ANF proposes opening up some hiking trails to mountain biking
December 31, 2016 12:00 AM
Hiking the Tracy Ridge Trail in the Allegheny National Forest.
Allegheny National Forest
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A battle is brewing over whether to open hiking-only trails to mountain bikes in the Allegheny National Forest’s biggest roadless area and longtime candidate for wilderness designation.
The U.S. Forest Service has proposed allowing mountain biking on 12.5 of 34 miles of hiking-only trails in the forest’s 9,700-acre Tracy Ridge area, located in the northern end of the forest, along the east side of the Allegheny Reservoir and just south of the Pennsylvania-New York state line.
The legal notice for the proposed Tracy Ridge shared-use trail project was published Monday, starting a 30-day public comment period. ANF supervisor Sherry Tune will then decide whether to proceed with the project, which would require an amendment of the forest’s 2007 management plan.
The area was closed to bicycle use in the mid-1990s, and Rich Hatfield, the Bradford district ranger who has spearheaded the mountain bike trail expansion proposal, said it’s time to revisit the issue. He invited mountain bike groups to propose the change.
“We know more about mountain bike use now, and did a more robust evaluation of the area,” Mr. Hatfield said. “Our analysis doesn’t show there will be any significant harm.”
But Kirk Johnson, executive director of Friends of Allegheny Wilderness, a wilderness advocacy organization, said not only will mountain bikes cause ruts and erosion on the sometimes-steep, one-track trails and create hiker-biker conflicts, their presence will reduce chances Tracy Ridge ever will be designated as wilderness.
PG map: Tracy Ridge (Click image for larger version)
He’s urging supporters of new wilderness designation in the state’s only national forest to oppose the proposal. The Allegheny has just 9,000 acres of designated wilderness, less than 2 percent of its 513,000-acre total. That’s a paltry amount, he said, compared to other national forests, where the average is 11 percent.
“The big problem with expanding mountain biking on those Tracy Ridge trails is that it would further complicate the process of securing the highest possible use, wilderness, for the Tracy Ridge area,” Mr. Johnson said. “Once [mountain biking is] allowed, the mountain biking community will become more opposed to wilderness designation.”
Mountain biking is considered a form of mechanized transportation, which is prohibited in the nation’s 109 million acres of Congressionally designated wilderness.
Mr. Johnson said the Forest Service proposal also would lead to illegal use by bike riders of the nearby North Country National Scenic Trail, a 4,600-mile trail from New York to North Dakota that is “hikers only” for almost its entire length, including the 10 miles that traverses Tracy Ridge. That trail and several others in the area skirt rocky outcrops, can be steep and provide many scenic views of the reservoir and Kinzua Dam.
“The Forest Service shouldn’t be looking for ways to develop Tracy Ridge,” Mr. Johnson said. “It should be advocating for having Tracy Ridge designated as wilderness.”
The FAW has waged an almost-two-decade campaign to add Tracy Ridge and seven other areas of the forest totaling 54,460 acres, to the national wilderness program. But because of strong timber, wood products, and oil and gas industry opposition, it has so far been unsuccessful in getting the political support needed for Congressional approval. If mountain biking groups do maintenance work in the Tracy Ridge area, they’d be unlikely to support wilderness designation that would put those trails off-limits, Mr. Johnson said.
The forest service’s 41-page environmental assessment of the proposal states that its purpose is to address trail maintenance needs, stimulate new volunteer partnerships and provide additional high-quality mountain bike opportunities.
Mr. Hatfield said trails in the area are underused by hikers and “research doesn't show that mountain bikes are more impactful than hikers.” He said signage, education and “no biking” buffers on connecting trails will keep most bikers off the North Country Trail, and allowing bikers to share some trails will give the forest service an opportunity to partner with mountain biking groups, including the Northern Allegheny Mountain Biking Association in Warren, Pa., and the Western New York Mountain Biking Association.
He said there are approximately 170 miles of hiking-only trails in the ANF and 30 miles of trails for hikers and bikers.
Mr. Johnson said the FAW supports, mountain bike use on more than 100 miles of all-terrain-vehicle trails in the forest, thousands of miles of oil and gas well service roads and high-quality hiking-biking trails including the 12-mile Morrison Run Trail, the 11-mile Tanbark Trail and the 50-mile Jakes Rocks Trail, which is new and under construction.
But he cited previous forest service reviews, in 1994 and 2007, as supporting his opposition to mountain biking in Tracy Ridge.
“The soils and topographic conditions of the area will not support equestrian and mountain bike use,” then district ranger Stanley Kobielski wrote in his 1994 decision memo, which also noted that mitigation of impacts, including shoring up lengthy side slope trail segments and hardening of the trail with surfacing materials, “would be expensive, are likely to change the character of certain trail segments and would add additional maintenance costs to the system.”
In 2007, the ANF’s forest-wide management plan continued the bike prohibition on the Tracy Ridge trail system, stating, “Bicycle use is unsuitable on Black Cherry and Tracy Ridge National Recreation Trails.”
The Keystone Trails Association, Pennsylvania’s biggest hikers organization, opposes a Congressional proposal to amend the 1964 Wilderness Act to allow mountain biking in designated wilderness, but hasn’t taken a position on the Tracy Ridge proposal.
“Our membership and our board are split on mountain bikes. Some like hiking-only trails. Others feel if we can’t maintain the trails, it’s good to add other groups willing to pick up the slack,” said Joe Neville, KTA’s executive director.
“Of course, if the biking causes environmental impacts, that’s a different issue. We have to trust and hope that the forest service can make that call.”
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey.
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