Bikers ask for better access to seashore

12/06/2018

Bikers are lobbying for increased access to roads and trails in the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, where their options are currently limited.

The Marin Bicycle Coalition submitted a proposal to the National Park Service last month that both requests new designations for bikes in areas now open to hikers and equestrians only and suggests new trail connections for all users.  

Currently, the seashore has just 15 miles of dirt trails open to bikes, including the Estero Trail, the Olema Valley Trail and the Inverness Ridge Trail. Another 14 miles of fire roads are open to bikes. By contrast, over 115 miles are open to horses.  

During November, the park service solicited input on their six concepts for a new land management strategy for 28,000 acres of ranchlands in both national parks. Part of a court-mandated process to amend the seashore’s general management plan by 2021, the park is primarily considering whether and to what extent ranching will continue and how to manage the tule elk population—though the agency has also outlined the possibility for new trails and improvements. 

“This is a unique opportunity to create better connectivity, safety, and visitor experiences for all cyclists, whether they’re on road, gravel, or mountain bikes,” a recent release from the coalition stated. 

In addition to asking broadly for bike access to all of the roads that are now open to the public within the 28,000 acres, the coalition made a series of more specific requests. In particular, the coalition would like to close some key gaps on trails, including adding a section to the Estero Trail, which starts at Home Ranch and extends to the mouth of Drakes Estero but does not loop back, possibly by using ranch roads.

“We aren’t just advocating for new connections for bikes—we think all users could benefit,” Tom Boss, the coalition’s off-road and events coordinator, said. 

The coalition also has ideas about alternative ways to get bikers to Pierce Point Ranch. One is a new route through ranchlands operated by the Evans family; that route would connect Sir Francis Drake Boulevard at the intersection with Home Ranch Road to Pierce Point Road south of the Abbotts Lagoon trailhead. 

Another idea is to open to the public an existing road through two ranches, J and K, which extends between Marshall Beach and Pierce Point Roads. 

The bike coalition is also in favor of a project the Marin County Parks and Open Space District began planning last year to develop a final link of the Cross Marin Trail. That link would connect the trail to Point Reyes Station from where it stops in Tocaloma by way of a defunct railroad alignment. 

The district, whose larger vision was for the trail to extend 37 miles from the Larkspur Ferry landing all the way to Point Reyes Station, began a feasibility study last year for the final stretch, which would pick up at the intersection of Platform Bridge Road and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and head west. Developing this link, however, is complicated by the fact that it crosses several private properties.

To the south, the bike coalition requested extending the Olema Valley Trail, which runs from Stewart Horse Camp to Dogtown, to Bolinas on the eastern side of Highway 1. “That stretch of Highway 1 is really treacherous and I think motorists would also really appreciate it if bikers had another route available to them,” Mr. Boss explained. “There are some ranch roads that exist, though you might also need some new trail connections.”

The group highlighted the possibility of constructing a new trail—made up of existing ranch roads and new sections—between Devil’s Gulch Trailhead and Platform Bridge through three ranches, including the Cheda, McIsaac and Zanardi ranches. All three of these are still grazed, though no one has lived at the Cheda ranch for the past decade. 

“As you can see, we are not suggesting any discontinuation of ranch operations,” Mr. Boss said. “Nor is there anything about including bicycles in the wilderness areas.”

Lastly, the coalition asked the park to develop an application process to permit road and mountain bike events. Mr. Boss highlighted the roads leading to the lighthouse and along the Bolinas Ridge as possible candidates for a few yearly events.

The coalition’s proposal has created a stir. In response to an email blast it sent out urging its base to send in support for the proposal before the park’s comment period closed last Friday, the Marin Horse Council sent out its own press release to rally opposition. 

“It is our only wilderness land. There are trails that even horses are not allowed on. It needs to be protected,” the horse council’s message stated. 

However, Mr. Boss emphasized that the bike coalition is not requesting any access in designated wilderness areas. 

By federal law, the seashore’ 33,373-acre Phillip Burton Wilderness does not allow machinery of any kind, including bicycles. (A bill introduced last year by California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock and amended by the House Committee on Natural Resources last month hopes to change that.)

In response to the horse council’s email blast, the coalition put up a new web page that lists their requests to the park service with the message, “Hey, Horse Council, it’s time to share.”

The small number of trails open to bikers compared to horses is common throughout other nearby public lands. On Marin County lands managed by Open Space District, California State Parks, the National Park Service and the Marin Municipal Water District, bikes are only allowed on 15 percent of trail systems, according to data aggregated by Access4Bikes. 

By contrast, the group reports that equestrians have 70 percent access. 

Research is slim on the relative impact of horses, bikers and hikers. According to data from the organization American Trails, a bike’s impact equals that of a hiker’s, and both create much less erosion than equestrians. Some argue that slower-moving users like hikers and cross-country skiers can be more disruptive than those that leave an area more quickly. 

Conversely, mountain bikers can travel further, giving them more opportunities to disturb wildlife. 

Rick Holland, president of the Marin Horse Council, said his group is not necessarily opposed to the coalition’s requests. But he said its message was “premature,” given the park’s priorities in the planning process. He hoped the equestrian community would be part of the conversation if the park decides to consider new designations of use. 

Others had stronger feelings. Christine Nielson, a part-time Inverness resident and horse rider, said she is part of a grassroots effort in Helena, Mont. against mountain biking groups hoping to gain more access to trails on Mount Helena. Her experience there makes her wary of their efforts in West Marin. 

“It is risky to concede access to them, as they seem to be insatiable,” she wrote to the Light. “And the speed and recklessness of some of their riding makes any sort of shared, at-the-same-time idea nuts; a horse coming around the corner and encountering a mountain biker screaming along at 25 miles an hour would absolutely freak out. An adult hiker could be run over, not to mention a dog or a child.”