The Issues Surrounding Informal Mountain Bike Trail Building in the Humber Valley and a Proposed Solution

Andrew_King_Oct_2018_Photo
A section of sustainably built formal trail that the author built for the new Stephenville bike park; Photo by Andrew King
Research Reports are submissions to our blog from Grenfell Campus researchers (faculty, staff, or student). Any views expressed are those of the author. You can check out our guidelines and submit your story here.
Submitted by Andrew King, B.A. in Environmental Studies. Email: ark543@grenfell.mun.ca

It is no secret that the west coast of Newfoundland is a mecca for outdoor adventure activity in the province. Hiking, skiing, snowboarding, climbing, touring, and mountain biking are all popular activities which are thriving here. As these forms of outdoor recreation grow in popularity, so does the impacts left by each one on our natural environment.

The impacts and implications of outdoor recreation, and tourism, have become a recent hot topic in the academic community. While we continue to develop these activities on the west coast, there is a pressing need to make sure we do so correctly: sustainably, and without compromising environmental, social, or economic resilience.

On a personal level, I am both an avid mountain biker and environmentalist. I have recently graduated from the Environmental Studies program at Grenfell, and I wrote my undergrad thesis on a topic which intrigues me as both mountain bike advocate and environmental advocate: informal trail building. Informal bike trails are ones which are built outstanding of the law (i.e. without pre-approval and permitting) but receive general acceptance and backing from the public. Many of the bike trails here, along with the vast majority of the new ones being built, fall into this category. For bikers, this means that they are putting themselves at legal risk in order to develop trails. They risk having their hard work disappear at the hand of land owners or environmental management authorities. From a management perspective, informal trails are troublesome in that their impacts go unaccounted-for. Research shows that informal trails can have a bigger environmental footprint, and lead to other implications for managing authorities that formal trails would not. The situation around Corner Brook is further complicated by the fact that biking advocacy groups are working independently of other trail building efforts by trying to build their own formal trails in different locations.

Effectively this becomes what I would call a lose-lose situation. Neither grassroots trail builders, nor bikers, nor management authorities, nor the environment are entirely benefited by the current status quo. My goal when I started my research in July of 2017 was to shed light on exactly what is going wrong and point to a better solution. In order to do this, in keeping with the interdisciplinary and open-minded method of the EVST program, I decided to get accounts from all perspectives involved. I identified stakeholders as mountain bikers/trail builders, biking advocacy groups, environmental management authorities, non-cycling outdoor enthusiasts, and the general public. Of these groups, I invited members of the biker/trail builder group, biking advocacy group, and environmental managers group to complete semi-formal interviews.

I ended up interviewing three local bikers who have been building and riding trails here for over twenty years, as well as representatives from advocacy groups Bicycle Newfoundland Labrador (BikeNL), West Coast Cycling Association (WCCA), and Cycle Solutions. Many parties that I interviewed do not fit in exclusively one group, and multiple perspectives were shared in almost every interview.

In my interviews there were three key findings (themes which came up consistently): inclusivity, perceived impacts and sustainability, and user-fed solutions. Every single participant I interviewed agreed that the process for going about formal trail building was not very inclusive, transparent, or cohesive. For biking advocates like the WCCA who are building formal trails, this means that their process before starting every trail is time-consuming, at times unexpected/surprising, and frustrating. For the day-to-day trail builder it makes the process entirely confusing and quite daunting. So much so that they would rather take the risk of building their own informal trail than tackle the challenge of trying to seek proper approval.

In turn, when people build their own informal trails, they do so without proper information on the impacts of said trails. This led to an interesting finding concerning the perception of impacts and environmental sustainability. I always lovingly joke that mountain bikers love to tell everyone how much they love trees and the environment. For the most part this is true, there is even recent research which found that mountain bikers tend to have higher ecocentric values. Yet, during my interviews all of the impacts that participants from the mountain bike group brought up focused on landscape scarring via the removal of larger old growth vegetation. Simply put, they perceived their biggest impact as being the need to occasionally cut down big trees, though I will admit that they all pointed out that nowadays this is something everyone tries to avoid. However, they did not mention other biophysical impacts which the academic community is concerned about, including: vegetation trampling, invasive species, impacts on soil and erosion, water contamination, and species at risk.

One of the final questions that I asked participants went along the lines “How do you suppose we could make this all a bit better?” Every single response I received followed the same theme: increase inclusivity and communication, strive for more social learning, and break down some of the authoritative barriers faced by trail builders. Interestingly enough, each of these suggestions is consistent with the goals of the adaptive co-management (ACM) model. ACM is a recent and progressive model finding roots in interdisciplinary resource management which strives to devolve management power over a resource from central authorities and into the hands of those resource users. In doing so, all parties can learn from each other, public inclusion is increased, and we can guide each other towards more resilient and sustainable management. It has been proven to achieve these goals in case studies around the world.

I formally believe that ACM as a model can change the lose-lose situation I described earlier into one which is a win-win. Everyone who I interviewed seems willing to work together. At the end of the day, we all just want to develop the great sport of mountain biking in the best way possible. Mountain biking can have countless social, economic, and environmental benefits for communities, and the terrain here is unique and very promising. Corner Brook and the west coast of Newfoundland in general stand to gain a lot from continued mountain bike development. But we need to do things right. My research shows that many issues still exist, and that acting today can set us up for a more sustainable tomorrow. Our vision is one of a vibrant, active community, engaged with the unique environment we have depended on for so many years. I believe it is entirely achievable.

A note from the author: I think it is important to give the audience an opportunity to reach out to me if they have questions, ideas, suggestions, or are generally just interested in learning more and getting involved.

Author’s Email: ark543@grenfell.mun.ca

Research_Reports

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