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Trails of discontent.

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

Steve Mertz and Matt Denberg are friends, share a hobby and feel left out.

They are among Eugene's numerous mountain bikers, frustrated by the city's policy banning them from most of Eugene's unpaved trails.

The mountain bikers' discontent reached new heights two months ago when the city decided to keep them off the newly built Ribbon Trail in southeast Eugene.

"We do feel slighted," Mertz said.

But rather than mope, the off-road cyclists are letting their views be known at City Hall. And they've formed a political advocacy group to push for more trail access.

They've started at City Hall, appearing at City Council meetings, including last week when they asked councilors to reconsider the city's decision to keep them off the Ribbon Trail. Many mountain bikers said they prefer to ride on trails in Eugene rather than drive an hour east to Oakridge and the trails in the Willamette National Forest.

"We're just trying to have the opportunities like everyone else in Eugene has to enjoy our open spaces," Mertz said.

The City Council doesn't appear willing to reverse the Ribbon Trail decision by parks and open space division officials. Yet the involvement of mountain bikers with city officials in the planning of a new trail corridor promises to give them some of what they want - more access to unpaved trails, though not right away.

The city's decision to keep bikes off the path rekindled the old debate about whether it's wise to let mountain bikers use the same paths as hikers.

In the early 1990s, the city banned cyclists from most trails, largely because of worries about collisions between bikers and hikers and concerns about bicycles damaging trails, especially during wet weather.

The expansive Ridgeline Trail network in Eugene's South Hills has more than 12 miles of paths. However, mountain bikes are allowed on only 3.6 miles of them. Most of the mountain bike trails are in the Amazon headwaters area south of East and West Amazon drives.

The city is planning a two-mile expansion of the Ridgeline Trail, east from Mount Baldy nearly to Lane Community College.

Yet-to-be built trails on that 200-acre corridor will be open to both hikers and bikers, said city landscape architect Philip Richardson.

The trails will consist of a main path along the ridgeline and connected looping trails that total 5 1/2 miles in length, Richardson said.

The paths will be covered with gravel or rock to prevent damage by bicycles, he said.

Neil Bjorklund, the city's parks and open space planning manager, described the planned trails as a "gold mine" for mountain bikers because of their proximity to the paths that already allow bicycles in the Amazon headwaters and Mount Baldy areas.

But the city doesn't have money to build the trails. Until earlier this year, it had counted on receiving a $600,000 donation from former landowner Arlie & Co., but the firm's bankruptcy reorganization has put that gift in doubt.

Even with the Arlie gift, city officials didn't expect the trails to be built until 2012. If the Arlie donation doesn't happen, the city would have to rely on a combination of its own funds, grants, donations and volunteer labor to get the trails built, Richardson said.

"I really have no idea how long it might take," he said.

Yet another off-road bicycling opportunity - albeit much shorter in length - will soon be available to mountain bikers in southeast Eugene.

By late July or August, the Eugene Water & Electric Board will install a quarter-mile-long water line between Central and Spring boulevards, and cover it with a 5-foot-wide strip of gravel. It's not an official bike path, but cyclists are eagerly awaiting its completion.

Completed in March, the nearly 1-mile-long Ribbon Trail stretches from Hendricks Park to 30th Avenue.

Mountain bikers were disappointed in the Ribbon Trail ban because they viewed the trail as an important connection between southeast Eugene, the trails in the Ridgeline network and LCC.

But other trail users, such as hikers and board members of the Friends of Hendricks Park, supported the ban.

The Ribbon Trail extends 320 feet into Hendricks Park, where bicycles only are allowed on paved surfaces, under the City Council-approved Hendricks Park Forest Management Plan.

The nonprofit Friends of Hendricks Park board opposed allowing bicycles on the park section of the trail, citing the forest management plan and concerns about hiker-biker collisions and bicycle damage to the park, said board member Sandra Austin.

But mountain bikers, such as Mertz, claim that the risk of hiker-biker conflicts are overblown and that off-road cyclists don't damage paths more than other trail users.

If the city allowed bicyclists to ride on more trails, Mertz said, riders would pitch in and help maintain the trails.

Mountain bikers regularly work on the U.S. Forest Service paths near Oakridge, he said.

"The city would be overwhelmed with the amount of help that they would be getting to maintain the trails," Mertz said.

Eugene has a variety of bike groups, including Greater Eugene Area Riders (GEARS), Lane County Mountain Bike Association and the Disciples of Dirt.

But after the city decided to keep bikes off the Ribbon Trail, Mertz, an owner of the Laughing Planet Cafe, said he realized that mountain bikers didn't have a political advocacy group.

So he and Denberg, a city of Eugene employee, formed MTB Eugene, to promote the interests of mountain bikers.

The pair started communicating on Facebook and quickly had 250 members. MTB Eugene now has its own Web site, mtbeugene.org. Another Web site, Webikeeugene.org, was recently launched to share news about mountain biking and other topics of interest to local cyclists.

"I am excited to see the momentum build within the bike community and throughout Eugene regarding the importance of bike trails," Denberg said.
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Title Annotation:City/Region
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 2, 2010
Words:970
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