Saturday, March 7, 2015

Mountain Biking and Wilderness Survey Results

All_Mountain_Mountain_BikeA month ago I published a little survey on mountain biking in the Adirondacks. Since the issue of mountain biking is front and center in the ongoing discussion of land use and in potential amendments to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), I was curious to take the pulse of Almanack Readers.

What were the prevailing opinions? Did they bear resemblance to the claims various interest groups put forth about public support for mountain biking in the Park?

The reaction to the survey far exceeded my expectations, with 685 responses logged as of the end of February. The results were quite illuminating and call into question several assumptions commonly made in this debate. The responses certainly helped solidify my thinking on the issue.

First the disclaimers. This survey was not in any way scientific. In addition, some of the comments dismissed it as too simplistic or lacking key questions, both fair critiques. For these reasons it would be foolish draw hard conclusions from the results. However, that does not mean that the survey is valueless. Having 685 responses does lend good statistical significance to the trends the survey revealed.

Some readers suggested that the survey would be skewed because links to it were shared with mountain biking groups and their members were encouraged to take it. Anticipating this, I designed the first question to allow for filtering on that basis. However no such filtering was necessary. Surprisingly, despite any fears that the survey would be dominated by mountain biking enthusiasts and members of pro-mountain-biking groups, the majority of respondents said they rarely or never mountain biked.   Furthermore, the results were evenly spread. Here are those results:

I’m a casual mountain biker:                                     28.2%

I’m an avid mountain biker:                                      28.0%

I’m an avid mountain biker and race as well:             13.4%

I rarely or never mountain bike:                                30.4%

This statistical spread is pretty consistent with national studies I looked at in terms of percentages of bicyclists versus mountain bikers and avid mountain bikers. That means we are pretty safe taking our survey sample as reasonably representative.

So what did this representative sample have to say? There were two clear threads. First, a strong majority said that mountain biking in the backcountry, under proper conditions and done responsibly, does not harm the environment any more than other activities, nor does it disrupt others’ wilderness experiences. Second, Adirondack Wilderness areas do not constitute proper conditions: a clear majority said Wilderness should not be opened to mountain biking, even under special circumstances. In fact a narrow majority of respondents opposed opening any more of the public Forest Preserve, including Wild Forest and Primitive areas, to mountain biking.

To start with, contention between hikers and mountain bikers – a frequently expressed concern – seems to be rare. To the question “How often have you encountered mountain bikers on hiking or multi-use trails in the Adirondacks?” almost half answered “never.” Only 16 percent of respondents said they had encountered mountain bikers more than five times. That’s not a lot of contention.

The next interesting result was a clear preference for single track trails over other types of trails. When asked “Which type of Adirondack mountain biking would you you generally prefer?” nearly two-thirds preferred single track trails and/or a variety of terrain. Of particular interest in light of the questions over classification of the Essex Chain, only 17 percent preferred biking on old logging roads. This result does not give much support to the argument that opening roads in the Essex Chain to mountain biking will have a significant economic impact.

The survey asked whether respondents thought that mountain biking did more damage to trails than hiking. “It depends upon the trail more than the activity” was by far the most popular answer, significantly outpointing both the “yes and “no” answers (there were about five percent more no’s than yes’s). A nearly two-to-one majority also felt that mountain biking did not disturb wildlife more than hiking. Combine these results with the preference for single track, varied terrain and there is clear support for more Adirondack mountain biking on appropriate, well-maintained trail systems.

The last two survey questions asked about opening the Park’s public lands to more mountain biking. The results were pretty clear. When asked “Do you think more of the Adirondack Forest Preserve should be opened to mountain biking?” 45.5 percent said “yes,” 49.2 percent said “no.” Only 5.4 percent had no opinion. This shows a stark division for the Forest Preserve as a whole. But when asked “Do you think Adirondack Wilderness Areas should be opened to mountain biking?” only 21 percent said “yes.” Even when the 20 percent were added who said “Yes, but only in special cases, such as the presence of an existing road or multi-use trail,” the “no” vote clearly won with 58 percent. Less than one percent had no opinion, showing that people have thought about this and there is strong support for maintaining Wilderness protections as they are.

The opposition to opening Wilderness areas to mountain biking combined with the clear support for varied single track trail systems tells me that the construction and proper maintenance of such trail systems is much more important to mountain bikers than their location. This fits my own thinking pretty well. My own view is that there are plenty of places in the Adirondack Park that can support a robust mountain biking infrastructure. I think that mountain biking is a laudable recreational activity and good single track trail networks should be encouraged. But there is no justification to site such networks in Wilderness or Primitive areas. Furthermore, logging roads are not going to be a big draw,  suggesting that  the presence of logging roads in a parcel should not make a material policy difference and should not be a consideration in classifying public land.

During this important time, when the APA is considering amendments to the SLMP, I have repeatedly expressed my opinion that scientific and aesthetic considerations, not recreational considerations, should govern our policy towards classifying and protecting Wilderness. This is a significant change from the historical basis for deciding how to classify parcels and what kinds of activities to allow. Today, mountain biking is assumed to be at the leading edge of that debate. These results suggest that is not necessarily the case. They reinforce my own belief that when it comes to potential Wilderness areas, other factors  such as ecological integrity and preservation of a wild aesthetic, are more important.

Bottom line: let’s preserve and strengthen our Wilderness protections and let’s build more good mountain bike trails. There is clear agreement that we can and should do both.

Photo: A typical mountain bike (courtesy wikimedia user Cornishfactor).

Related Stories

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

13 Responses

  1. ed Zahniser says:

    Hi Pete

    Thanks for this interesting survey and your humility about its scientific status!


  2. Paul Hai says:

    Thanks Pete, this is great and an important contribution to the discussion of how we plan for and manage recreation in the Park.

    One conclusion you draw I think deserves a broader consideration however, and that is the question of opening former logging roads to mountain biking, and what, if any, economic impact that will generate.

    If you consider the categories of response as a whole, 69.6% of respondents mountain bike at least casually. If you asked 70% of at least casual alpine skiers if they wanted more green (i.e. beginner) trails I think you would get responses that would suggest a similar conclusion of “no”.

    However, everyone one of those skiers was introduced to the sport and built their skills on beginner slopes. Logging and fire roads, which are existing infrastructure and therefore low-development-cost trails, represent a valuable resource for attracting and developing new mountain bikers. 70% of them may progress to become more accomplished (and potentially aggressive) mountain bikers seeking the technical and aggressive trails supported by the survey respondents, but they have to get introduced and started in the sport on easier terrain.

    In addition, while I am not sure what the demographics of the survey might reveal in terms of age v. interest in trail type, as a generalization the youngest and the most mature of our recreational participants in any sport tend not to use the most technical or aggressive options. Alpine skiing is great analogy here again: many of us who used to spend all day in the moguls are skiing other runs now as we finally acknowledge our bodies are not as willing as our minds.

    Another user-group perhaps not reflected in the survey is families, especially with young children. Families are far more likely to use logging roads for an enjoyable experience that can accommodate a range of skill and endurance levels across a multi-age group. This is especially important when we consider that the majority of us, but not all, are introduced to recreational activities with our families.

    As we look at economic development and growth, attracting new users has to be equally important with satisfying the needs of existing users.

    Your survey is very clear and strong on the needs of existing users, and I totally support your conclusions for those riders however, I am concerned drawing conclusions from this survey about the needs of new and/or novice users might not be an accurate reflection of the needs of those groups because they may not be accurately represented in your responses.

    On a broad level, a final ski analogy: there are very few ski areas and resorts that are designed for and cater to just the more experienced. Almost all have a roughly bell-shaped curve of trail classifications from green to double black diamond (yes there are exceptions, but taken as a percentage of all ski areas it’s very small).

    On a park-wide, or even community-wide level, if we are going to serve the entire mountain biking community, from novice to expert, then we should have a diversity of trail options available, from logging roads* to single track. The next challenge of course is to determine how much, and where. I acknowledge those questions are complex.

    On a personal level, it is for the reasons above, and others, I believe opening logging roads, with careful consideration and where appropriate, to mountain biking can function as an important recreational resource, and certainly as an economic driver in communities where mountain bike rentals, guided tours and family-oriented recreational activity would generate new and expanded business opportunities.

    Please know my thoughts and observations are offered with the greatest respect and appreciation for the conversations you are opening, and the thoughtful ways in which you are framing and informing them.

    *In considering logging roads we should not fall in the trap of thinking just because they are “roads” that they are all “easy”. All “road” suggests is a wider surface, it certainly doesn’t mean level, and who knows what it might mean for condition. There are some pretty rough, rutted, and washed out logging roads that will demand a fair amount of biking skill. Are any equal to single track, no, but are they universally easy? Also no.

    • Peter Bauer says:


      Thanks for your thorough explanation of the position to allow mountainbiking through the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive area.

      A question: Why are these mountainbiking “families” who you represent to be interested in coming to ride the former logging roads around the Essex Chain Lakes Primitive Area not currently riding the many miles of former logging roads, many now maintained as official state roads, in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, Black River Wild Forest, Independence River Wild Forest, Lake George Wild Forest, and Watson’s East Triangle Wild Forest, among others? As a rider in the Black Fly Challenge race in the Moose River Plains and user of the Plains in times outside the race weekend, both on foot and on bike, I have not witnessed large mountainbiking use outside race week (nor seen any in the registers), so I’d add that to my list above.

      Please help me understand why these families who will come to ride the Essex Chain Lakes area are not already coming to the Adirondacks to ride the hundreds of miles of roads in the Forest Preserve.

      It seems to me that the APA is set to change longstanding state policy based purely on anecdote.

      This question needs to be fully investigated with some real research and analysis not just a build-it-and-they-will-come mythology.

      The long-term implications from the changes sought to the Primitive classification is that we’re very likely to see a new Wilderness-lite in some form of a new Primitive classification with the effect that in the future we’ll see far less new Wilderness classifications of newly purchased lands or expansion of existing Wilderness areas because of the new management principle that former logging roads must be retained at all costs.


  3. Hawthorn says:

    I agree with Paul Hai above. Just by presenting the survey here on Adirondack Almanack you are self-selecting for enthusiasts, those in the know, and a very limited part of the demographic that use the Adirondacks. I bet 90%+ of what are called “mountain bikes” are sold to casual bikers who just use them as their only bike, and they like the fact that they can also ride on unimproved roads sometimes. When those folks go “mountain biking” they are not looking for single track trails. I think there is always a danger in reading too much into a casual poll like this that lacks scientific rigor. Fun to read and food for thought, but that’s about it.

  4. Chris says:

    Very enlightening! Thanks for doing this.

    I’m thinking that ski areas are the natural place every for the improved single tracks desired,which would be a win for everyone.

    • Daniel Cash says:

      We have that at Whiteface. While they do a good job, it costs money to ride there.

  5. Paul says:

    A logging road looks pretty much looks like a “single track” mt. bike trail. Especially over time.

  6. Bob Rainville says:


    Thank you for this discussion. As an avid cyclist, skier, rock climber, kayaker, canoeist, hiker, snowshoer, hunter, etc. I’d like to throw in my 2 cents. I’ll keep it very brief.

    To define a “mountain biker” is a futile task as it applies to this debate. It’s a red herring. Personally, I would just like to see access improved overall, whether it be fire/logging/jeep road access, “linear corridors” or multi-use single track. As such, what does economics have to do with it? Is “economic boost” the reason hiking trails or canoe routes exist in the park? Are economics the only impetus for any access?

    My opinion is that mountain bikes do not “degrade” the wilderness or wilderness “experience” any more than other currently allowed users’ modes. It’s not only my opinion it is also based on science (well, except for the “experience” part as that is truly subjective). We all have an impact on our environment…ALL. To say otherwise is a convenient denial of physics.

    I’ll leave with a link to a very objective paper comparing fairly recent research on the physical degradation caused by hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers.

    Thank you for the discussion and survey!

  7. Marco says:

    Allowing the use of bikes on roads is OK. Allowing them on single track hiking trails is probably not a good thing. While I agree they do not much more damage than a hiker, that has nothing to do with reclaimed roads, or those blocked off and allowed to be reclaimed.

    Over the course of a few years, wider dirt roads become narrower. Over the course of 20-30 years, they become single track paths through the woods that can cause problems with bikes and hikers. I would point out three examples here but there will be many more as the DEC blocks off more roads: The old road between Uncas road and 8th Lake campsite, the old lumber road to Mitchell Ponds in the Moose River Plains, and the old fire road behind the Hungry Trout (near the Ausable Flume Bridge on the Ausable River.) Back in the 50’s/60’s you could drive these roads to the camp sites. They were gated off and left unmaintained. Now they are simply hiking trails. The forest has encroached on them and blowdowns are many. Beaver have flooded sections of them. Ruts, wash-outs, large boulders and erosion have destroyed portions of them. A single track path utilized by bikers is not where I want to hike with my family.

    Bikers have forced me to be careful of them as I haul my canoe up the hill. A group of bikers made me step aside, setting the canoe down as they went down the hill. I understand, they COULDN’T stop or maneuver around me. But I was yelling to my kids “Get out of the way.” They didn’t even acknowledge a dangerous situation.

    On another occasion, the biker simply said “Coming Through” forcing me to step into 6″ of mud so he could enjoy a clear road as he peddled up a hill. Very courteous, that was the only phrase he uttered.

    On another occasion (solo) I was hiking a narrow corner and a biker came through. He slipped and banged my arm hard enough to leave it bruised the next day. “Sorry” was his only word as he kicked up his bike and kept on going.

    Well, I am sorry, too. I ride bikes. Sometimes I ride off road. But a closed and gated unmaintained road will become a single track path. Like a stop light at a busy intersection, gates are there for everyone’s protection, the pedestrian, the bikes, motorcycles, snowmobiles and cars. Bikes do not ride on sidewalks (unless it is a 5 year old learning how.) Bikes and pedestrians do not mix, and, it’s by law as well as practicality. Once a road is gated off and no longer maintained, it is not suitable for bikers and hikers. Does this apply for every road? No. Some are used for other purposes, ie, maintained. But a road that is not maintained is not suitable for both hikers and bikers. It becomes a sidewalk in fact. If the the road is actively used and maintained as such for some other purpose, it’s usually ok. Or build some new trails specifically for bikes. Trails that would not allow hikers to use them.

  8. Daniel Cash says:

    Thanks for posting the results. I’m glad that a diverse group of people responded. I agree with your assessment of “let’s preserve and strengthen our Wilderness protections and let’s build more good mountain bike trails.” I think that most mountain bikers would agree.

    There is a distinct difference between the purpose and design of hiking and biking trails. When it comes to Wilderness Areas, I don’t think that there are many bikers out there that would want to advocate for a miles long excursion trail, like most hiking trails are. Hike to a mountain top, hike back. I choose my hiking trails based on where they take me and what I see along the way. I don’t necessarily care about the character of the trail (beyond basic maintenance considerations).

    The character of a mountain bike trail is as much or even more a part of the experience than the surroundings. We can build quality trails that can be a draw anywhere. We don’t need to construct a 30 mile trail into the heart of the High Peaks. Mountain bike trails work best in clusters, like the trails around Lake Placid, the Flume Trails, Whiteface Mountain, and Hardy Road.

    What I and others would like to see, however, is links between these trail systems. Mountain biking could be an even bigger draw to this area if bikers could ride single track around Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, and Wilmington, without having to load up in a car and drive.

    That’s where I think we encounter a problem. Mountain bikers don’t want access to all of the Wilderness Areas, just in specific areas to create a network of interlinking trails.

  9. Paul says:

    “Of particular interest in light of the questions over classification of the Essex Chain, only 17 percent preferred biking on old logging roads.”

    Peter, I think that if these roads are use for Mt. Bikes w/o cars they will pretty quickly turn into what you would call a “single track” trail.

  10. Paul says:

    “Furthermore, logging roads are not going to be a big draw, suggesting that the presence of logging roads in a parcel should not make a material policy difference and should not be a consideration in classifying public land.”

    It seems like these logging roads are going to be a lot easier to develop into trails for biking then to start from a smaller old hiking trail or even worse to start from scratch. Then you have to cut down trees fill wetlands grade etc. Here most of the work is already done. All you have to do is de-build them to some extent.

    The survey asked about biking in Wilderness areas I don’t think there was anything about Primitive areas? The extension there just seems to be made in the analysis of the data.

  11. Allen Lin says:

    Hi Pete,
    I am a MFA student of Academy of Art University. My major is Industrial Design.
    Recently I also study mountain bike. can you shell your survey questions and the reply results from people for a Industrial Design research?

    Thanks for your sharing

    Allen Lin