It seems that with an unsettling regularity, broad land management decisions are made with faulty evidence, incorrect assumptions, or are loaded with punitive moral indignation. Trail closures, feature removal, or access restrictions are some of the most likely to cause a public backlash, regardless of user type. Inevitably, public outcry quickly boils over and decision makers are faced with managing the response.

The most recent click of this metronome belongs to Burnaby, BC. The Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area is home to a variety of multi use trails that serve the local residents. While smaller than other more mountainous local trail networks, the proximity to a large population nonetheless ensures its popularity.

Our story begins after signs were noticed announcing – without warning or public consultation – the closure of most of those trails to mountain bikes. You can imagine the outcry from a region steeped in mountain biking, with iconic mountain bike brands like Race Face and Fox located nearby. A prompt lesson in public engagement led to some satisfying backpedaling on the part of public officials, declaring the installation of the signs “a mistake.”

Despite the positive outcome for access in this instance, these threats highlight the importance of vigilance that advocates need in order to respond as the community did. Part of this vigilance is understanding where these kinds of decisions are made.

So, how on earth did this happen?

Most communities have an overall guiding document that describes core values, typically assembled from various public-consultation sessions and feedback from town staff. These guiding documents serve as a good foundation to contextualize decisions and rate them against stated values. Burnaby has one, lets see what it has to say on the topic:

…the size, location and nature of future parks and open space are more precisely determined by projected community needs, available opportunities, and existing and future active and passive recreational facility requirements in the community…

On the topic of recreational goals:

an increasing demand for expanded leisure services from all age groups as a choice for healthy living

an increased emphasis on sound environmental management, preservation and enhancement of park and natural areas

the increasing complexity of social and recreational needs for families and youth arising from more diverse urban growth

Lastly, my personal favourite:

the fiscal challenge of providing for expected recreational facilities and services within the economic means of the City

It seems the OCP supports balancing MTB recreation against other uses. So why are mountain bikers being signalled out here?

What does the city have to say about the closures in particular? 

As careful stewards, we are assessing the condition of some trails that have experienced significant erosion and tree root damage due to high use and natural factors. Any changes to trail designations would not happen without discussions with user groups, the Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission and Burnaby City Council.

Erosion. As anyone reading this is likely aware, trail erosion can largely be managed through appropriate design and construction. Also worth pointing out is that trail erosion is largely the same between hikers, trail runners, and mountain bikers. Closing the trails only to mountain bikers seems ill-informed at best and punitive at worst.

Setting aside the inequality for a moment, erosion management in particular and trail maintenance in general is largely carried out by volunteers. Communities across the country have adopted partnership agreements with local volunteer groups who steward the trails and carefully craft them. Erosion? Cue the volunteers!

Not so fast. The Burnaby Mountain Bike Association (BMBA) is limited to 4 trail maintenance days per year, with a requirement for city staff to attend. This is not the best use of city staff time, nor an effective way to empower volunteers to build and maintain recreation infrastructure used by the community.

So far:

  1. The Burnaby OCP outlines the value of diverse recreation and responding to constituent needs along with sound environmental management
  2. Trails were closed only to mountain bikers, who cause no more erosion than other non-motorized recreation, due to erosion
  3. The major volunteer force, who typically do most of the trailwork nationally, were limited to the number of days and required supervision
  4. The Burnaby OCP also stresses the needs to provide recreation in a cost effective way

I feel like there are a few dots that need connecting…

Miscreants and Misfits

Skateboarding, Snowboarding, BMX – all types of recreation that have emerged through awkward adolescent growth periods to live safely in the realm of capital-R Recreation. These are activities that non-participants and decision makers see as safe bets for investment in community and business infrastructure. From million dollar concrete skateparks to municipal investment in BMX tracks and racing, mountain bike advocates drool at the funding opportunities open to these other activities.

However, it wasn’t so long ago that snowboarders and skiers battled it out for access to the slopes. Descriptions of snowboarders from that era largely mirror the issues that mountain biking faces in many places today. “Smart Alecks”, “Probably had a bit to drink”, “Endangering the public and possibly themselves”. All to describe a group of people as misfits and miscreants. People who simply don’t belong.

Like all of these recently emerged sports, mountain biking has its own unique flavour of morally indignant gotchas parroted by those who are unwilling to share their piece of green space with another user group. Typical points include being unsafe, higher environmental impact, building rogue trails, and erosion.

It’s far easier to ban an entire group of people when they’re cast aside as irrelevant or unwelcome.

Coming of Age

Thankfully, a generation of modern trailbuilders and advocates have tools to address these challenges and misconceptions. The tide of opinion is slowly changing. Like all processes, this change in image from misfit to moral citizen takes different speeds in different places. The innovative community leaders who embrace mountain biking and empower volunteers benefit strongly from added tourism value and amenity migration.

Those who are riding the middle of the curve represent the majority and are just now ramping up investment where terrain and interest coincide. These areas benefit greatly from the lessons learned in the forerunners in how to manage the growing pains of trail layout.

The laggards – like Burnaby – will face challenges. As constituent expectations around the sport have changed, management decisions based on old assumptions cause friction. Equally frustrating is watching neighbour communities adopt progressive recreation models while not being able to access the same at home.

Moving forward

A collaborative and empowered relationship with the BMBA is what the City now needs to seek. With freedom and autonomy – structured through clear communication and a formal agreement – the BMBA can coordinate maintenance and allow the city to meet their conservation objectives. Liability and risk issues can easily be managed even in situations where volunteer groups work independently from city staff. Here’s hoping that a new approach is adopted following this outcry.

Tips on getting and staying engaged:

  1. Municipalities can be divided into two groups, elected and staff. Long term relationship building with staff can go a long way, while finding a champion councillor to pass resolutions to support various initiatives can open up opportunities.
  2. Understand the worldview and preferences of the people you’re working with. Framing your proposal as a solution to their problems can help show that you understand them, which can form the basis of a constructive relationship.
  3. Insurance and Liability issues are a common issue pointed at. Luckily, a variety of agreement strategies and insurance options can eliminate these barriers. Learn what the “No’s” are, and try to address them.
  4. Municipalities have guiding documents and principles. Look to them to frame your comments when working with them.
  5. While antagonistic, FOI requests are a valid way to find out key details that may shed light on planning decisions and give you a leg up.
  6. Image issues still plague mountain bike access. Showcase the diversity of riders through images and social media campaigns. Ensure that your local elected officials understand what mountain biking is about.

Edit Sept 4th, 2020: Grammar and awkward sections cleaned up