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Mountain bikers, state continue talks on access.

Despite repeated pushback from Ware River Watershed officials, a group of mountain bikers continues to talk to state officials in an effort to gain access for cyclists on the trails in the watershed. Mountain biking is allowed only on roads in the watershed, and prohibited in the many miles of singletrack trails that have existed in the area for decades.

The watershed includes about 23,000 acres and stretches through Rutland, Oakham, Barre and Hubbardston. Most of the singletrack trails are on watershed property between Barre Falls Dam and Rutland State Park.

The state Division of Water Supply Protection, part of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, oversees the watershed. According to members of the New England Mountain Bike Association, the DWSP recently warned mountain bikers that the restrictions will be strictly enforced.

"Mountain bikers are being threatened with police action and bicycle confiscation should they continue to ride here,'' said Brett Russ, a Rutland resident, mountain biker and member of NEMBA, in an open letter to state officials. The four-page letter attempts to address the concerns of DWSP officials as well as mountain bikers.

The cyclists, who have met three times with DWSP officials in the last few weeks, contend that mountain biking is no greater impact on the environment than hiking, which is unlimited in the watershed, and should be granted access to trails determined to be worth preserving. NEMBA, which has an extensive history of trail design and maintenance, has offered to help make a trail-by-trail assessment, assist in decommissioning unacceptable trails and help make sure preserved trails are sustainable.

"There really is a mistaken sense that the impact of mountain biking is worse than hiking,'' said Philip Keyes, executive director of NEMBA. "This is an amazing resource. The agency is doing good management for the water supply, absolutely their number one mission. However, singletrack trails properly managed do not pose any threat to the water system.''

Jonathan Yeo, director of the DWSP, said protecting the unfiltered water supply for 2.5 million people is his top priority. Illegal trails were recently discovered by watershed officials, he said, and they plan to deconstruct them.

He said the trails cut through the woods can damage natural habitat areas and create erosion, which could adversely affect the water supply.

"There has been a great explosion of illegal trail cutting, it appears by mountain bikers. A great deal of destruction,'' Yeo said.

No one has been caught cutting the trails, according to Yeo. He said he believes mountain bikers have been creating the trails as well as some ramps and jumps; however, he does not think the culprit is an organized group such as NEMBA.

"We're not set up as a park. Mountain bikers have other parks, other resources. We're not set up to monitor and control these activities,'' he said.

Russ and Keyes said mountain bikers understand that protecting the water supply is the No. 1 priority of the agency, but they cannot comprehend why the DWSP is unwilling to work with NEMBA.

Mountain bikers have volunteered to help catalog trails they say have existed for decades, then assist in decommissioning the unacceptable trails and making sure others do not adversely affect the environment, especially the water supply. Their proposal has picked up support from

at least one state representative and another official who chairs an independent board that advises DCR.

"NEMBA and I want to help solve these problems by working together with DWSP staff. So far, this has not been possible. We fear the DWSP's proposed solution of decommissioning all of the many unrecognized trails in the Watershed and then increasing enforcement will not solve the problem and will actually require much more time and resources from not only DWSP but also local, state, and environmental police forces. Additionally, this decommissioning will impact all other user groups who currently use these same trails such as hunters, hikers, bird watchers, and equestrians,'' Russ said in his letter to DCR last week.

"Instead, we propose a joint effort by NEMBA and DWSP staff to locate, examine and catalog the unrecognized trails within the Watershed. A list should be created of trails that need immediate remediation or decommissioning. The remaining trails, many of which are decades old, should be formally recognized and opened to all non-motorized trail users,'' the letter continues.

Russ has not received any response from DWSP officials.

Yeo confirmed that he had received the letter last week. "We will reply to the letter. I don't have a comment right now,'' he said.

The mountain bikers attended meetings of the Ware River Watershed Advisory Committee on Sept. 18 and Oct. 23, and had another meeting with Yeo and other staff members on Sept. 24.

Russ said mountain bikers got a chance to meet DWSP officials and get out their positions. He said that DWSP and mountain bikers gave presentations at the last advisory committee meeting, but not much was resolved.

"I think we're kind of waiting. We've made an offer several times in a partnership to solve the problems that affect us both. Whether or not they allow mountain bikers in the future remains to be seen. In the meantime, we're willing to work with them,'' Russ said.

Yeo said the DWSP priority is to close the "illegal'' trails. He said he would be willing to talk to mountain bikers over the next several years and consider their input when the watershed access plan is next updated in 2019.

However, the mountain bikers have picked up support from state Rep. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and Dick O'Brien, chairman of the Massachusetts Recreational Trail Advisory Board.

"I understand the protection of the watershed. However, there are ways to let mountain bikers do what they do without harming the water supply,'' Gobi said.

Gobi, who has met with some mountain bikers and also received Russ' four-page letter, said she supports the plan to let NEMBA help look at the trails, close those that have a direct impact on the watershed, and allow mountain bikers and horseback riders to use the trails.

"I thought (Russ) made excellent points. It's a balanced approach,'' Gobi said of the letter to DCR. "We need to recognize we can maintain protection of the watershed and allow recreational uses. That's the point we have to come to.''

Gobi said if there is no movement in a reasonable period of time, "we will have to convene a meeting and bring people together.''

O'Brien, chairman of MARTAB, an independent board established by the DCR and appointed by the DCR commissioner to advise DCR staff on issues and projects of importance to the trail community, attended one of the watershed advisory committee meetings to gather information on behalf of the MARTAB board. He said the board received a written request from NEMBA to take action, and the board plans to provide advice to the commissioner.

"A letter has been drafted and currently is being considered that would support NEMBA's request for the ability to ride on sustainably designed and built trails that are well-maintained within the watershed. Additionally, the letter recognizes the magnitude and problem of illegal or unauthorized trails on this property as well as many other DCR properties and the need for the agency to deal with the problem,'' O'Brien said in an email.

Several people spoke during the second meeting with the watershed advisory committee in favor of access for mountain bikers on the trails of the watershed, including a mountain bike club coach of the Central Tree Middle School in Rutland, as well as the principal, parents and students.

Chris Stark, a science teacher at the school and head coach of the mountain bike club, said the club has had more than 360 members over the last nine years. Last year, he said, the team had 55 mountain bikers and frequently rode the trails in the watershed, not knowing mountain bikes were prohibited. Now that the club is not riding on the nearby trails and is forced to go to Leominster State Forest, membership has been cut in half, down to 28 members.

"I expressed my concerns with the trail access for mountain bikers, and specifically the students and families that ride in the Rutland area. ... The opportunity is now for these students to practice sustainable environmental practices and to promote a healthy activity such as mountain biking,'' Stark said.

"My main point was that we want to work collectively with the DCR to help improve the trails and natural resources the watershed provides,'' Stark said.

Keyes said part of the problem is the different way the DWSP classifies users from the rest of the DCR. The DWSP categorizes users as vehicles or feet; for example, people and horses are feet, and cars, trucks, motorcycles and mountain bikes are vehicles. While the rest of the DCR categorizes users as motorized and non-motorized, so mountain bikers and hikers would fall under the same category, he said.

A 30-page report citing many peer-reviewed studies that show mountain biking has no greater impact on the environment than hiking were presented to DWSP officials, Keyes said.

"Mountain bikers feel an injustice is taking place that needs to be faced,'' Keyes said.

Russ said there are about 38 miles of singletrack trails, according to his recent research. He said a group of local residents went through all the trails and he used crowd-sourcing with GPS tracks to map out the trails in the area. They assigned ages to the trails, based on information from local users. He said most of the trails go back 20 to 30 years yet they are not identified on DWSP maps. He offered the maps to DWSP officials.

"It's strange. People have been using the property, riding on these trails for 30 years,'' Russ said. "They don't have the desire or the resources to manage the trail network. That is not in their mission. And I completely understand that.''

NEMBA, a mountain bike organization founded in 1987 that has 26 chapters and 5,000 members, has been designing and maintaining trails for decades, will hold more than 200 trail days before the end of the year. The group is also a land manager, as owner of a key parcel in "Vietnam'' in Milford, also known as the Upper Charles Headwaters Area.

According to Russ, Yeo declined any NEMBA assistance with the trails, and said mountain bike volunteers are not trained and the watershed staff is not prepared to oversee the volunteers.

"The elephant in the room is that there is an extensive trail network in the watershed that goes back decades. It is not recognized. That's amazing,'' Keyes said. "It's completely and utterly unmanaged.''

Contact Mark Conti

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Nov 2, 2014
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