thanks for your attention,

Mary McQuiston, for the FOBOS Board


attachments: FOBOS position on bikes in the West TSA
Tim Hogan analysis of bicycles on Open Space
Sharon Collinge statement on the Precautionary Principle

Friends of Boulder Open Space Position on Mountain Bikes in the West Trail Study Area
Uses of open space have been growing rapidly. Inevitable pressures to expand the existing system of trails and to allow additional uses compete with the importance of these lands as wildlife habitat and with the long-term conservation of natural values and resources.

FOBOS, with a membership of two hundred Boulder citizens, seeks to serve the community’s need for an organized voice representing our interest in the preservation of the health and viability of these lands and ecosystems for future generations.

Natural Resource Issues for the West TSA South of Boulder Canyon
OSMP has the responsibility to provide for passive recreation and to preserve the natural resources of the mountain backdrop in perpetuity. Bicycling is specified in the Charter as an activity that is permitted where designated.

We have investigated each of the proposals made for mountain bike use in the West TSA in detail on the ground. Despite the commendable attempts of the cycling advocates to propose routes that do not have unacceptable adverse impact on natural resources, these attempts have been unsuccessful.

Specifically, several north-south routes have been proposed that parallel the Mesa Trail from Chautauqua to Eldorado Springs Drive. Each has specific insurmountable issues, but they can be summarized in a fairly straightforward way:

  • The West TSA along the mountain front is constrained on the east by the urban boundary and on the west by the steep rocks of the Dakota, Lyons, and Fountain Formations. Existing trails occupy most of the routes around these obstacles and riparian and wildlife corridors are squeezed into the remaining spaces. We already have a dense network of popular and heavily used trails. Coming up with an additional north-south trail corridor that does not fragment already stressed habitat and ecosystems is not feasible.
  • On-the-ground examination of actual routes inevitably finds serious routing problems and conflicts where corridors are constrained by drainages or rock spurs, as at Bear Creek or Skunk Creek.
  • Existing trails are already heavily used, so any routing combination inevitably causes user conflicts, and experience in many locations makes clear that many hikers will be displaced, resulting in additional use on other trails with consequent increased pressure on wildlife and plant communities.

Southern Grassland area—Greenbriar to South Boulder Creek
Some have proposed this area as a suitable location to accommodate mountain bike use in the West TSA. FOBOS considers this to be an unacceptable sacrifice of well-established critical ecosystems for an inappropriate and unnecessary use. The area around Big Bluestem and South Boulder Creek Trails is recognized as extremely valuable and threatened prairie grassland. Much of it is included in the Colorado Tallgrass Prairie State Natural Area for that reason. It is particularly sensitive to excessive off-trail use and braiding.

The terrain is similar to that around the Coal Seam Trail, so the behavior of cyclists can be expected to mirror use there. The Coal Seam Trail had significant braiding, trail widening, and erosion due to off-trail use for passing and dodging around cobbles, and it had to be reconstructed less than a year after it opened. Similar use would cause far more damage in the Big Bluestem-South Boulder Creek area, because of the more sensitive and valuable vegetation and greater seasonal muddiness. This damage is unacceptable. The terrain does not permit construction techniques to prevent such problems—it is too open.

Other Issues
Many trails in the OSMP system are open to mountain biking, as are other public lands in the immediate area. Mountain biking is not an underserved use, and not every use can be accommodated everywhere. A significant number of additional OSMP trails have been opened and constructed for mountain bikes in the last two years at Marshall Mesa and Doudy Draw. OSMP is still dealing with significant user conflicts and perceived hiker displacement on the Springbrook Trail and in the Marshall Mesa area. Major use by commercial outfitters is posing additional pressure that has not been addressed. It would be extremely unwise to create more conflict by opening trails just to the north to mountain bikes, creating more use, more conflict and almost certain displacement of hikers.

The OSMP 2010 Resident Survey shows that the great majority of open space users are hikers. The issue of conflict with mountain bikes is apparent in the survey, and we urge the department and the OSBT to pay attention:

  • In response to the question: “Activities of other users of Open Space and Mtn Parks areas could make your own experience more pleasant or less pleasant. How do the following activities affect your experience?” here are the results for respondents who had visited OSMP areas:
  • Overall/all responses: Mtn Bikers: 11% more pleasant ; 45% no effect; 43% less pleasant [and when you look at just the responses of hikers/walkers who had visited OSMP areas, 48% say “less pleasant”].

These results are bound to understate the reactions that can be expected in the West TSA, where hikers do not currently contend with mountain bikes, which have been excluded since 1987 due to user conflicts in the preceding years.

Finally, we note that there has been considerable discussion about the need for mountain bike trails through the West TSA to allow residents to access the southern trails without having to drive. This argument has little merit. It is easy to ride from anywhere in Boulder to the Marshall Mesa Trailhead today, using city bike paths, and the minimum-traffic frontage road to Marshall. Further access along Community Ditch Trail is already planned to have the road crossing eliminated with an underpass, which will open even more trails without requiring use of the highway shoulder.

In summary, environmental and user-conflict considerations both strongly indicate that trails in the main part of the West TSA should not be designated for mountain bikes.

Friends of Boulder Open Space supports OSMP efforts to find a route for mountain bikes on Chapman Drive, if that should prove feasible. We suggest that safety considerations dictate that if this route becomes possible, bikes should be permitted only uphill on Chapman Drive (downhill travel should be via Flagstaff Road).

Mountain Bikes in the Boulder Mountain Parks Area
by Tim Hogan

One of the more controversial issues to be resolved in the West Trail Study Area planning process concerns the matter of mountain bike access to the Boulder Mountain Parks and surrounding lands. These comments address many of the arguments proffered by the mountain biking community for increased access to this natural area. My primary source for the mountain biking perspective comes from the website of the Boulder Mountain Biking Alliance.

Mountain biking began to emerge as a public lands issue in the early 1980s, and at that time the Boulder Mountain Parks (a separate entity from Open Space at the time) decided not to open up its lands to this new use. Then, as now, the concern was as much about visitor conflict as ecological impacts. In the last 25 years riding has become a huge industry and an activity that many outdoor enthusiasts enjoy. We now find ourselves in a position where a well organized and insistent group of riders are clamoring for access to one of the most treasured and popular natural areas in the Front Range. There is no wonder why they would love to ride through the forests and grasslands in the shadow of the Flatirons. The question is whether the most heavily used area of this relatively small area can support mountain biking without undermining the experience of other visitors and the welfare of plant and animal communities.

Under-served: Riders claim they are under-served in Boulder. This claim is meant to draw attention to their exclusion in the Mountain Parks, but ignores the number of trails available to riders on public lands in Boulder County as a whole. (Surrounding counties provide additional opportunities.) Nearly 200 miles of trails, or 52% of non-motorized trails in the county are open to riders. [USFS numbers are skewed due to the number of trail miles in designated Wilderness Areas from which mechanical conveyance is legislatively excluded.]

The numbers for the three major public land agencies in Boulder County:

  • Agency Mileage [Total/Biking] (Biking %)
  • City OSMP 144/49 (34%)
  • County OS 106/89 (84%)
  • USFS 135/61 (45%)
  • Total 385/199 (52%)

If Boulder mountain bikers are under-served, one might also ask why there are so many riders in the Boulder area? And why have such organizations as the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and Bikes Belong chosen to headquarter themselves in Boulder?

Unfair to Exclude: Riders claim it is unfair to exclude them from trails, without seeming to recognize their presence on trails effectively excludes many other users who do not feel comfortable with bikes. The high numbers of riders as the percentage of users on certain trails (Hall and Walker – 56%) reflects this exclusionary effect more than anything else. Calling for “Multi-Use-Trails” leads to trails dominated by bikes.

Ecological Impacts: The BMA website includes a review article that cites numerous studies giving ambivalent results regarding the impacts of riders vs. hikers. The author of the review states: “The two comparative studies discerned minimal differences between bicycling and hiking. These studies may not resolve the continuing debate over who does what to trails. This scientific inquiry needs to be repeated in other geographic locations, on other soils, with more passages by each user group.” For Boulder residents, a visit to Hall Ranch Open Space, and a simple look at the difference between the Bitterbrush (bikes) and Nighthawk (no bikes) trails makes the difference in impacts dramatically clear.

In many places this may be more of an esthetic issue – trail width – than a truly ecological one. Riders are probably correct when they claim that dogs and horses have more of an impact on plants and animals than bikes.

One non-controversial point is that new trails in previously undisturbed habitat do have ecological impacts. If the mountain bike community proposes a new route between the Shannahan Mesa area and Big Bluestem, or the establishment of loop trails proximate to South Boulder Creek, these should be vigorously opposed by conservationists.

Finally, an ecological effect not usually recognized arises from the observation that “the faster you go, the smaller the area.” Ten miles for most walkers is a pretty long day. Everything else being equal, a rider would probably want something twice as far. This dynamic is another reason the demand for trails from mountain bikers is so high, and, to some extent, why the impacts of riders across the landscape is greater than walkers.

Carbon Footprint: It is repeatedly heard that a north-south mountain biking route between Chautauqua and Eldorado Springs would result in fewer miles being driven by cars, and a reduction in CO2 emissions. Again, it is easy to understand why riders would desire such a route, but this particular claim is a bit labored. No doubt, some hardcore Eldorado residents might ride such a route on a regular basis, and many locals would ride it routinely. But the net result would be a dramatic increase in automobile use by out-of-town riders from up and down the Front Range. Such an attraction would not only result in more driving and emissions, but also significantly increase parking demand at the Chautauqua and the South Mesa trailheads – two of the most heavily used trailheads in the system. Of course, this increased demand would have both economic and visitor management impacts as well.

Trail Work: The mountain biking community, like other off-road user groups, has learned the value of being good citizens, and has put in significant time and labor toward the construction and maintenance of trails on which they ride. This is commendable, and in these fiscally troubled times, a real contribution. But their implicit argument that such a contribution gives them a greater right than other users is disingenuous. From the Appalachian Mountain Club on the east coast to the Sierra Club on the west, hikers have been working on trails for over a century. In my experience, this was always viewed as more of a “gift exchange,” freely given out of appreciation, rather than as a bargaining chip. To be frank, the manner in which this chip is being played by BMA and others is a bit unseemly.

Visitor Master Plan (2005) and Charter (1986): The quotes culled from the Visitor Management Plan on the BMA website recognizes “unmet desires” by the biking community, a recommendation to “consider a possible mountain bike (multi-use) trail corridor from the frontside to the backside of Mountain Parks,” and an openness to work with the biking community to explore their requests and reduce visitor conflict. There is no mention of a north-south route between Baseline and Eldorado, nor is there any mention of building new trails to accommodate riders.

The Open Space Charter placed a strong emphasis on the “preservation” of open space lands for their natural values, and made specific provisions for “passive” recreation defined by example as “hiking, photography, or nature studies;” and, if “specifically designated,” bicycling, horseback riding, or fishing.” This categorizing of bikes as a special designation indicates that by the time riding had emerged as a significant land-use issue (1986), the city was doubtful about its inclusion as a passive activity.


  • A well organized and vocal sector of the mountain biking community is keen to gain access to these parklands.
  • Exploring an east-west connection between Eldorado Canyon State Park and Walker Ranch may be reasonable.
  • It is much harder to see how a north-south trail between Boulder and Eldorado might be routed that would not result in unacceptable visitor conflict.
  • Mixing bikes with families, runners, and unleashed dogs in the passive recreation areas along the east side would be a visitor management debacle.
  • Their impact on trails is indisputable, and proposals to construct new single tracks have significant economic and ecological costs.
  • It is not due to a dearth of mountain biking opportunities that the Boulder area is one of the most renowned places in the country for riders.
  • Many people who enjoy a more quiet experience of the Mountain Park would be genuinely distressed if bikes were permitted.
  • Not every parcel of public land needs to be available to every recreational use.

Why Caution is Needed

by Sharon K. Collinge, Professor, of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado

“Indications of changes in the earth’s future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind.”  2007 Nobel Peace Prize Award.

A recent letter to the editor in the Daily Camera criticized the use of the precautionary principle in management of Boulder’s Open Space by stating that “This ‘precaution’ overrides science and data in favor of policies critical of all possible human impacts.”

Put simply, the precautionary principle is an approach that seeks to avoid unintended consequences of particular actions. Rather than ‘overriding’ science and data, this principle explicitly acknowledges the centrality of scientific data to decision-making. Most importantly, it suggests a guiding strategy for managers faced with the uncertainties and knowledge gaps that will always exist in our understanding of a situation.

We will manage Boulder’s Open Space most effectively with a similar approach.

Although we do not know everything there is to know about human impacts on native grasslands, forests, and streams, there is ample scientific evidence showing that increased human activities lead to environmental degradation. This warrants a cautious approach to management of our local public lands.

To avoid unintended consequences we must clearly state our intended consequences by asking, “What do we want Open Space lands to look like in the future—say 5, 10, 20, 50 years from now?” “What condition of the natural environment is acceptable?” “How do we ensure that our actions are sustainable?” If we want the status of our Open Space to be the same as it is or even better 20 years from now, then we must avoid actions that fragment, degrade, and destroy the land and its species. That’s exactly why the precautionary principle is vital in managing our valuable Open Space.