A 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).